I would happily have bribed the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs if they'd asked me, but they didn't. They just went ahead, without a single underground machination by yours truly, and put together a concert from the contents of my operatic Christmas list. Favourite soprano in the world? Check. Favourite tenor in the world? Check. Fabulous repertoire? And how.
Yesterday afternoon's concert was dedicated to the 2013 Birthday Boys – Verdi, Wagner and Britten – so some of my wishlist was destined to go unheeded. No Janacek, Korngold or Strauss: how dare they be born in such inconvenient years? Then again, if they sang everything I wanted, they'd never get to do anything else ever again, and their vocal cords would soon mount a coup against me. And besides, the program devised by the Sydney Phil was exceptionally generous: a good two hours worth of Peter Grimes, Otello, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Meistersinger. Check out the list at the link above: it's a whole heap of singing.
Reader, they sang it. All of it. Amazingly.
If you've ever seen either Stuart or Cheryl in action, you already know the deal, and I don't need to tell you that he stops time as Grimes, that her Desdemona will tear your heart into a thousand tiny pieces, or that the two of them, with no sets, no costumes and only a few days of rehearsal behind them, are at least as gripping as (dare I say it) any harbourside spectacular. Fireworks, schmireworks. I'll take Cheryl's Embroidery Aria any day.
In fact, we need to have a word about Cheryl's Ellen Orford. If you are an opera company planning a Peter Grimes: hire her now. If you like having your heart broken: seek her out. If you don't: be very, very afraid. The fact that she's never sung the role has leapt to the top of my List of Injustices, and I'm ashamed that I've taken until now to advocate for it. She's ideal for it. And yes, I know, I think she's ideal for everything, and yes, it's only the one aria so far, but in that one aria, she captures Ellen so utterly – her compassion, her pain, her outstretched arms and her exhausted heart – that I felt as if I'd been through the whole opera with her. And now that's exactly what I want to do, as soon as possible.
Add Elsa to that list. She doesn't actually sing any Lohengrin in this concert, but she does sing one heck of a "Dich teure Halle" and a gorgeous sliver of Meistersinger – and now that the idea of Cheryl in Wagner has been planted in my head, it's Elsa I keep coming back to. She'd be so good. I know people have been telling me this for years, and I didn't really get it, but then, I didn't know Elsa. Now I do, and I'd love to see what Cheryl would do with her. Just to hear her spinning, shining "Einsam in trüben Tagen" would be bliss, and I suspect the Act III confrontation would be pretty darn searing.
Wishing and hoping aside, her singing in this concert is seriously some of the finest I've heard her do, and as you know, I've heard her sing a lot. Comparing glory to glory is tough but it is entirely possible that she is actually getting better by the second, which makes her gradual disappearance from Opera Australia's programming all the more bewildering, but is otherwise cause for celebration and awe. Treasure her, Australia. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that you're extraordinarily lucky to have her.
Old habits die hard. For the billionth time, I've gone on and on about Cheryl and so all but neglected the other vital parts of the performance. Like, say, the tenor, who was as ridiculously good as he always is. It's hard for me to write about him at this point without feeling like Captain Obvious. What can I say that hasn't been said by those more qualified, and that doesn't just sound like a program bio or a press release?
Well, I suppose I could say that, despite my operating on the permanent assumption that he will ace everything he does, I was still taken aback by just how thrilling his Otello is, now that I've heard it for the first time. The whole role is coming and I cannot wait. I could say how revelatory it was to hear him sing Wagner that wasn't Siegmund, Parsifal or Lohengrin: he has no plans to take on Walther, and yet "Morgenlich leuchtend" was magnificent. I could mention how pleased I was that "In fernem Land" was part of the concert, because as far as I'm concerned, he cannot sing Lohengrin often enough and the world needs to know just how completely he owns that role. And I could lament that I am neither a pirate nor a bootlegger and regret that I therefore have no illicit videos from this concert to share. If only.
Massive kudos is due to the Festival Chorus. We're not talking about a full time choir here, let alone an opera chorus; this is a group of enthusiastic non-professionals with basic voice training who only do two gigs with the Philharmonia per year, so that they were able to take on this fairly hefty and complex selection of operatic repertoire is worthy of real admiration. Big thumbs up as well to assistant chorusmaster Anthony Pasquill, who prepared them and also conducted "In fernem Land" and the Bridal Chorus; just when you thought I couldn't get any more biased, Anthony is a friend and former comrade-in-retail, so it was lovely to see him in action for the first time. Brett Weymark, the Phil's Artistic Director, conducts the rest of the program and manages it beautifully, drawing some really excellent playing out of an orchestra which has had very limited rehearsal. It's a particular joy to have some of the Sea Interludes included. Nobody scored a seascape quite like Britten.
I warned you this wouldn't be balanced criticism, and I think you'll agree I've delivered on that: the above is massively imbalanced (sopranophiles unite!) and definitely not criticism. You don't have to believe me – the conflict of interest inherent in my attempting to say anything vaguely sensible about this concert is worthy of Judge John Deed – but to be honest, I kind of hope you will anyway. I don't suppose there was anybody in the audience more exquisitely biased than I was, but bias only goes so far; exceptional singing is exceptional singing and this concert had that in spades. This isn't just the stuff of my dreams: it's the stuff of opera at the very highest level. You could go anywhere in the world (and believe me, I'm trying!) and not hear these two singers, both of whom I just happen to love dearly, outdone.