December wouldn't be December without the customary plague of year-in-review posts, and while generally speaking I abhor a bandwagon, this kind of list making and awarding of prizes is something I just cannot resist. And so...
December wouldn't be December without the customary plague of year-in-review posts, and while generally speaking I abhor a bandwagon, this kind of list making and awarding of prizes is something I just cannot resist. And so...
Media release 24/11/08
Opera Australia regrets to announce the tragic death of Richard Hickox CBE, its Music Director. Hickox died of a massive heart attack on Sunday in the UK.
‘All of us at Opera Australia are profoundly shocked and saddened by the news of Richard Hickox’s death. We extend our deepest sympathy to his wife, Pamela Helen Stephen and their children, Abigail and Adam. They are very much in our thoughts during this terribly sad time,’ said Adrian Collette.
In his long association with Opera Australia, Mr Hickox has conducted new productions of Julius Caesar, Billy Budd, The Love of Three Oranges, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Rusalka, and Arabella (which won this year’s prestigious Helpmann Award for Best Opera), The Tales of Hoffmann and Alcina. CD recordings of The Love of Three Oranges and Rusalka have been released by Chandos and received very positive reviews in the international and local press. Mr Hickox has also led major revivals, including The Makropulos Secret, Tannhauser, and Death in Venice.
The Age today has an interview with Franco Farina, the American tenor singing the title role in Opera Australia's Melbourne season of Otello, which opens tomorrow night. To judge by the accompanying photo, he's going to be a bit more blacked up than Dennis O'Neill was here. As with Butterfly, I'm keen to hear reports of this production from anyone attending, especially as the Melbourne papers seem to have stopped reviewing opera, or at least publishing the reviews online.
Opera Australia's Melbourne season of Madama Butterfly opened at the Arts Centre on Tuesday night, but so far I haven't found any reviews online. So if you were there, or if you're going to a later performance, consider yourself officially invited to share your impressions here. Is Nicole Youl a lovely Butterfly? I'd imagine she probably is. Conventional, I'm guessing, but sweet. I won't speculate about Rosario La Spina's Pinkerton. I'll have my chance to hear him in the role here next year, when he — lucky, lucky man — is paired first with Antoinette Halloran and then with Cheryl Barker.
One mildly alarming rumour has reached my virtual ears: that Tuesday night's premiere saw Pinkerton strip down to his underwear. Can it be true? Unwilling to trust my own memory, I broke my ban on Butterfly (I'm dieting before my January/February binge) and checked the DVD from 1997. And, as I expected, Pinkerton remains modestly attired throughout, removing nothing but his jacket, shoes and socks. Moffat Oxenbould is rehearsing this revival of his own magical production — has he been tweaking?
Update: One review found, at On Stage (and walls) Melbourne. No mention of the underwear...
Update #2: Breathe a sigh of relief: there's no underwear scene. See comments below.
After a week or two of enjoyable silence, Diana Simmonds at Stage Noise has joined the I-daren't-call-it-a-media-bandwagon with an opinion piece about the trouble at
the mill Opera Australia. It's a characteristic mix of the insightful and the offensive, and having declared my moratorium on the subject, I shan't say much more than that. I would like to point out, however, that if I am the "someone" whose comparison of the Hickox/Stephen pairing to that of Bonynge and Sutherland is pilloried here "ridiculous" and "insulting", then what I wrote has been rather nicely misread. I made that comparison (if it could even be called such) in a very specific context, namely, as a response to a suggestion I had read that no conducting husband should be permitted to engage his singing wife, ever. I merely remarked that such a blanket ban could deny the world of far more fruitful partnerships than Hickox/Stephen. There was no suggestion that the two couples were of equal musical significance. I'm not actually a delusional idiot. Of course, Simmonds may well be alluding to "someone" else, in which case, ignore me.
Slightly deceptive describing this as live, since it was on a half hour delay, but it doesn't really make a difference. I didn't watch all of it — Spicks & Specks took rightful precedence from 8.30 to 9. Were Jennifer Byrne and Chris Taylor really the best the ABC could come up with to host? I like them both quite a lot in their usual hosting gigs (Tuesday Book Club and The Chaser) but they both seemed a bit ill at ease and not very well informed. Where's Virginia Trioli when you need her?
As we know, I wasn't much taken with opening night of this mini-season. Which is actually why I watched this: I wanted to give it a chance, and more particularly, to give Antoinette Halloran a chance, to be better. And they were. It was still patchy, but not nearly so ragged as opening night. Most importantly, Antoinette made me smile again. Her voice will never be beloved of everybody, I realise that now. The naysayers (there have been several, and occasionally they've been vicious) have probably ensured that I'll never again hear her with wholly uncritical ears, which is good for my credibility, I suppose, but bad for my soul. But whatever the criticisms, and however valid they may be, I like her. I just do. Tonight she sounded much closer to the Antoinette whose Stella (and first Mimi) I adored. Especially in the final scene, where she seriously pulled it together and tore my Bohème-hardened little heart apart. I have to give her kudos for her cough as well, which sounds frighteningly genuine. I only cough like that when I'm actually sick. She does it in between singing: how, I've no idea.
The rest was improved too. Altogether a tighter, better show. Not riveting, but that was never really on the cards. Carlo Barricelli still seems a bit unruly: fabulous when he's good, not when he's not. I suspect he might be happier in a different environment: bigger, more full-blooded orchestra, slightly more extravagant (and Mediterranean) production and so on. They've been describing him as "Australian-Italian" so I assumed he was like Australia's other Italian tenors, Rosario La Spina and Aldo di Toro — Australian, with an Italian background and name. But no. He's was born here, but he's very very Italian, with limited (adorable) English. In the intermission interview he had José Carbo ready to interpret. Speaking of that interview...it can't be a good sign when I tune in to find José detailing the challenges of staying in sync with the conductor. And indeed, that does remain a challenge. Cunéo's own interview has given me far greater respect for him. It's still a pretty dreary reading, but I get the sense that he, as much as the singers and orchestra, is a victim of seriously short preparation time. Besides, he's only starting. There's plenty of time; and since he spoke so eloquently on the opera and its place in the canon, I'm willing to indulge him.
I hope plenty of people watched. TV broadcasts of opera are an excellent idea and ought to be encouraged, even if it is La bohème. No. I shouldn't be like that about it. I understand that, for the time being at least, if they're going to put Opera Australia on TV, it has to be operas like Carmen and La bohème; that it's all about (a phrase I hate) "bringing music to the masses" and those are the works that fit the bill. But oh, if the world were fair, if it was all about presenting interesting, provocative and just plain amazing arts content to the screen, regardless of its crowd-drawing potential...well, just think of what they could show? La bohème is alright, but this season has contained far better advertisements for the talent and thrills on offer at OA. A broadcast of Billy Budd — now that's something I'd really be excited about.
This run of The Makropulos Secret isn't the first time I've
attended the entire season of an opera, but it has without a doubt been
the most rewarding. Each performance on its own would probably have been enough to keep even a smitten fool
such as myself quite gushingly happy. As for six, well, what can I say? I have had a marvellous time, and
it has gone much too quickly. Now that it's over, it's time I paid final tribute to the artistic team who has brought this Makropulos Secret to such stunning life.
So, I salute...
...John Pringle, whose performance as Baron Prus marked his retirement from Opera Australia after forty-one years. I regret that I haven't lived here long enough to appreciate the scope and excellence of his career. But his
Prus was a masterpiece, and his singing to the very end was all class —
a perfect final flourish. Kudos to him, too, for throwing a joke about
nepotism (rather a hot topic at OA these days) into his farewell
...the fabulous front-of-house woman (I don't know her name or official title, but I am her biggest fan) who equipped us with handfuls of streamers to throw at the end.
...the subscriber who, as his usual seatmates informed me, had exchanged his ticket, leaving A27 free for me to book.
...Neil Armfield, whose talent for directing amazing opera borders on the ridiculous.
...Richard Hickox, who, in the face of flickering lights, a disappearing soprano and a temperamental curtain, conducted four fabulous performances.
...Stephen Mould, who took over the last two performances with such panache.
...Nigel Levings (lighting) and Carl Friedrich Oberle (sets & costumes) for their drop dead gorgeous design...and especially for Emilia's Act I costume, Hauk-Sendorf's travelling suit, the giant, handless clock, the crack in the wall and Emilia's shadow.
...Andrew Collis, for being SO funny, and for ending Act I in a way that simply demands applause. He may be my favourite Opera Australia Andrew, although there a lot to choose from.
...Catherine Carby, whose Kristina is so very lovely. Kristina's main function is to be overshadowed, of course. For her two brief scenes in the spotlight, though, Catherine is pure joy — in a different sort of opera, her voice and charisma could easily carry the show.
...Kanen Breen, not always my favourite voice, as we know, but a
reliably engaging performer with a host of talents, including a rare
gift for physical comedy, which make him a true asset to the company.
...Jacqui Dark, if for no other reason that that I flat out ADORE her, and can't wait for her Komponist in Melbourne next year.
...Dominica Matthews, for being fabulous, and because I am inevitably a fan of redheaded opera singers. I'm willing to bet she'll ace her Orlando in Melbourne next month, and I sort of wish we'd seen her here, too.
...Andrew Goodwin. Adorable does not do him justice. Hope he's happy playing guileless young heroes forever, because he's made for it.
...Peter Wedd, whose rather interesting voice I'd love to hear in a role really designed to show it off. And I loved the twitchy way he played Gregor, as if he'd walked straight out of a Peter Wimsey story.
...Shane Lowrencev, for being nine feet tall. And a rather nifty singer to boot.
...Robert Gard, for stealing the show in such brilliantly lunatic fashion, for still sounding fantastic at 81(?), and for very graciously signing my programme.
...Dinah Shearing, for her simply beautiful performance as Emilia Marty Incarnate. Her entrance brought tears to my eyes every single time, and her playing of that whole final scene was quite extraordinary.
...the men's chorus, not just for their big moment at the end (which I love) but for so gamely donning skirts and bobbed wigs in Act I to play the women in Kolenaty's waiting room.
...Leoš Janáček, for absolutely everything, obviously, but in particular for the devastating solo strings which herald Emilia's final transformation. And, oh, so many other things...
...Seat C40. It knows why.
And I salute Cheryl Barker. Repeatedly. I know that I am losing credibility by the minute where Cheryl is concerned. I also know that I am running out of new words for her, so forgive me if I recycle a few of the old ones. The fact is that you do not have to be smitten — you do not have to be me — to appreciate that Cheryl's Emilia was a work of ravishing inspiration. You only had to hear the fire in her voice, or see it in her eyes... and then I defy you to resist. In his own farewell speech, John Pringle, with remarkable modesty, took the opportunity to solicit an extra ovation for his phenomenal leading lady. "I don't think there is anybody else in the world," he said, "who could match Cheryl in this role...or even come close." High praise indeed, and she deserves every syllable of it. She's stunning, and we are beyond fortunate to have her here. Somewhere in composer heaven, Janáček must be smiling.
The troubles at Opera Australia don't look like disappearing any time soon. Everybody has their own idea about whether they should disappear or not. Discussion, here and elsewhere, has been spirited if not always immensely productive. But I've had enough now. This blog is not meant, nor my temperament suited, for controversy. So I hereby declare a moratorium on the subject. I shan't write about it again, beyond, perhaps, occasional links to discussion elsewhere. Commenters may of course feel free to continue the discussion. As for me, however, I'm taking my cue from the incomparable Cheryl Barker, and going back to focusing on "the good things" again.
We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.
Note: remember, though, that as a blogger (and a girl) it's my prerogative to change my mind, should the spirit (or major events) move me to do so. But I hope that won't happen.
Just whom does this letter benefit?
I don't think it really benefits anybody. Not even Bruce Martin. He says OA skulduggery is damaging his reputation, but surely a letter like this damages it too? First, a tired rehash of earlier media coverage. Then, what reads to me as an undeserved swipe at several of his colleagues — including at a leading lady whose triumph in the role in question nobody would dispute, and who is, by all accounts, a gracious and much-loved colleague. I don't know how solid Martin's case is, but even if it's iron-clad, there must be better ways of presenting it than this.
God, Cheryl. How do you do it? Where do you find the strength?
I don't mean strength. Do I? Strength sounds boring. Strength sounds like brute force. Cheryl Force is more elegant and more inspired than just workmanlike strength. Five times I've felt the force of her Emilia Marty. That's not a mistake, by the way. I do mean five times. The Emilia she mimed might have been less than conventional, but she packed a punch just the same. Five times, though, and one more to come. People think I'm brave, or mad, or both, facing this opera six times. Please, that's easy. Singing it? Inhabiting it with all that gorgeous ferocity? That's what takes courage, and genius and, yes, staggering strength.
Beholding the culmination of those gifts is a piece of cake. Nothing is more magnificently easy than being a part of Cheryl Barker's appreciative audience. I can't tell you how magical she is to see and to hear, to experience in full flight. I will, of course, keep trying. Can't help but try: she is not conducive to dead silence. Speechlessness, yes, but that only lasts so long before all my amazement comes tumbling out. Though I'm saving up the real paean till after closing night. This, if you can believe it, is just a snippet.
One moment of tonight stands above all the rest. A moment of total self-indulgence on my part. Having spent Acts I and II in Row A, I strategically moved myself for the final act. Nerdishness in action. I knew exactly where I wanted to be when she sang her "Pater hemon! Pater hemon! Elina Makropulos!" and fainted. I was preposterously close to her. Only Dr Kolenaty was closer. It felt almost intrusive, but mostly it was just inspiring: the fire and focus in her eyes, her expression, her whole body and, of course, in that sensational voice were a wonder to behold.
It's beginning to feel like that. Opening night, the lights went out and briefly stopped the show. The Saturday matinée did pass without event. Tuesday night was the Night of Three Emilias (Cheryl, Anke and Dinah Shearing), which I've heard described since as a "travesty" and a "trainwreck", among other things. Tonight, Cheryl's voice was back — or at least, enough of it to allow her to sing. She was a bit underpowered and, I thought, a bit distracted — understandable — but still delivered a top shelf performance, even if she isn't quite back in full health yet. But the curtain wouldn't work, so we had the enlightening, if somewhat disillusioning experience of watching the set changes. Emilia's Act Two throne, from which she receives all her suitors, kept sliding precariously about the place. And when Hauk-Sendorf brought her his wife's jewels in the final act, a string broke, and beads went flying everywhere.
So, not the best performance in the run so far, but still pretty fantastic. It sort of has to be. Funny thing with the ending. It seems the sort of coup de theatre which would work best by stealth: that the emergence of Emilia Marty Incarnate would have its greatest impact when unexpected. And yet I find it gets to me more every time I see it. Knowing it's coming only increases its power. The haunting strings which accompany her entry help as well, of course.
Audience too small, as usual, but nice and responsive — laughing at all the jokes, and a couple of the not-really-jokes as well, and clapping with suitable enthusiasm. Robert Gard's Hauk-Sendorf got his mid-act applause, as he ought. I'm hoping the web special will mean a fuller house for Tuesday's performance, and that our prima donna will be back to full, fearsome strength by then too.
And no, it hasn't escaped my notice that almost everything I've posted in the last couple of weeks has been tagged with the category "Cheryl Barker", but then, what did you expect? Diva is my (and this blog's) raison d'être.
You may have gathered that I work in a classical music store. Several months ago, I had a call from a woman who wished to order the Chandos Opera in English recording of The Makropulos Case, featuring Cheryl Barker and conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. I asked to whom I should address it.
Ah, I thought. So you're the cover. And while in other circumstances, I'd welcome a chance to hear Anke Höppner, in this particular state of affairs, I've been very much hoping I wouldn't.
But it happened. I was slow to realise what was going on. The usual white slips of paper were in evidence everywhere, except, as it happened, my seat. But I saw a music stand and a chair set up at one side of the stage, and was suspicious. Then I noticed other people looking at their white slips. There was a whisper between an usher and a regular, eliciting a raised eyebrow. I craned to see one of the white slips, hoping against hope to see a boy's photo on it. To no avail. Couldn't see anything.
Out trotted Stuart Maunder. My heart sank, and sank a little further as he struck the fatal blow, with those two words — Cheryl Barker. And then the subsequent "severe cold". I eyed the door, wondered how clattery my heels were, upbraided myself for considering such an ungracious action as walking out, and stayed put. And then, the glimmer of hope, which the music stand should have suggested to me earlier: Cheryl wouldn't sing, but she would walk through the role. Anke would sing from the side. And I would spend an evening coming to terms with my own superficiality.
You see, the question is, if I feel utterly wretched at the prospect of no Cheryl at all, but significantly buoyed by the prospect of a silent Cheryl, what does that say about my priorities? As it happens, they're not quite so skewed as first I thought. Yes, there was still much to be thrilled by in a voiceless Cheryl, but the voice was indeed a notable absence: I do like her (even) better with it than without. Besides, I have heard her recording of this piece many, many times, and have already heard her sing it live twice, so even with Anke singing, I could still hear Cheryl, in a manner of speaking. And while it's true my eyes were upon her for every moment she was visible (how could they not be?) this is not mere smitten gazing — she's gorgeous, yes, but it's what she does that's so totally fascinating.
If there's a flicker of a silver lining to her indisposition, it's that her silence brought her non-vocal gifts into even sharper relief. She sang with somebody else's voice, but her physical acting was as strong and as convincing as ever. Perhaps even more so. Occasionally she mouthed her lines ahead of their place in the music, delivering replies as they might be timed in a spoken play. She played drunk better than ever, freedom from vocal concerns seemingly allowing her to throw herself into the physicality of it with gay abandon.
The final scene was strange indeed, since this staging has the ancient Emilia Marty Incarnate (Dinah Shearing) mouthing the words sung by a ghostly Emilia/Elina — and now she, in turn, was mouthing words sung by somebody else again. It's curiously fitting that a heroine as extraordinary as Emilia should require three women to play her. Though the situation was hardly ideal, the scene lost surprisingly little of its power. After all, the music (oh, such music...) was still the same. Cheryl still gave it her magnificent all, just silently. Anke sang it gorgeously. I cried more than on opening night.
Meanwhile, I still await a proper chance to hear Anke Höppner sing. This was a surreal way to do it: she sang in quite impressively, especially given the circumstances, but without the benefit of a rehearsal process, or of having really entered into Emilia's mind, her voice was just voice — lovely, but without much characterisation. And that's no criticism, because she could not be expected, nor was it her job, to create her own particular Emilia. Her performance was what it was, and for that, it was commendable. While I want no Emilia Marty but Cheryl's, tonight did raise a question — why isn't Anke Höppner singing for Opera Australia in her own right?
The next performance is in three days. Here's hoping Cheryl spends the interim mainlining chicken soup and healing rapidly. Once was an interesting experience, as a novelty. Next time, I want her back.
A week like this brings home just how much life has changed in the last couple of years. Back home, I waited nineteen years for a fully staged professional opera to be produced. This week, I'm seeing three in as many days.
Monday was a return to Billy Budd, taking advantage of the $60 web deal to see the show from Row B for Billy. Some neck craning involved, what with that rising platform, but all in all a good place to be. Although I couldn't help but shrink back in my seat a little as John Wegner's Claggart strolled towards us. Maybe not the most robustly sung performance — I think everybody was in fresher voice on opening night, which is not surprising. Oddly enough, the one member of the cast with the best excuse to sound a little tired — Phillip Langridge — actually sounded better last night, free of the frog in his throat (don't like the French!) that plagued him on his first night. Chorister Andrew Jones stepped in for an indisposed Barry Ryan as Mr Redburn, and made a thoroughly convincing job of it.
Wegner received his usual chorus of cheers and laudatory boos. He's extraordinary. And yet, in the final reckoning, I think it's really Langridge's Vere who leaves the strongest impression upon me. Wegner's Claggart seems more archetype than individual, an earthly minister of evil itself. One doesn't expect to meet him walking down the street. Vere, perhaps, you might. He, too, has his allegorical function, but even that is closer to the nitty gritty of human experience — Claggart is the evil man fears (in others, in a higher power, in himself) while Vere is the flesh and blood man who fears that evil. Langridge is so true to life it's scary: in his own way, he's as disturbing as Wegner.
Speaking of disturbances, however — the people who stood up and left just as Billy was being hanged should be banned from the opera for life. I don't care if you miss your train. You just don't DO that. As one of my English lecturers used to say: if you can't stay till the end, please don't bother coming.
Then, tonight, an oddly disappointing La bohème. This is my third Bohème this year. As we've established, it's no great love of this opera (one of my least favourite) which has drawn me back, but rather a desire to see every permutation of the cast. This short summer season promised, on paper, the best configuration yet. Alas, my high hopes were not realised.
Carlo Barricelli was impressive enough in his fleeting appearance as Luigi in Il tabarro last year that I've been promoting him on the strength of it ever since. His Rodolfo has some fantastic moments, and did grow stronger as the performance progressed, but it wasn't the knockout blow I expected. Antoinette Halloran has a special place in the heart of this blog — she's one of only five singers to have their own category, and she took my breath away with her Mimi back on Valentine's Day. Tonight I felt she was not on her game. Again, parts of it were lovely, but I know she can be (and has been) much better than this. Even Amelia Farrugia, whose Musetta in this production has impressed me twice before, wasn't quite at her usual level. Nothing but praise, though, for José Carbo, outclassing everyone as Marcello. Richard Anderson was a nice Colline, although I missed Jud Arthur, who has sung the role every other time I've seen this production. And it has to be said that, while Warwick Fyfe isn't always Mr Charisma on stage, he has made this particular incarnation of Schaunard his own.
Anyway, something wasn't right tonight. I suspect it might have something do with rehearsal time, or lack thereof — I can't imagine that a short summer revival of such a familiar production, which half the cast have appeared in before, gets much rehearsal at all. Hurried, lacklustre conducting from Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo probably didn't help much either; singers and pit seemed frequently at odds. Ultimately I had the impression of having seen the first full run-through rather than an opening night, which at least opens up the possibility that this show will improve — although with only six performances left, time's rather short for that. For now, I'm just a bit sad. I'm not revising my opinions of Carlo or Antoinette just yet; my hopes for the former and affection for the latter remain. I just look forward to seeing them both to better advantage.
And then, of course, there's the fact that it's an ordinary production (of, very arguably, an ordinary opera) with a reasonable cast, sandwiched between two stunners: the aforementioned Billy Budd and then, tomorrow night, The Makropulos Secret. Hardly surprising if La bohème suffers by comparison.
Ten minutes or so into The Makropulos Secret, Emilia Marty enters. She never leaves. Even when she exits, she doesn't leave. When she exits, she's the only thought in every mind, and her name — her names — are on everybody's lips. When she exits, the gap she's not filling has more presence than the human beings left behind. Emilia is everywhere, and just the thought of her intoxicates. Find yourself in the same room as her, and abandon all hope — you'll be hers for keeps, and she might not even notice.
Emilia is gorgeous. Emilia is terrifying. Emilia is cruel. Emilia is in agony. Emilia is inscrutable. Emilia is impossible to resist. Emilia is unlike any other woman in opera. Emilia is extraordinary, and she must be sung by somebody extraordinary.
"An extraordinary singer?" asks The Disembodied Voice of Geelong, "No worries. Here's one we prepared earlier." And there she is, made exquisitely to order. Our own Cheryl Barker, with all the charisma, beauty and sheer stamina the role demands — and a voice that goes on for mile after thrilling mile. She combines magnificent control with utter abandon, hurling herself into the role with electrifying passion, without ever letting it get the better of her. Emilia and Cheryl are made for one another. When they lock horns, both emerge victorious.
The role is a gift to an actress like Cheryl, who flawlessly embodies Emilia's every mercurial facet: her dispassionate flirtations, her clawing desperation, her razor sharp wit, her flashes of pained compassion and at last, her radiant benevolence. Emilia's journey to peaceful redemption is difficult and inconceivably long, and Cheryl charts it with imagination and clear, intelligent vision. Her performance is brilliantly detailed, full of small touches — not spread on as a layer of obvious cleverness on top, but incorporated as inevitable aspects of a coherent whole.
One of my favourite things is the way she uses her extraordinarily expressive eyes as a weapon, training them irresistibly upon whichever man she most needs in her thrall. In one particularly telling moment on opening night (I didn't notice it this afternoon, but I may have just blinked) she managed, in the midst of the third act's fraught, drunken confrontation with Prus, still to throw an unmistakeable come hither glance at Gregor, enough to discombobulate the poor boy completely, even before he knew she was his great-grandmother. Women aren't immune, either: she uses her lethal gaze on Kristina too.
Her singing has all the qualities of her physical portrayal: it is extreme, terrifying, rivetingly intense and devastatingly beautiful. Janáček makes some incredible vocal demands of his soprano, and the pressure never lets up — Emilia is singing difficult and often high-lying music from the beginning to the very end, with very few chances to rest. Such demands neither bend nor break our amazing Cheryl, they just make her stronger. I've come to expect that her voice will gain in colour and expanse as a performance progresses: that she will be excellent from the start, but that the final act will see her most astonishing singing. But in Makropulos, she hits that point about five minutes after she arrives, and stays there. Her voice is deceptively slender: given half a chance, it blooms to reveal a remarkable array of colour, dynamic range and, when called for, just plain volume. One could not wish for a better or more excitingly sung Emilia.
In normal circumstances, I might feel a little guilty for coming so far in the write-up having mentioned nobody but the soprano. For an opera such as this one, though, it seems peculiarly appropriate — both the score and the plot are, after all, thoroughly dominated by a soprano.
But let us speak now of the others. Such is Emilia's prominence that there seems no natural hierarchy to her supporting cast. Albert Gregor was given the second-to-last bow, but for reasons of my own, I'm choosing a different order.
I want to give first mention to a pair of Opera Australia stalwarts of long and distinguished standing. John Pringle is making his farewell to the company as Jaroslav Prus. I haven't been in this country long enough to properly appreciate the extent of his career. What I can say is that nothing about his performance suggests a man on the brink of retirement. He's a wonderfully understated Prus and his singing is impeccable.
Robert Gard's association with Opera Australia stretches back to the 1960s. Theoretically he's retired from the company (he still teaches, and appeared in the musical Titanic last year) but was requested specifically by Richard Hickox for this revival, having sung in the original 1996 production. He is, of course, Hauk-Šendorf, the delightfully loony old man who recognises Emilia from one of her previous lives. Nobody could steal the show permanently from Cheryl, but Robert manages, in his two brief appearances, momentarily to appropriate it. His exuberance is adorable, at once touching and riotously funny, and his enthusiasm wildly infectious. On opening night he managed what I'd have thought was impossible in a through-composed Janáček opera — spontaneous mid-act applause. It was very well deserved. (In the interest of full disclosure and/or name dropping: I know Robert, and adore him. But this was my first chance to see him in action; now I know he's as charming on stage as off.)
There's luxury casting for the rest of the women. Dominica Matthews, who starred in La Cenerentola, is the chambermaid; Jacqueline Dark, who should be starring in something, is wonderful as the cleaning lady. Kristina is Catherine Carby, a singer I'm loving more with every role. This is the best I've heard from her yet — she's light, silvery and girlish, without being cutesy. Next year's I Capuleti e i Montecchi might be packaged as an OEV (Obligatory Emma Vehicle) but it's the prospect of Catherine's Romeo which has me salivating.
The other men are impressive too. Peter Wedd's bright, vibrant tenor is a revelation to me, since my memories of Jenufa are shady at best. He plays Albert Gregor to antsy perfection, fidgeting and popping pills in anxious anticipation of a ruinous verdict and looking every inch the weedy, impoverished aristocrat. Andrew Goodwin is emerging as one of the company's most reliably appealing lyric tenors, with a clear, sweet voice and always engaging stage presence. His stammering, schoolboyish Janek is a delight: pathetic, but not irritating, so that one feels Prus' pain at his son's suicide, even while secretly laughing at Emilia's callous reaction. Andrew Collis (another Andrew! the company is teeming with them!) seems to be a relatively recent OA acquisition, though he's sung extensively in Germany and elsewhere in Australia. He seems in his element as Dr Kolenatý, finding no apparent difficulty in the extended passages of legalese patter. Even better is his mad scene, which concludes the first act.
I came to an odd little realisation today. I'm pretty sure that the singer I've seen the most performances by this year is not, as you might think, Cheryl Barker, but rather ... Kanen Breen. Accidentally, mind you: he was the Prince in Cenerentola, and he's been cast in all three of Cheryl's productions, and so it's just sort of happened. Anyway, I have a patchy relationship with Kanen's voice, but Vítek sits nicely in the middle, which is where all his good sounds are, and makes very little use of his not-really-there upper register. And he's evidently having a marvellous time with the comedy of the role. One last boy — Shane Lowrencev in a very amusing turn as a stage hand. Still, it's a pretty big leap from this to Guglielmo next year, so we'll see how that turns out. There's a haunting men's chorus at the end too, emanating wonderfully from on high. And one further, non-singing performance which is just magical — Dinah Shearing's poignant appearance as Emilia Marty Incarnate, in the opera's extraordinary final scene, a magnificently shattering piece of staging.
The production is by Neil Armfield and has been revived by the man himself. He's a busy bee: his Billy Budd is running now as well, and the programme doesn't list a revival director for it, either. His Makropulos, like his Billy, is simple, illuminating and ultimately deeply moving. I'm learning to adore Neil Armfield. As obvious as it sounds — he tells the story. No mucking around, no complications, just intelligent, imaginative and lucid presentation of a narrative. Makropulos is fabulous theatre in its own right, and at the same time is in constant communication with the score, which again, seems an obvious requirement but in reality can't always be relied upon.
Richard Hickox conducts. Opening night patrons took the opportunity to demonstrate how fervently they disagreed with the complaints that have been in the papers lately — there was enthusiastic applause, and choruses of bravo. I like him too. Of course, Australia does just happen to have produced Mr Janáček himself, Sir Charles Mackerras, and it's his recording (the Chandos one, in English — same translation as here, with a few, occasionally annoying, alterations) I've been getting to know. But, as tends to be the case, hearing the opera live in the theatre makes its beauties even easier to come to grips with — and there are some very, very beautiful moments in Hickox's reading.
Not to mention in the score itself. Until opening night, I liked this opera a lot. Now I'm coming to love it. And with a performance like this one — and an Emilia as monumental as Cheryl's — who wouldn't?
Frustrated still by the inadequacy of (my) words, I direct you to Matthew's eloquent appreciation of The Makropulos Secret. Tomorrow afternoon I'll see it for the second time, after which, honest and true, I will post properly about it. Meanwhile, if you have access and the inclination, my review for The Opera Critic should appear shortly. But, despite all my professions of speechlessness, there's still a whole lot more I'm dying to say, and I plan to say it very soon. Watch this space.
Well, two. A couple more links and then I promise my next post will have some substance to it. Honest.
For those who were at Makropulous last night, an explanation of what happened with the lights. (For those who weren't there — they went out. Quite dramatically. I was thinking "this is a rather arbitary effect" and then Hickox stopped the perfomance.)
And, yet another link to the OA site. "Cheryl continues to shine" — a chat with you-know-who about singing, acting, high heels, and what it's like being so outrageously fabulous. On getting her own way in Otello:
"If you have a different view from the director, you either have to
convince him/her of your viewpoint, or he or she has to convince you of
theirs...In this case I managed to talk the director into
accepting my vision."
Oh, Cheryl, I love it when you talk diva...
The interview is well worth reading, even if you're not a fawning acolyte like me.
More of this staccato blogging, and more free PR for Opera Australia. They're doing well today! First, a special deal on tickets to two of the stunningest shows in town — shows which by right should be sold out. And now I see the news of something I had a feeling was in the offing.
Earlier this year, there was a live movie simulcast of the Francesca Zambello Carmen, beamed to the Opera House forecourt and to various venues around the country. Now they're doing it again, with La bohème. And with one very nifty bonus — it's also going to be on TV! This is excellent news.
La bohème with Antoinette Halloran (Mimi), Carlo Barricelli (Rodolfo), José Carbo (Marcello) and Amelia Farrugia (Musetta) will screen live on ABC2 on Wednesday 29th October. This is the third cast this Bohème has had this year, but I suspect it'll be the best.
More information at the Opera Australia website.
I should be asleep by now, so will keep this brief. Neil Armfield is a genius. Cheryl Barker ain't so shabby either. And Janacek, oh, Janacek....
Opera Australia's The Makropulos Secret will take your breath away. Multiple times. The final scene will blow your mind. Hold on to your hat and enjoy the wild ride.
Have you bought your ticket yet, Sydney? You have excellent taste, so I'm sure you have. If not, well, you know what to do. I'll see you there.
Just when I thought I was safe, Bruce Martin has spoken out against Opera Australia, proving it's not just mezzo sopranos whom the company has left disgruntled. Evidently he quit OA in January, after hearing the Chandos live recording of Rusalka in which, he claims, the voices — his own included — have been heinously distorted. He sought an expert (
unnamed Michael Brimer - see comment below) who agrees: distorted "beyond recognition" and poor Bruce apparently has been made to sound like "the bleating of a goat". I listen to that Rusalka a lot, and can't say that the word 'goat' has ever sprung to mind as a description for Bruce's singing. Then again, my memories of that evening are dim (and my seat was in a galaxy far, far away, known as the gallery) so if there is a huge difference between the live sound and the recorded product, I wouldn't trust myself to spot it. Cheryl definitely sounds like Cheryl on that recording, though, although it has been remarked upon that she's perhaps disproportionately loud. As for La Spina, who would know? Not me, the philistine, who skips those tracks.
I do wonder to what purpose, exactly, Bruce Martin supposes this distortion (if such it be) was introduced? He is a sensible, intelligent man, so I'm guess it isn't just a persecution complex. To judge by the rest of the article, it's not so much fear of sabotage that left him so appalled by the recording, as a fear that what may be a deliberately distorted representation of the performance in question is yet another symptom of what Fiona Janes has (now famously) described as the slide into "an abyss of mediocrity", of Opera Australia's alleged artistic decline. Bruce has backed up Fiona's claims. It seems he has been making similar ones since long before The Letter, about funding, the talent pool, repertoire, and everything, really.
And so, the war continues. Or does it? It remains to be seen whether the addition of new voices — Martin's now, and who knows who else might crawl out of the woodwork? — to this chorus of complaint will actually succeed in bringing about some real action and self-examination on the part of OA's administration, or whether all grievances will be as swiftly dismissed as Fiona's was. There might be a revolution in the offing, or it might all just all be swept, whimpering, under the rug, and left to suffocate there.
As for me, I'm still on the fence. I can rail against the issues which affect me directly, weirdo casting decisions, prohibitive ticket pricing and so on, but of underlying problems in the culture of the company, of backstage unrest and administrative woes, I'm necessarily ignorant. Besides, I'm defensive of my adopted company. I curse them daily, but I'm also daily grateful they exist. At least my silence, unlike that of these dissidents, is pretty easily bought — throw me two or three Cheryl Barker vehicles a year, enough Strauss to be going on with and perhaps a few tenors who can really sing, and the words "abyss" and "mediocrity" will almost certainly never pass my lips.
Apparently there's more detail of Bruce Martin's grievances in the current issue of The Monthly, however you'll have to be a subscriber (which I ain't) to read it. Marcellous has blogged about it, and this whole kerfuffle, here.
In a word: wow.
Somehow, I don't quite know how, I just wrote two reviews (well, one and a half) of this production for publication elsewhere. You would think, then, that I would have plenty to say about it. Once I get started, then I suppose I shall. As it is, I feel a little bit lost for words. Straight criticism is what it is, it has its conventions, and if all else fails, you can just hold tight to those conventions, frame the review accordingly and resist just crossing it all out and saying: actually, criticism is irrelevant here. I meant everything I wrote, and certainly, this Billy deserves to praised in every possible quarter. But still, flabbergasted silence remains much closer to my real response than any of the words I've written, and any I'll write here now. Too bad, I guess. Flabbergasted silence isn't what blogging is for, and if I don't mention Billy at all, then you might think I didn't like it, and that would be a far greater injustice than any my inelegant prose can commit.
The problem is what, or whom, to rave about first. At least my affection for Benjamin Britten is already well known. He is one of those composers (with R. Strauss and Poulenc) the mere thought of whom makes me happy, always at the top of my list when I consider a dream opera season, and I would gladly sport an I ♥ Britten t-shirt, were such a garment to be had. That he should have E.M. Forster as his librettist only heightens my delight. I am relatively new to Billy Budd but my response to Britten is a foregone conclusion anyway; especially now that I've heard it in the flesh — my first live Britten opera.
In the midst of all these accusations against Opera Australia and against Hickox personally, these claims that artistic standards are slipping and we deserve better than what we're currently being presented with, the company has no better argument in its favour than a show like this. Richard Hickox conducting a Britten opera starring Philip Langridge and Teddy Tahu Rhodes — that's about as good as it gets. That's a line-up that any opera house, of any standing, would be proud to present. Although, as the man behind me smartly, and quite correctly, pointed out to his seat mate, you can't deny that women over 40 are definitely under-represented in this opera.
Langridge puts the Star in Starry Vere. This I only half expected. I'd been told he was wonderful, but the only other time I've seen him in action is on the DVD of Trevor Nunn's Glyndebourne Idomeneo, in which everyone (possibly intentionally) looks odd and wooden, not helped by costumes from the House of Life of Brian. Now I realise he's one of those — one of those singers who also just happens to be a preposterously gifted actor. Captivating doesn't come close to describing it. He just was Vere. All the technical stuff — the perfect diction, the impeccable phrasing, the voice that you'd never think belonged to a 69-year-old — is sort of incidental. He manages to do that thing that people like Natalie, and Maria before her, aspire to, to allow you to forget that he is singing. Or something like it.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes' Billy is hardly less impressive. I can't help thinking that when Melville, and Crozier and Forster after him, wrote of Billy's beauty, it was Teddy they were seeing. And I don't just mean all the obvious beauty he possesses, though lord knows there's plenty of it. But for all his height and muscles, he makes Billy seems sweet and boyish too, small and self effacing even while he towers over everyone in sight. He gives Billy a beautiful soul. And even when his bearing on stage isn't entirely convincing — I've said before that he reminds me of Tigger, with his constant movement and tendency to bounce — his commitment is still palpable. Fine, he looks the part, but what makes it work is that his heart, too, is in this completely. He has some extraordinary moments, far surpassing anything he did in Streetcar. In terms of sheer virtuosity, I think singing quickfire patter, not a hair or note out of place, while jumping up a set of steps is pretty hard to beat. All the ladder work is impressive too. None of it comes close, though, to his singing of Billy's final monologue. I was transfixed, he was incredible, and I have never heard him sing so beautifully before. Those who criticise him for sameishness, or for bellowing (and I have occasionally been among them) would be silenced by this: it was full of light and shade, and totally devastating.
John Wegner is a Claggart straight from the pits of hell. The make-up helps: everyone else is a normal hue, but Claggart's and Squeak's faces are an awful, ghostly white, and their eyes reddened. Wegner enters, looking like death not even warmed up, and radiates evil from every pore. Then he sings and the audience collectively shudders. It's a voice of elegant, caressing, subtle but bloodcurdling malice. He's repellent, but you cannot look away, and he sings so well you want to listen. Little wonder he bends these men to his will.
And then there are the rest. Almost the entire male ensemble, or so it seems. I can't mention them all. But my favourites included Andrew Collis as a maladroit Mr Flint, Conal Coad as Dansker (nice to see him being a bit more low key and not so buffo), and a brave and poignant performance by Andrew Goodwin as the Novice. Luke Gabbedy is pretty fantastic as Donald, too — especially in the "We're off to Samoa" shanty sequence, where he shows off some pretty nifty dance moves. Also, Opera Australia needs to commission a Napoleon and Josephine opera, because when you put him in breeches and a bicorne hat, Warwick Fyfe is the spitting image. Seriously, it's spooky.
Neil Armfield's production is, not surprisingly, brilliant. It makes sense, it's simple and powerful and desperately moving; it's as dark and ambiguous as Billy Budd should be but also celebrates all its humour and beauty. No particularly recognisable bits of ship, just a big platform that rises, falls, tilts and rotates to represent everywhere, and a couple of scaffolded staircases. More than enough. It's sort of halfway between a representation of a real ship and a representation of ship as psychological metaphor. It works exceedingly well. As do the costumes and the lighting and every little thing. Especially the lighting. Billy's hanging is a stroke of genius.
As usual, I thought I had nothing to say and it turns out I had plenty. So much the better. This show is worth it. I'll definitely see it again. And I know you don't need telling, but if you're in Sydney, you really, really need to see this.
On the off chance anybody's still following this pseudo-saga, my Mediawatch post has been updated with the latest articles — Richard Hickox finally speaking out against the allegations of Fiona Janes and others, in particular the accusation of nepotism regarding his wife, Pamela Helen Stephen. May I just say, whatever the truth of any of this stuff, I think this particular slur is a non issue. First of all, Pamela is great. Not earth-shattering, but she's a fine singer and certainly at (or above) the standard of this company, whoever she might be married to. Second, if he was going to play favourites, wouldn't he have made a much bigger fuss of her? A Sydney season as Nicklausse, a short Melbourne season of Carmen and six performances of Werther next year — it's not exactly excessive, is it? Especially when, as I say, she's a good choice for those roles regardless. There may well be some unbalanced casting happening at OA but I don't think this is it. Third, the suggestion — and I have seen it made — that the fact that Pamela is Richard Hickox's wife should in and of itself prohibit the company from engaging her for anything is patently ridiculous. Please, opera has never worked like this. Of course people shouldn't hire their absurdly untalented spouses, but if the right person (or one of the right people in an array of choices) happens to be married to you, how silly would it be to pass them over for that reason alone? What if Richard and Joan had never been allowed to work together? Where would we be?
I whinged and moaned about going to Les pêcheurs de perles, mostly out of Bizet fatigue (wasn't Carmen enough for one season?) and weariness of that cliché duet, which extended to advance weariness of the whole opera. Slightly unfair since I didn't know it very well. And as usual, low expectations meant pleasant surprise. Not overflowing delight — it's only Pearlfishers — but more enjoyable than my curmudgeonliness was prepared for.
The production images in the advertising suggested one of these very lavish and very literal stagings, which is just what I'd expect from an Opera Australia staging of a pop hit but the truth is a bit more interesting, thank god. There is a conventional, prettily exotic set, but it's too small to be used and it sits at the back of an big, empty stage, which is where all the action actually happens. It's an opera-within-an-opera, the flashback of an elderly Zurga, a former governor of Ceylon who has just returned from a night at the opera, full of melancholy memories.
This production plays up the Zurga ♥ Nadir understanding of the love triangle, to the point where there's really no sense that Zurga sees Léïla as anything other than a rival. The person I went with tells me that when she saw this production last time, a couple of years ago, the homo-erotic element wasn't nearly so unambiguous, so perhaps that's the work of Luise Napier, who rehearsed this revival. It works well, especially given the presentation of Zurga, who, with his plastic injected wig and white leisure suit, looks for all the world like Confirmed Bachelor Ken™.
Strangely weak beginnings for both Michael Lewis (Zurga) and Henry Choo (Nadir), though they both got better as the evening progressed, Lewis especially. The duet was a bit uneven, Henry dominating Michael somewhat. It took me a strangely long time (not having given my programme more than a cursory glance) to recognise Shane Lowrencev as Nourabad — we decided this was due to the shortening effect of his tunic, since it's usually his terrifying height which makes him stand out.
Leanne Kenneally, who I adored as the Countess Almaviva last year, is a gorgeous Léïla. What a shame we don't see her more often at Opera Australia — she's a truly lovely artist. Her voice is silvery and sweet and pretty, like so many are, but it's also interesting to listen to, which so many are not. She invests both glittery coloratura and slightly twee laments with real and endearing personality. She's a clever actress, who makes the distant, chaste priestess into the most believably human character on stage. She had (and still has) me considering a second trip to this opera, if for no other reason than to support a singer too rarely heard in this theatre. Maybe I am in a minority, but in their shared repertoire (and there's a lot of it) I would take Leanne over Emma Matthews any day. Actually, that's my lastingest impression of this Pearlfishers. Give Us More Leanne.
Just doing my bit and pointing out this, from the Opera Australia website:
"Opera Australia is offering a special ticket price of $60 on great remaining seats across A, B and C Reserve for the performance of Don Giovanni on 10 September at 7.30pm, and Orlando on 11 September at 7.00pm."
And the fine print:
"This special price is only available for tickets purchased online and tickets will be allocated on a 'first in, first served' basis. Offer vaild for a limited time only. Tickets subject to availability. Booking fees apply."
Take them up on it.
Horrifying number of empty seats at Orlando tonight. Please, if you haven't booked, do so, and encourage your family, friends, frolleagues, bridge partners, archenemies and anybody else you can think of to do likewise.
I'm standing by the sheep. Yes, maybe they do carry the joke too far, but I can't help wondering if maybe that's the point. They start getting unfunny (well, not to me, because I love them) at around the same time the opera starts getting unfunny. Sheep overload coincides with Orlando's breaking point. Just a thought. And while I can see the objection to weird descending objects/people which distract from serious arias, I'm still not bothered. Especially as I don't think that distraction is their only function. Angelica's showgirl descent draws us into Orlando's mindset — he's not listening to Zoroastro, so neither are we. The sheep in Dorinda's "Se mi rivolgo al prato" only appear when she hits the da capo, and they give her own little mad scene, a reminder that Orlando isn't the only human being made distraught by unrequited passion. If they make you think "leave that poor girl alone", then so much the better, we're supposed to feel sorry and indignant for her.
I hear the set almost fell over on Wednesday evening. So I was worried about it tonight, but it stayed upright, although it did make a bit of a scary lurch when Dorinda started banging on the doors. Speaking of malfunctions: tonight the sheep Dorinda shoots actually appeared in full (all we saw on opening night were its feet) — it's the blind cupid sheep, my favourite.
The same team created another production of Orlando for Chicago Opera Theatre just a couple of months ago, by the way. Different concept (film noir) although still in the 40s. Reviews can be read here.
I've heard from two different people (one of whom has seen it, one of whom hasn't but likes to jump to conclusions) that productions like this Orlando are no good because they "make the opera ridiculous". Well, I don't think so. I think it's the creaky, hypertraditional productions, the ones which play into every cartoon stereotype of opera, which sail closest to the wind in terms of making a fool of the genre. I quite liked John Copley's stand-and-sing Ariodante but it was lucky to have singers with sufficiently strong stage presence to carry it off. His Lucia has a nostalgic appeal (created for Joan etc etc) but it has long since reached its use-by date. Next time Lucia rolls around I want Rachelle in the title role and Elke Neidhardt directing. Whereas this mad Orlando, as far as I can see, makes the opera look, well, fascinating, and gorgeous, and definitely intriguing. Which, of course, it is.
And of course I must restate that I ♥ Rachelle. You know, just in case that wasn't clear. She's great throughout but particularly so in the final act, where her performance (and voice) really take fire. The duet with Orlando is fabulous. She's also in the Natalie Dessay league when it comes to nutty curtain calls. But I wonder if she ever gets sick of being described as "statuesque"?
So far I seem to be the only person I know who unreservedly loves Justin Way's new production of Orlando. It all turns on the sheep, you see. There are a lot of them in this production (not real ones — this isn't Francesca Zambello) and they get up to all kinds of increasingly surreal shenanigans. Orlando's personal madness is mirrored in a world turned upside down and multi-coloured, where a humble office lamp is the moon, nobody is capable of a normal relationship and barnyard creatures are unbound by such a paltry force as gravity. Last year's Alcina was pretty magical, but Orlando — by the same team, director Justin Way and designers Andrew Hays and Kimm Kovacs — leaves it in the dust. It opens in the normal world and then everything just goes to pieces and flamboyant havoc ensues, creating along the way several tableaux worthy of La Cieca's Regie quizzes.
The boundless imagination of the design team blew my mind. Even leaving the sheep aside, this is such a visually captivating production. The costumes are fabulous. I think almost everyone (including the singer herself) covets Orlando's red leather army uniform, and Dorinda seems to have stepped straight out of a storybook — actually she kept putting me in mind of Lauren Childs' Lola. Rachelle Durkin's Angelica makes one of the best operatic entrances I've ever seen; I'll say no more than that, although Opera Australia's website does its best to spoil the surprise. I'm mightily impressed by the attention to detail (musical as well as textual) that's evident in Way's direction. I'm thinking especially of the extraordinary trio in which Angelica and Medoro carelessly crush Dorinda's little heart by announcing their plan to run away together. I'm also thinking of the torn wallpaper, another little flash of genius I don't want to spoil by explaining. It won't appeal to everyone, but then I don't suppose any production of anything ever appeals to everyone, so that's fine. As for me, I love it. I don't know. Must be all that MTV I (don't) watch, eating away my attention span and cheapening my taste. Or not.
Two singers in this show give what I think might just be the best performances I've yet seen from either of them. They're Richard Alexander (Zoroastro) and Hye Seoung Kwon (Dorinda). I've sort of grown accustomed to Richard Alexander as one of those reliable, always OK but never amazing singers, with a useful sort of voice and generalised stage presence, who never looks entirely convincing in his old man make-up. His Zoroastro is a real step up — his singing is far more nuanced and creative, and he seems to have a definite grasp on the character. I don't suppose anybody was listening very closely to his first aria, but that's hardly his fault, what with the Kylie Minogue homage happening behind him, and he sings it wonderfully regardless. Maybe now I can finally stop confusing him with Richard Anderson. Hye Seoung Kwon's Dorinda is madcap and adorable, a lovelorn shepherdess who channels all that unrequited love into compulsive sock-knitting for Our Boys Over There. Vocally you couldn't ask for a better fit — after hearing Hye Seoung as both Oberto and Alcina last year, this is precisely the kind of role I wanted to hear her in, somewhere in the middle between bit-part boy and raging temptress. It also makes me more bewildered than ever by Opera Australia's decision to cast her as Fiordiligi in the Melbourne season of Cosi next year.
Our Orlando is Sonia Prina, and I'm happy to report that up close and without a beard, she doesn't look a thing like Eddie Izzard or Prince. Roles like this one are the reason singers such as Sonia Prina exist, so it's no surprise that she's excellent. It's not a voice I have been able to warm to — even since I forgave her for not being Ewa Podles — but that's not a criticism, it's just a quirk of personal taste. But I did like Tobias Cole more and more as the performance progressed; I heard so many people raving about him after his Cesare in 2006, and he more or less lived up to the hype.
I'm so transparent, aren't I? Yes, I'm saving Rachelle Durkin for last. I know the opera is not called Angelica but it's probably not long until I start inadvertently referring to it as such — I call Rinaldo, "Armida" and Giulio Cesare, "Cleopatra" almost without exception. I have made my feelings about Rachelle more than clear. That said, even I have to concede that her Donna Anna was not quite right. In Angelica she's back to the sort of blistering triumph I expect, however. The most preposterously difficult Handelian coloratura is but child's play to Rachelle: she not only meets the challenge but seems positively to relish it. Not that it's all about the fireworks. Her iridescent tone is just as striking in simple, lyrical music as in the fast'n'furious stuff and possibly even lovelier. I know Orlando's mad scene is the centrepiece, but my own personal showstopper was Rachelle's "Verdi piante", an aria I love but had totally forgotten came from this opera.
One of the nice things about Handel at the House is the reconfigured orchestra. It's shrunk to period size, and the floor of the pit is raised closer to stage level, making for lovelier sound, greater intimacy and, I would imagine, something resembling humane working conditions for musicians used to playing in that horrible cavern. With Handel specialist Paul Goodwin at the helm they make a glorious noise, in better form even than they were for Alcina.
What a relief that I enjoyed this so much. Because, on the strength of Alcina, and the mania it induced in me, I've been stockpiling tickets for Orlando. Alright, so it wasn't that much of a risk, since it's the Rachelle/Handel combination which makes me do these things, and that much at least was a guarantee. But it's much better when the whole experience, and not just the prima donna, bears repeating.
And makes it to the UK
15.8.08 "Soprano sounds off about 'disrespectful' Briton in charge of Opera Australia" (Independent, UK)
The case continues
19.8.08 "Opera closes ranks against angry diva" (Sydney Morning Herald)
Elke speaks sense
20.8.08 "Opera needs outside help: expert" (Sydney Morning Herald) [I know you all think I hate her, but her contribution to this debate is the most useful and sensible so far.]
21.8.08 "Opera singer's pitch hits its mark" (The Australian)
21.8.08 "Opera chief faces fresh allegations" (The Age)
21.8.08 "Opera Australia hears singer's 'mediocrity' complaints" (ABC News) [illustrated with a nice 'disgruntled' screenshot from Fiona's Cosi, so that I now have visions of her attending the meeting as Dorabella. "Smanie implacabile" indeed.]
Kirsti Harms joins the fray
21.8.08 "'McOpera' bunfight continues" (Sydney Morning Herald) [are all Australian mezzos disgruntled? Is it a prerequisite?]
21.8.08 Sydney Arts Journo - "Opera Australia does its bit for the SMH arts pages"
23.8.08 Deborah Jones at The Australian - "Wake me when it's over"
23.8.08 The Age - "A fight at the opera" [comprehensive account of the whole sorry saga]
23.8.08 The Australian - "Chat sparked opera feud"
Fiona's not happy
4.9.08 "Diva's drama heads for final act" (The Australian)
Life goes on. So let us leave Janes aside for now and speak instead of Jane. Parkin, that is. I've been a bit of a Jane Parkin fan ever since she showed up to the McDonald's Aria final last year and sang "O marno to je". I mean, who in the world thinks of singing Rusalka's other aria? Very classy. My esteem increased on seeing this video. But with no other opportunities to hear her, I've had to content myself with declaring her my Favourite Chorus Member. Which is why, when I discovered she was singing Butterfly for Oz Opera, I thought it was high time I faced my fear of outer suburbs, and went.
In my twenty-two months in Sydney, I have been to Parramatta exactly thrice. Once to catch a bus to Kangaroo Valley. Once to be brainwashed by Myer. And then last weekend, for Madama Butterfly. The third trip — the only one which caused me to see more of Parramatta than the station and the Westfield — has proved the most rewarding. There's a press quote for you. "Jane Parkin: she's worth going to Parramatta for."
Jokes aside, she really was. She was even worth the mildly harrowing trip back home again. As was the rest of the production. This is not some ramshackle touring show. It's directed by no less a figure than John Bell, of the Bell Shakespeare Company. He does a pretty gorgeous job of it, too. He's moved the action (as have others before him) to 1940s Nagasaki, which as updates go, is a pretty innocuous and logical one. There's nothing wildly revolutionary in his staging, but there are a few imaginative flourishes. Once married, Cio Cio San, understandably enough, wants to be a Good American Wife, so she dresses like one — until suicide time, she's adorable in a pretty pink dress. She plasters the paper screens with clippings of American ads, movie stars and comic books; and again, they're visible until her very Japanese suicide, at which point she shuts them away.
Costumes (designed by the late Jennie Tate) are beautiful. After whites and soft pinks, the blood red kimono which Butterfly wears to kill herself has a stunning effect. Tate designed the set too, and it's another little triumph — simple and portable, without looking simple and portable. And since you couldn't possibly tour fifty million towns with an actual toddler in tow, Sorrow takes the form of an exquisitely made puppet by Al Martinez Studios. Initially I wasn't convinced this would work — Butterfly and Suzuki just seemed to be carrying a doll — but the action of this puppet is amazing. When Butterfly sets him down to pray, his little leg slides out all by itself, and he's so skilfully manipulated by the two women that he comes to life.
Jane is a beautiful Butterfly in every sense. It's hard to tell in a small theatre, with reduced orchestra, whether she'd be a big theatre Butterfly. On this scale, though, she's a winner. Bright, shimmery tone, sensitive phrasing and — vital for this role I think — a sense of humour. Butterfly has some really funny lines in the midst of all the trauma, and Jane does a good job of exploring both sides. My programme tells me she has a background in acting as well as music: it shows. And even if her singing wasn't completely seamless, it was memorable and distinctive. She put her own stamp on it, which is more than can be said for some recent performances at the Big House.
But in a way, the revelation of the evening was David Corcoran. I knew what I wanted from Jane. From David, I didn't know what to expect. When he won the McDonald's Aria by unanimous decision last year, I confess I was surprised. But now I get it. He sounded fabulous and sang with such style. No wonder he's a 2009 Young Artist; I just hope that the tenor drought OA is facing doesn't prompt them to force him into anything too early. Given time and space to develop, he could prove to be one of the finest tenors this country has produced in a while. His stage presence is much improved since that Aria final too, thank heavens. I can't believe I'm saying it, but he actually made me sort of like Pinkerton. No mean feat.
Oz Opera casting is all terribly egalitarian. Principal roles are double cast, so it's share and share alike and there's no single prima donna. (Or primo uomo.) This must be a lesson in humility in the case of Butterfly and Pinkerton — when not starring, they're on chorus duty. So theoretically, I suppose, everyone is on an equal footing but I can't help thinking I saw the A cast. Which was the point, of course: I made sure I'd be seeing Jane and David before I went. Casting in the supporting cast, meanwhile, is basically fine. Best of them were the two mezzos, Karen van Spall as Kate Pinkerton and Victoria Lambourn as a very touching Suzuki. Brendon Wickham clearly was having a ball as Goro but I found his voice less than appealing; Ian Cousins is an experienced Sharpless but a little bit dull. Because it's made up of the solo cast, the chorus only consists of six people, which takes a bit of getting used to. The Humming Chorus sounds frankly odd, I think because you can hear each individual voice rather than a single, massed sound.
And speaking of reduction — this is Butterfly as chamber piece, with a 12 piece orchestra. You do lose a lot of the richness of the score with this arrangement, there's no getting away from that; but once my ear had adjusted, it worked pretty well. I can't say I'd want to hear it like this all the time, but once in a while is interesting.
No surtitles, so this production is sung in English. I'm happy with this. Especially since Peter Hutchinson's translation (
which appears to have been done specifically for Oz Opera - can anyone confirm/deny? commissioned for Welsh National Opera in 1978 - see comment below) is so well done. At many key points I thought it was superior to the one used by Chandos Opera in English for their Butterfly. I did chuckle slightly at what seemed to be a slight PC-ifying, though — Butterfly's age ("quindici netti") became "almost exactly sixteen", which just quietly shifts her up to the age of consent. Perhaps they were afraid of Bill Henson zealots? (edit: Not exactly - again, see comment.) The only real clumsiness I noted were a few unmetrical contractions: the "chi sara, chi sara?" and "che dira, che dira?" of "Un bel di" were translated as "Who d'you think it will be?" and "What d'you think he will say?", which haven't quite the same ring. Otherwise, though, an excellent translation which managed to retain the depth and wit of the original and, with the help of very good diction from the singers, to be understood pretty much word for word.
I just think it's a shame Oz Opera doesn't venture into the cities. This production has so much to recommend it — especially with the cast configured as it was for me — and I suspect there a lot of people who would love it who will miss out. Too bad for them. Meanwhile, if you're on the Oz Opera circuit or near it, seek this one out. I don't go to Parramatta lightly, but for this show, and for Jane, I'd go again.
Hot on the heels of the season announcement comes a bit of a scandal. Mezzo soprano Fiona Janes has gone public with a lengthy list of complaints about Opera Australia, its treatment of singers and a slide into what she calls "an abyss of mediocrity". According to the Herald article, she'll meet with members of the Opera Australia board next week to discuss her concerns — outlined in a seven page letter first discussed in April. These include:
-young singers cast in roles too big for them
-the neglect of older singers and particularly women
-the importation by Richard Hickox of "second- and third-rate" overseas artists
-"disrespect for a number of established Australian singers"
On the first point, I absolutely agree. The rest is murkier. I am very interested to see what comes of this. In the meantime, I want to throw this open for discussion. Reader, what do you think about Fiona's claims? Speak your mind. (Anonymity is fine.)
...is for Emma, E-reserve and Exhaustion.
For the first time in my life I managed to book the closest thing Opera Australia has to a really cheap seat, one of the balcony box seats that can only be bought on the day of performance. The view is theoretically worse up there even than from D-reserve, but I'm not sure that's actually the case. Certainly it wasn't an issue for this production, wherein nothing very visually interesting happens and all the important bits are centre-stage.
This re-visit did not spring from my usual compulsive tendencies; I just thought it would be interesting to see how it had come on since opening night. The answer was that it hadn't. Now that's not exactly a catastrophe, because opening night was pretty good. I just hoped that maybe, once the jitters of such an important and long-anticipated opening night had calmed down, Emma's Lucia would seem a bit more like a character and less like a concert performance. No such luck. The exception, as on opening night, is the mad scene, where we finally get the sense of a personality other than Emma's own, but even then, it's more like watching Emma playing Joan playing Lucia, if you get my drift. And you can blame the John Copley production, a Joan vehicle if ever you saw one, right down to the big-shouldered frocks, to a certain extent, but not all the way. If this really is THE role of her career, and she seems to consider it as such, then I hope she has both opportunity and capacity to put a personal stamp on it.
As for her singing, there's not a lot I can add to what I've said already. She's what she is, no more or less. You can't say she's not consistent; there are things Emma can always be relied on to provide — precision, sweetness of tone (in the right parts of her voice), solid coloratura and a willingness to take the optional high note. What I suppose bothers me is that while she doesn't sound strained, she also doesn't sound as if she could go any further. Part of the thrill of Joanie's Lucia is the extraordinary vocal reserves on which she draws, the sense that this is a limitless voice. Whereas I feel always aware of Emma's limits. My feeling about Lucia is that it offers two pathways for triumph. There's the drama, and there's the vocal virtuosity. You can be extraordinary in one, or both, or switch between them, but the point is that you need to be somehow extraordinary. Emma is lovely and certainly very talented, she brings gifts to the table which perhaps no other member of the company could currently offer, and her commitment is unquestionable. At her best she can be breathtaking (cf her solos in the Mass in C minor, which left me a blubbering mess) but for me, in this role, she isn't extraordinary. So it's a good thing that I'm a minority up in my cheap seat. Down below, they went nuts for her.
Meanwhile, I have a bone or two to pick with stage management. There are some strange things happening with the curtain. Otello set the precedent, with Dennis, Cheryl and Jonathan taking bows in front of the curtain before it was raised for everyone else to run on for their solo bows. That worked well enough. In Lucia it goes haywire. First of all, Emma takes a solo bow immediately after her mad scene, before Edgardo's final aria and scene. I've no doubt that this is quite a long running Lucia tradition, but I find it jarring to say the least. I suppose in a production so unconcerned with creating dynamic, persuasive theatre, it doesn't really matter if the illusion is so totally shattered, but just the same, it makes the end of the opera even more of an anti-climax than it already is and is no doubt responsible for the number of people I spotted picking up jackets and handbags before the lights went down again. Then, when the opera really is over, the four principals (Lucia, Edgardo, Enrico and Raimondo) and then Bonynge file out in front of the curtain. They bow, and bow again and eventually disappear. The applause continues for a few seconds, then gradually fades. On opening night it had almost stopped when at last, the curtain was raised and the whole of the cast given a chance to take their bows, by which time some of the audience was already on its feet, about to leave. Last night they were too late. The applause stopped. The lights went up. And the chorus, Rosemary Gunn (Alisa), Kanen Breen (Arturo) and Graeme Macfarlane (Normanno) were never seen again. Not nice, Opera Australia!
'Tis done, I am a psychopath. This afternoon I finally saw my last Otello. This, if you have lost count, makes seven. There aren't any more. If there were, I can't say for certain I wouldn't go. Right now I'm just relieved that the Melbourne season has a different Desdemona, because while I can (just) afford to see it a billion times here, I really couldn't be jetting off to Melbourne for more of the same. It hasn't quite broken my record. That's still held by Streetcar, but only because last year I was still a Friend of the Opera and I made to the dress rehearsal as well. In terms of proper performances, it's equal. I expect this record to be broken in January next year, by Madama Butterfly. Cheryl sings 12 performances, Antoinette the other 11, I don't know how many I will see but I think it's safe to say it will be a lot.
What I said after the second performance has proved indeed to be true — that a review written now would be in some ways very different from the one actually published. Not so much in terms of the singers — although were I re-writing, I would probably look in thesaurus for some different words for Cheryl, having noticed the other day that I'd used the same description of her in two consecutive reviews. (What can I do? She is sweet and vivacious!) However, my opening night complaints about the conducting/orchestral playing have more or less evaporated. I'm still not entirely satisfied — there is still something slightly sterile about Simon Hewett's reading, he seems more determined to demonstrate technical facility than to simply give himself up to the music and, in turn, breathe life into the score. But there's no doubt that by the end, the orchestra packed a whole lot more punch than they seemed to on opening night. My feeling is that perhaps we've met in the middle on this: that the conducting and playing have tightened up over the season, and that meanwhile I have stopping wanting something different and agreed to enjoy them on their own terms. However, if Simon Hewett is coming back to this city — and we know that he is — I have just one wish. No more humming along with the score. We can hear you. And it's annoying.
There's more to be said, but as 99% of it concerns Cheryl Barker, I'll save it for another post.
Don't worry, I am as perplexed by this Otello mania as anyone. Because after all, sopranos aside, this isn't the kind of opera I usually become attached to. And it would be easy enough to say, well, I'm really only going to see Desdemona, and the rest is filler. Easy, but not altogether true. I only occasionally work on that principle; despite Rachelle's presence, for instance, I only saw Don Giovanni twice. Of course it would absolutely be possible to see this opera for its Desdemonic portions only — she is that good — but it has other attractions.
In particular, it has Jonathan Summers. And yes, I will get as repetitive about him as I do about sopranos because the man is a genius. The first gleeful frisson I get from this production is not "Mio superbo guerrier" but Iago's "Se un fragil voto / di femmina non è tropp'arduo nodo / pel genio mio nè per l'inferno". He is such a through-and-through villain I should hate him, but he's so good at it (and sounds so good, too) that I love him. That Desdemona should fall victim to his machinations is indeed unfortunate, but apart from that, I'm on Iago's side. Even at the end I lead this double life: I'm sad for poor, lifeless Desdemona, but when Iago spits defiantly at Otello and runs off, I confess I stifle a little cheer for him. Does this make me a terrible person? Yes? I don't care.
None of which, however, should be read as a claim that I'd still be repeatedly attending this Otello if it had an ordinary Desdemona. You'd never swallow that, and neither would I. But it isn't like Alcina, where by night five it was all about Rachelle, and all that other singing was just what I had to sit through to get to her. (I overstate the case slightly, though to be honest, not by much.)
Repeated viewing has allayed my concerns about Desdemona's costumes, they don't seem as ill-fitting as originally they did, although the hemline of her "Splende in ciel" suit isn't the most flattering. I am, however, steadily falling in love with her Act III frock with all its purple layers. The "Dio ti giocondi" black pant-suit is my favourite, especially the gorgeous black heels that go with it.
Also, it has to be said again — the chorus is doing so well in this production. Singing fabulously and running, jumping and tumbling up and down all those stairs. It can't be easy, and I'm so impressed that in five performances not a single person has tripped on their, or somebody else's, frock. Or if they have, I haven't noticed.
Can you believe that this afternoon, choosing music, the one thing I felt in the mood for was, yes, Otello? I should have had enough by now, but evidently not. Oh, and I still have one more performance booked. Which might become two. This would make seven in total — still one off my record — and I'm tempted to do it, if for no other reason than just to be that weirdo who saw Otello seven times.
Fourth Otello last night. And I did sort of claim I would stop posting after every performance but oh, what the hell. I'm a completist. Not that I suppose there's very much left to say.
I was in the second last row of the stalls, which makes a change from my usual front loge seats. I can't deny that I'd rather see Cheryl & co at close range, but it's interesting to have wider view. There are aspects of the production which actually come across better from a distance. I hadn't really noticed until last night that the whole set actually tilts slightly, adding to that sense of a world gradually sliding into destruction. Details of blocking — especially all the sinister skulking Iago does — made more of an impression from afar as well. There are some striking tableaux in this production. The end of the Act I duet, as first Otello, and then Desdemona, ascend the stairs and gaze out into that notte densa, is captivating: the glow of the lighting matches that of the music. And I'm noticing patterns. Everyone seems to meet their downfall at the same spot on those fateful steps: it's where Iago takes in both Roderigo and Cassio, Otello collapses with grief there at least once, and it's where Desdemona sings both her Act III "A terra, si" and much of her final scene, including that terrible, beautiful "Amen". Likewise, the affectionate way in which Otello brings Desdemona's hands together as if in prayer is mirrored later in his much more brutal treatment of her. And as exquisite as they are at a distance of mere feet, Cheryl's pianissimo, unaccompanied "salice"s are even more poignant when they come travelling through so much space and darkness.
Meanwhile, I'm starting to think that my tiny taste of a house with a proper pit has spoilt me for good. Now that I know what I'm missing, I'm more frustrated than ever by the appalling conditions in the Opera Theatre. While the thought of a missing or reduced season frightens me, I think I'm willing to face it if it means doing something to make the world's most recognisable opera house into a good venue for opera.
I don't mean dull. I don't even really mean relaxing, certainly not in the insipid compilation sense. Nor do I mean emptily pretty, the charge too often levelled unjustly at bel canto. Assuming you have a love of beautiful singing — which, if you've gone to Lucia and/or are an Emma Matthews fan, is probably a pretty safe assumption — then there's no way you'd be bored or dissatisfied with this production. Her singing and that of her colleagues is lovely and touching, and the orchestra plays well under the guidance of Mr Lucia himself, Richard Bonynge. However, if it's adventure you want — electrifying vocalism, stimulating direction or an actress who takes risks with this floating, disturbed little girl — you'll need to go elsewhere. This is the safest of all possible Lucias.
John Copley's production has been around forever; or at least, since 1980, when it premiered with Our Joan. It's pretty much as traditional as it gets: huge pillars, a kitschy fountain, lots of tartan, and immense frocks designed to make even the tiniest slip of a girl — Emma, for instance — look like she's packing Joan-sized shoulders. The staging is what you might call basic. People stand and sing and clutch their bosoms, or one another, or both. It's hardly thrilling and pretty easy to mock (I can't believe, for instance, that in twenty-eight years, nobody's had the nerve to drop the hilarious Highland dancing at Lucia's wedding) but it has its charms as well. There's something a bit heartwarming about watching proper old fashioned opera — old fashioned in the best sense. Maria Callas and My Natalie aside, Donizetti didn't actually write an opera intended to explore the dark depths of madness, he wrote a showy singers' vehicle, and I think there's room in the world for both approaches, not to mention plenty of middle ground.
Emma sings Lucia absolutely beautifully. I know that I have a history as the lone voice of dissent when it comes to Emma's performances, but even I can't deny how delightful this particular performance is. Her quick vibrato and girlish sweetness don't always work to her advantage — in Arabella they messed with Strauss' long lines and left her frequently inaudible — but they're perfectly in step with the frills and frippery of this music. There's not a note or cadenza out of place; she takes all the optional high notes and aces them. It's true that hers is a small voice, and I'm not sure how her Lucia would fare in a more cavernous space. Even here, she does disappear somewhat when obliged to compete with other voices or big orchestration — but luckily for her, it's the very nature of bel canto that whenever she has something important to sing, the orchestra draws right back and lets her take priority.
What she isn't, however, is exciting. Engaging, yes, because she sounds so lovely. Characterisation, though, is almost non existent: she doesn't really seem to know how she wants to play Lucia, or even to have much sense of the role's dramatic potential. Until the mad scene, she doesn't really do anything except pout and collapse; I felt like I was watching Emma give a Donizetti concert as herself, rather than a convincing portrayal of Lucia. Not that a convincing portrayal is the only path to a thrilling Lucia. Joanie did it through vivid virtuosity — her Lucia mightn't look the part but vocally she's alive and exciting. Emma hasn't quite the bottomless reserves of Joan. Her range and agility are extraordinary but they operate within definite, albeit impressive, limits. For all her many charms, I can't say I consider Emma a great Lucia. I don't know if she'll ever be one, though I've no doubt she'll grow into the role considerably during this season and beyond. But on her own terms, this is an exquisite performance and I really did love it. So much so that I, the eternal naysayer, surprised myself by standing to applaud her, among a sea of mostly seated people. Yes, I had, and still have my reservations; but she did herself proud and the warmth and happiness she radiated at her curtain call were infectious.
After all that — well and truly the most I've ever written about Emma in a single post — you just know the boys are going to get short shrift. This is grossly unfair, because they were both fantastic.
José Carbo impresses me more with every performance. I swooned for his Escamillo in Dunedin and delighted in the elegant exuberance of his Figaro. He was an excellent Almaviva and his Marcello stole the show. Now he's our unsettlingly charismatic Enrico. Within the staid conventionality of this staging, he actually manages to bring some sense of spontaneity to Enrico's stock gestures and sword brandishing. He uses that big, gorgeous voice of his with intelligence and flair, singing the role so appealingly that I, for one, found it very hard to revile him as much as I know I should.
Eric Cutler is just the right kind of Edgardo for Emma's Lucia —a finely-wrought, lyrical partner rather than an expansive Italian macho man who might shout her down. His singing is bright, fluent and graceful. His stage presence is on the subdued side. Like Emma, he doesn't really come to life until his character's dramatic final scene — in this case, the angst and subsequent suicide of "Tombe degli avi miei". His performance is a delight throughout, but this scene is especially impressive, showing off his sunshine timbre, easy legato and a beautifully controlled upper register. It's tough being the tenor in Lucia, required to wait until after the hugely famous mad scene to sing his own big aria. Eric pulls it off, though, moving out of Emma's shadow to cast an indelible impression of his own. Another major highlight was his fiery dueting with José Carbo in the Wolf's Crag scene — that's some combination.
And there are the rest: Alisa, Raimondo, Normanno, Arturo, the Professor and Mary Ann. Alisa seems to be one of those roles that can be played in any way, by any kind of mezzo. In San Francisco she was young. Here she's an elderly duenna, sung with not much voice but plenty of spirit by Elderly Duenna par excellence Rosemary Gunn. Kanen Breen is in his element as Arturo — after playing it straight as Cassio in Otello, he's now allowed to be preposterously camp again. So camp, actually, that I thought: maybe Edgardo isn't the problem, maybe the marriage fails so messily because Lucia's new husband is, well, just like the Earl of Doncaster. Graeme McFarlane is fine as Normanno. Richard Anderson is a nice, solid Raimondo, but for some reason I was convinced we were getting Jud Arthur in this role. Did I just make this up? Unfortunately the Gilligan's Crag scene has been cut.
In the end I liked this Lucia quite a lot more than I expected I would. I laughed, I smiled, I sighed and I shed not one single tear; I basked in enchanting sounds without the slightest risk of devastation. No, I wouldn't want every Lucia to be like this, but once in a while it's nice to see it this way. I'm even planning to go again.
Yes, third time...
Best yet for Cheryl. Call me crazy — you probably already do — but I could see it in her eyes that she'd outdo herself, before she'd sung a note. Fired up, perhaps, by her Helpmann the night before. Her concentration is quite staggering — every moment, every inch of her, is so completely in character. The horror and fear on her face in Act III was hard to watch.
But, as my companion on opening night pointed out — she's doing an awful lot of significant stair climbing this season.
Jonathan Summers could give children nightmares. For one scary moment, he looked up at the monitor directly below my loge seat and that cruel gaze seemed fixed on me. I nearly shuddered. And he was so adorable in Gianni Schicchi...
And (indulge/ignore me, it's my blog) this time when he strangled her beneath the stairs, one arm reached back behind her head, over the top top step. Quivered, then dropped lifeless. It was a nicely macabre touch. I do love it, too, when she drags herself back up — it's like a horror movie.
But Otello's dagger is laughably blunt. I've seen plastic knives that were more convincing.
I keep expecting to start being bored during the boys' scenes but guess what? I like all of it. That's a testament to the opera and the production, of course; and maybe my horizons are broadening after all. (But I still like Desdemona the best.) Two more booked, I may add more besides. I'll try not to follow every single one of them with a content-free post like the above.
Does anyone know who's covering Otello? Not that I'm planning to poison Dennis O'Neill. It's just I'm struggling to imagine who in the company it could possibly be; I can only think of one name as even an outside possibility. Any clues?
On a related note, I was browsing the photos at Jonathan Summers' website and something finally dawned on me which I should have realised from the programme cover — when this production premiered in 2003, Otello (Frank Porretta) was in blackface. Now he isn't. I wonder why.
My second Otello. I like it when opening night is out of the way, reviews done with, and I can stop acting the crritic [sic] and just enjoy the opera in terms of my own peculiar biases. Although I can't help second guessing whatever I wrote the last time. This convention of reviewing opening night has its uses, but just how indicative opening night is of the success of a whole season varies, I suspect. A response written after three or four performances, spread out through a run, would be quite a different creature. It would also defeat most of the purpose of reviewing in the first place, which I guess is why it's not done. That's all by the by, though.
I moaned on opening night about limp and hazy conducting but it had a bit more oomph last night. Sitting a few rows closer might have contributed to that, since you practically have to climb into the pit to hear the orchestra properly. (And even then the listening conditions are apparently far from ideal.) In any case, it was an improvement, though I'm still not quite satisfied. True, I don't help matters by listening to Karajan's Otello in between performances. What got on my nerves especially, probably because it's one of my favourite passages in all of opera, was Desdemona's Willow Song and Ave Maria. Hewett seems a bit too keen to keep everything moving. It's not rushed, exactly; just a bit blunt and insensitive. My feeling is that this scene should be as eerily serene as you can make it. I don't think it's possible to overdo the quiet. Instead we just sort of chug through the prelude. Cheryl helps matter a lot once she starts singing, but she'd be even better served by orchestral playing as haunting as she is.
Also, I am starting to feel there is something missing. I think it's love, or chemistry at least. There isn't a great deal palpable between Otello and Desdemona. I don't like to point the finger, but facts are facts: it ain't Cheryl who's letting down the side. This is cruel of me, because there is so much to admire about Dennis O'Neill's Otello. He does military hero remarkably well but stumbles on romantic hero. There's little to justify Desdemona's affectionate manner, nor is there much evidence of his adoration for her. We ought to sense that their former happiness has been as intense as the violence of their miserable end. Whence could such passionate jealousy spring, if not from equally passionate love and physical attraction? It isn't that Dennis isn't trying. He does his best, I'm sure, but his limits in this department are, I fear, significant. If only Peter Coleman-Wright were a tenor...
Presumably we have Simone Young to thank for the presence of a Harry Kupfer Otello in Opera Australia's repertory — another reason for me to regret not having lived here during her ill-fated tenure with the national company. Simone fascinates me, if for no other reason than that I've heard story after story but never actually seen the woman in action. My own fault actually, since I know she's appeared with the SSO since I've been here.
Anyway, returning to the matter at hand. Otello opened last Friday and it's fantastic. It makes me want to take Elke Neidhardt to see it (except I suspect she'd be a rather high maintenance concert companion) and say: look, this is how it's done! This is Otello in WWII, in the stately home of a bunch of Fascists. No overdone political statements, though; just an atmosphere of unsettlingly recognisable fear and deception. Setting it here also neatly sidesteps the controversial cosmetics issue: to blackface or not to blackface?
Jonathan Summers is much too convincing as a Nazi. Charismatic and terrifying. Peter Coleman-Wright was originally scheduled to sing Iago in this production, and while that would have been good to see, I'm slightly glad it turned out this way — Summers is amazing, quite frankly. Although I had to stifle a giggle when he turned, and it struck me that in profile he bore a striking resemblance to Master Braun. (If you don't want to click the link — it's Peter Cook. As a German villain. A la Thunderbirds. Enough said.)
Also, two pleasant surprises and both them were tenors. I confess I have been complaining for months about the casting of Dennis O'Neill as Otello. Look, I don't doubt his Verdi tenor credentials. But he seemed strained to me in Un ballo in maschera and Otello is an even bigger sing than that. Besides which — I know we don't really approve of casting looks before talent, but there is a certain level of credibility which I think is not unreasonable. Dennis is short and portly and mostly "acts" by shaking his fist at the heavens. Never good, but especially not with Cheryl Barker as his Desdemona. Cheryl who is willowy and gorgeous and a very good actress. My thought was: this will never work. When I saw them together in Il trittico it actually took me a good ten minutes to realise he was the love interest and not her father. However. It does work. He sings the hell out of it in fact, and the height thing isn't much of an issue — the set, a massive staircase, seems made for him. No, he still can't act, and this does hurt the chemistry with Cheryl a bit, but not much. She's actress enough to make up for him. And did I mention he sings the hell out of it? I was very impressed.
The other surprising tenor was Kanen Breen. Every time I've seen Kanen of late, he's seemed to get less audible and more irritating and again — me and my prejudices — I thought casting him in BIG Verdi was surely an error. Imagine my surprise to find that I could hear him! And he sounded really quite good! I didn't buy him as a man who'd be promoted over fierce, stocky little Otello but it was just so nice to enjoy his voice again. After all, Kanen Breen used to be one of my favourite OA regulars. Maybe he will be again.
A question now for Opera Australia. When, in the name of all that's holy, will you get a clue and cast Jacqueline Dark in a leading role? Maybe it's just me, but it does seem a little odd that probably the loveliest lyric mezzo in the company is getting handed nothing but bit parts. I thought Suzuki was a thankless role, but Emilia trumps it. Yet in that final scene, where at last she has more than a couple of words to sing, Jacqui suddenly unleashes this torrent of fabulous, exciting singing which makes you think you could start another opera right here.
Oh. Cheryl Barker is in this opera too. No wonder Otello is jealous. So would you be, if you were Mickey Rooney married to Ava Gardner. There's a worldliness about Cheryl's Desdemona which appeals to me: she's as in love with her husband's status and power (and its reflection upon her) as she is with the man himself. That makes her downfall even more tragic, because she isn't just a weak girl crushed by larger powers, she's a self-aware woman whose carefully built world is suddenly destroyed. Without Otello she has no safety net. It's not cowardice which leads her to wait for him to murder her. She depends on his life force for her own existence, even if that dependence kills her. "Egli era nato per la sua gloria, io per amarlo e per morir" — "He was born for glory, I to love him and to die." She attributes the words to pathetic Barbara but they're plainly her own. Her singing is drop dead gorgeous as usual. Fiery and brilliant from start to finish; I didn't know she had such shimmery pianissimi in her, either. And a fabulous high A# in the final scene, which she nails while running into Emilia's arms — nicely done, Cheryl.
There's something trivial I'm wondering, though. If anyone out there saw this production in 2003 — did Elena Prokina (who I understand was amazing) have slightly broader shoulders than Cheryl? I mean it in the nicest possible way; it's just that as lovely as Cheryl is in all her costumes, some of them don't seem to fit perfectly, especially the purple dress.
I'm booked for another two performances. I only didn't book more because I thought I might not be up to sitting through the boys again and again while waiting for Cheryl. Now that that's clearly not the case, I suspect three will not be enough.
Is it perhaps the result of strategic scheduling that OA's Lucia di Lammermoor opens next week, in the midst of the season of Don Giovanni? Those disgruntled by the new production — I understand there are a few — can nestle, placated, into John Copley's Lucia, which must surely be among the oldest productions still in repertory at Opera Australia. It's on DVD with Our Joan and that film is 22 years old.
Anyway, in accordance with its nice, cosy status, Lucia is getting nice, cosy publicity. So far just this friendly little piece. If I were in a nitpicking mood — and when am I not? — I might quibble with opening claim, that Lucia is "a role so challenging that few attempt it and even fewer succeed." That few completely succeed is no doubt true but a quick Operabase search would suggest that quite a number (at least forty-five in the last twelve months) do at least attempt it. Totally trivial point, however. And given that it's the Telegraph, if that's the extent of the article's utter crap quotient, we're doing remarkably well.
But Emma's happy, Richard's happy, I assume Adrian Collette is happy. All is well. Even I'm happy. To my surprise, I've ceased my predictions of doom and find my hopes for Emma's Lucia renewed. To be fair, my Emma experiences so far (good and not-so-good) do actually suggest she'll make quite a lovely Lucia. Lovely, I suspect, being the key word. Lovely isn't everything. I have better words for Natalie's Lucia. But lovely has its charm and no doubt so will Emma.
I have misgivings aplenty about the production. About the singing, I have practically none. After all, this Don Giovanni is a bit of a mini-smorgasbord for me. Regular readers will no doubt be familiar with my, shall we say, enthusiasm for both Rachelle Durkin and Joshua Bloom. Putting them together is casting brilliance and makes the Anna/Giovanni/Leporello trio at the beginning such a treat.
First things first, however — the Don himself. Gabor Bretz has worked his way up through the Don Giovanni baritone hierarchy, singing Masetto and Leporello before graduating to the title role. Thanks to the wonder of modern technology, you can see clips of him in the role here. His big, sonorous voice mingles expressive warmth with a hint of danger. He's not a particularly elegant or subtle Giovanni, but that's not what this production demands; certainly I had the sense that he could pull off a more charismatic characterisation if required.
Joshua Bloom is predictably ideal as Leporello — I expected nothing less. He's so effortlessly appealing and so funny on stage that you don't quite expect such a majestic flood of sound; he's a comic foil with one hell of a voice. I am not the only person to say that if his Giovanni was even slightly weaker, Joshua's Leporello would completely steal his limelight. Actually, because I am actually just a mad fangirl who occasionally masquerades as a grown-up critic, I think he does steal it. This role and this production don't allow him to be as outrageously entertaining as in La Cenerentola, but he adapts and adjusts and maintains his charm.
During my Alcina frenzy, I christened Rachelle Durkin "Terrifying Rachelle" but that epithet doesn't really apply here. She's Something Else Rachelle and I'm still not certain what, which probably means I'll have to go and see it a third time. Something Else Good, though. Anyway, her singing is ferocious and fabulous. I LOVE this voice. I may have mentioned that. I love the icy sheen of it, and the way it slices so easily through the thickest of ensembles. You can always hear Rachelle, and you can always tell it's Rachelle. I also enjoy the way that, without self indulgence, she allows her voice to be beautiful and spectacular, taking glorious advantage of the parts of Donna Anna's music which really show it off. Not only can she sing the ferocious coloratura, she really seems to enjoy it, which just adds to the thrill. She's soignée and understated (while dangerously repressed) as Anna. There are times, I confess, when I don't find her characterisation wholly convincing; she seems uncertain and a bit unfocused. But this could just be me, and it could also just be opening night nerves, because she made more sense to me last night. I do get the feeling, though, that maybe fantastical sorceresses like Alcina and Armida are a better temperamental fit for her than mere mortals. Which is fine with me.
But the big revelation is Catherine Carby! Who gets an exclamation mark because right now, I can't say her name without exclaiming. There are moments when she's a shade underpowered for the role but she's so fiercely committed it completely doesn't matter; and when she gets to "Mi tradi", "underpowered" goes out the window anyway. She inhabits her role more fully than almost anyone; she's definitely the most believable of the three women. Somehow, she manages to be totally nuts and ridiculous without becoming just plain laughable — she's absurb but human. Her handling of the recitative is thrillingly nuanced, her arias are full of rage but still silver-toned and beautiful. And that "Mi tradi"... it's spectacular, and devastating. I am also full of admiration for her ability to sing impeccably in her final scene while being shunted back and forth by Leporello and Giovanni on a wheeled table, her legs humiliatingly spread. I'm amazed. What I saw in Carmen gave no hint that Catherine! was capable of such riveting theatre, or of throwing herself so completely into the music.
Mocking Don Ottavio is old hat by now, so I'll try to resist. Henry Choo at least doesn't try to make him seem anything other than ineffectual, and the staging makes an explicit point of his stunted emotional growth. One of Giovanni's bunny girls (yes, there are bunny girls) does her best to entice him with her contortions, but to no avail. His relationship with Donna Anna makes no sense at all; it must be a Prudent Match because they act like near strangers most of the time. Anyway he sounds lovely, as he always does, and as befits Ottavio; and his light, lyrical tenor seemed to be packing a bit more punch than usual, which is a welcome development.
Amy Wilkinson sings brightly and sweetly as Zerlina and plays her as a daft tart. I've never liked Zerlina, and such a vacuous characterisation certainly doesn't help, but that's just my prejudice; objectively Amy makes a very good Zerlina and (I mean this as a compliment) a very convincing daft tart. She is, thank the heavens, a proper lyric soprano and not a twee soubrette. Her Masetto is Richard Alexander, whose solid singing gives no cause for complaint but is on the generic side; not entirely his fault, though, since neither the opera nor its direction offer much help in this.
I'm madly in love with this opera, so it makes me very happy to have such a uniformly enjoyable cast. Not a single singer I don't want to hear. And I'm enjoying Mikhail Agrest's slightly fast and furious take on the score. The orchestra sounds good. I bet they'd sound even better if they weren't buried in that cavern. I also have to say, in the interests of fairness — whatever disagreements I might have with Elke Neidhardt, I really do believe that she has a genuine love of, and reverence for, the music. Her ideas about how one ought and oughtn't present the stage action might be questionable, but I think her respect for the music is sincere.
(See also: On Don Giovanni (the good stuff))
My earlier post probably sounds a bit more broadly dismissive than I actually feel about Opera Australia's new Don Giovanni. I mean, there's no way that this production will be to everyone's taste, but that, dare I say it, is arguably a positive thing. All of Mozart's mature operas are exceptional but Don Giovanni transcends even that level of brilliance; it's a fascinating, unsettling and totally wonderful creation, and I'm all for measures which prevent anyone from settling into an idea that it's just jolly, comfortable Mozart with pretty costumes and prettier arias.
Elke Neidhardt's production is (slightly) challenging and for that I'm thankful. There are aspects of it which I think are seriously clever and I can't deny that she does a wonderful line in politically incorrect humour (my favourite kind). What troubles me is that the flashes of inspiration are just that — flashes. In between, the coherence and edginess of the vision seems, to my untrained eye, to fall away.
The production begins and ends powerfully. From the overture — which is twinned to a rapidly flashing countdown clock/light show — through the murder and Donna Elvira's entrance, right up until the appearance of Masetto and Zerlina — all that, I basically like. I can't say I love it, but then, lovability isn't the point. And the audacity of the concept is occasionally let down by anticlimactic staging; I'm thinking particularly of the slaying of the Commendatore. For heaven's sake, he pulls an old man out of his wheelchair, stabs him and then merrily wheels himself about in said wheelchair — it could stand to look even more shocking, I think, than it does. All in all, however, it's a pretty strong, occasionally genuinely unsettling (the casual implication that the Don likes really little girls, for instance) beginning.
Innovation returns in the tail end of the piece, when life on earth for Giovanni is really beginning to unravel. I'd say from Donna Elvira's "Mi tradi" to the very end. If you can accept the absence of a physical statue and its supernatural animation; and the replacement of these with a hallucinatory drug habit, then the staging of the dinner part is impressive. Giovanni by now is completely disgusting, dripping revolting looking soup all over his hugely unattractive tracksuit. (I hate tracksuits.) Leporello is manic. The voice comes from above, below, at unnatural volume (Jud Arthur + reverb). Death comes in the form of blindingly bright light — so bright I'd be willing to bet it elicits a letter of two of complaint from staid subscribers in the stalls. (If you saw OA's Alcina, it's brighter than that production's final scene. By quite a lot.) Leporello is left unconscious or possibly dead. The other five run in, aghast. Their sextet is cut.
A suitably disturbing conclusion. I agree with Club Troppo's James Farrell, though, that advance notice of the sextet's absence might have helped its impact. The printed synopsis is (or seems) deliberately ambiguous about its inclusion, possibly with good reason. As it is, those who know the opera aren't sure if it's coming or not and there's an uneasy hesitation before the applause begins properly.
But the middle troubles me, because it doesn't maintain the twisted intensity of the rest. In fact, much of it looks, scary sets and drug references notwithstanding, a lot like any conventional Don Giovanni. Women still fall to the floor every time emotions run a litle high. Masetto and Zerlina's peasant entourage still divides itself neatly by gender. And a Don Giovanni who is supposedly a forcefully physical, sex-obsessed and wired playboy, still seduces Zerlina by singing about her hand from the other side of the stage. To be frank, staging clichés like these bother me even in über-conventional productions; here, they're a real shame, because there was potential for so much more, for grittier, more believably modern action and interaction.
Can't say I'm fond of the sets; jagged, neo-neo-Gothic is fine in principle but in this instance I felt they faded into the background before long. Although on a practical note, the angle of the walls and the mirrors in the dinner scene do make this production unusually easy to appreciate from an obstructed view seat, so my thanks for that. Jennie Tate's costumes, though, are offbeat and appealing. Donna Elvira has the best wardrobe, hands down: endless frills and ruffles, bright, gaudy colours and fabulously silly shoes. It underlines the contrast between fraught Elvira and restrained Anna, who (after an initial appearance in her nightie) is dressed in elegant mourning throughout.
There are other miscellaneous intriguing(ish) ideas. When Giovanni is confronted at the masque — and expresses his indifference to the charges against him — members of the chorus hold up black and white placards displaying a selection of titles of works about Don Juan. Other operas, novels, plays, etc., perhaps a suggestion that while, as his victims claim, the world will know of his deeds, he'll be glorified rather than utterly reviled. And although it's a blackly contemporary setting, most of the weapons — the Commendatore's sword, Masetto's guns — are antiques, which struck the dormant literary scholar in me as a symbol for the futility of outdated notions of morality against this constantly self-updating bad boy. I could be way off.
Ultimately, though, the loss of momentum and innovative vision in the body of this production have left me underwhelmed. That it is a brutal, rather ugly Don Giovanni is not necessarily problematic; but when it becomes brutal, ugly and uninteresting, that's a deal-breaker for me.
- Pretty charmless and ugly, but not quite as vile as it might have been. It could stand to be a whole lot better, however.
- If you're going to have Giovanni die from the mother of all overdoses, maybe consider establishing a serious drug habit for him beforehand. Instead of a couple of casual lines of cocaine followed by Excruciating Pyschadelic Death.
- Note to the props department: it's Baudelaire, not Beaudelaire.
- Who knew Catherine Carby was such a fierce actress? Not me! Amazing!
- The production deserved its outing for the sake of theatrical diversity, but I really hope it's not now going into repertory for the next twenty years. Once here, maybe once in Melbourne — that should do.
- See it for the singing — this is one of the strongest ensembles OA has fielded in a while. Which means, see it before the end of the month. In August the conductor and half the cast will change and who knows if they'll be able to save it the way this lot does.
- Did you know that Elke Neidhardt had a supporting role in Skippy? She was Dr Anna Steiner, bush vet, for nine episodes, after which her character was "referred to in several more episodes, and ... finally mentioned as having gone to Tasmania." And here's the photo to prove it.
More to follow soonish.
Trying, trying, trying to hold my tongue... not sure that it's going to happen. It's still possible that Elke Neidhardt's staging of Don Giovanni will be a better experience than the soundbites she herself is issuing would suggest. Well, I hope it's still possible. These interviews she's giving are putting my teeth on edge, however.
So she has set Don Giovanni in the present day. Gee, how revolutionary. Nobody's done that before. Fair enough, though, I suppose it's the first time this country, or at least this company, has had a 20th/21st century Don Giovanni contend with. Hence the defensive angle of all the press surrounding it. What troubles me is that in explaining herself, she seems to claim that the opera must be approached like this. If she wants to explain the reasons why it's possible, and perhaps desirable, to bring Don Giovanni completely into our own time, then fine, no problem — we want a director who believes in her concept. But when I read statements like "Audiences used to film and television will not, and should not, accept traditional treatment of old material", I baulk. Excuse me? I do, and I believe I should, accept traditional treatment of old material, when the mood takes me. I accept it alongside more controversial approaches, but I don't think there needs to be a mutually exclusive arrangement; nor do I consider my experience of film and television necessarily relevant to my expectations of opera. "Should not" is for audiences to decide, not for Elke.
She tells us that we won't believe in the supernatural elements of Don Giovanni as presented, and that the opera will therefore have no relevance for us. She claims it's necessary to update the opera because as it is, it's preposterous and we, the audience, won't have it. From The Australian comes this gem:
"You cannot do nodding, walking statues in the year 2008," she says. "You would be laughed off the stage anywhere else in the world except in Australia."
Brilliant — she manages to dismiss both the libretto and Australians in one fell swoop. Nicely done. She used the statue as her big, justifying example in the Allerta! article too. This seems like a poor argument to me. She seizes upon one of the opera's rare extremes of supernatural goings on to illustrate its supposed distance from reality, ignoring the fact that 90% of Don Giovanni revolves around real-life interpersonal relationships which we can probably all recognise. I think we (most of us, anyway) are bright enough to figure out those figures in eighteenth-century costumes are people too. Which is not to say modern day stagings shouldn't happen — just that this sense I'm getting from Elke, that they must happen, that they are the only way to make sense of an otherwise ridiculous and obsolete work, does not sit well with me.
And yes, I'm bothered on behalf of the Australian people by these slightly snide asides of hers reminding us how provincial we are. Audiences here are simple folk, apparently. Unsophisticated, which is why we're not appalled when someone takes the libretto at its word and presents a statue who comes to life. Oh, and how silly and laughable that, in the context of a national company which rarely presents nudity, the fact that Elke's Don Giovanni comes with a warning actually draws notice. Because, after all, "In Germany, no one would raise an eyebrow at nudity."
None of this means she's made a bad Don Giovanni, however. I question her motives, but if the result is interesting and doesn't make me want to scream, then I might be prepared to acknowledge that the ends justify the means, to some extent at least. Something which does worry me about her actual conception of the piece, however, is the suggestion in her Allerta! interview that she believes "offending a statue" to be the cause of Don Giovanni's downfall, a concept which, she scornfully laughs (I assume — the article, not surprisingly, doesn't say as much) "would be pretty hard to sell today". Yes, it would, but luckily that's not the concept the opera attempt to sell. Is it? We meet Giovanni on the final day of a life full of unspeakable debauchery and nasty narcissim, an amoral figure who rejoices in the trail of suffering he leaves behind him. It is the day on which all of his victims, all those who've suffered at his hands, and all the bad karma he's accumulated, come for vengeance. That confrontation happens to take the shape of dinner with an animated statue of a man he murdered, but it's pretty clear that what's going on here runs far deeper than a statue in a foul mood.
Besides, when does he offend the statue? He murders the Commendatore, which is a bit more than just offensive; when the statue comes to life, it's with the express mission of serving the Don with the nasty fate he deserves. The fact that Don Giovanni mocks the statue, taunts it, argues with it are besides the point as far as his demise is concerned — that much has been decided before dinner even begins.
I'd like to believe that the problem here is in the translation, that these brief press reports, obviously meant to tantalise and occasionally épater the ticket-buying bourgeoisie, don't properly reflect how much intelligent thought and good judgement has gone into this Don Giovanni. Soundbites are difficult creatures, to be taken with a grain or five of salt. There is one glimmer of hope — the article in The Australian revolves largely around the possibility that this production might drop the moralising sextet finale and go Viennese, ending with the Don's descent. Now that's a decision I can get on board with. I hope she does it. As for the rest, the proof will be in the "black and angular" pudding.
(To save me slotting links in above, the articles I've been citing are as follows:
Directing Don Giovanni a "cow of a job" - Allerta!
Mozart's cad faces a fitting damnation - The Australian
Opera's bad boy strikes raw nerve - Sydney Morning Herald)
Update: ACD has some slightly stronger words on the subject.
I am not falling into my old habits, traipsing across countries or oceans at the drop of a hat in mad pursuit of Australian sopranos. I'd have been happy with my five Sydney Arabellas but since the opportunity of a sixth in Melbourne was offered, I was of course delighted by the prospect. There is no such thing as too much Cheryl Barker. Nor, for that matter, is there such a thing as too much Arabella — at least not this Arabella. John Cox's production is just as endearingly elegant in either setting. The principal cast is thankfully unchanged, which has meant double duty for a couple of the singers — Milijana Nikolic and Lorina Gore sang Adelaide and Fiakermilli respectively on Friday night, then Ulrica and Oscar the following afternoon, a feat for which I most definitely doff my non-existent hat.
The performance I saw was the last of the run. It seems my timing was just right — as I understand it, Peter Coleman-Wright was announced on opening night as singing through a chest infection and subsequently cancelled the next three performances. His cover was Warwick Fyfe, and I concede that, while Warwick's far from a favourite of mine, I can actually see him making quite an effective Mandryka — but the dizzying chemistry of Cheryl and Peter could not, I think, be recreated with half the partnership missing. And since that electricity is one of my favourite aspects of this Arabella, I'm very grateful indeed that Peter was back in health and on stage, as buoyant and teddybearish as ever.
Cheryl Barker was exquisite because she is always exquisite, because being exquisite is what being Cheryl Barker means. No change there, except in the details — no two of her Arabellas have been exactly the same, she is a living, breathing character whom Cheryl creates afresh with each performance. As ever — in Arabella and elsewhere — her voice grew warmer, more expansive, more secure and more enthralling as the evening progressed. She has nailed this role; I hope for the world's sake she's given opportunities to sing it elsewhere.
Failing that, let's just keep her singing it here forever. I'd happily let her lissome, spine-shivering singing keep right on sending me a little further round the bend with every phrase. By the time she says, with perfect coquetry "die drei sind lustiger" I'm already half gone, and at that point we've barely begun. I don't need to point out the aching beauty of the duet with Zdenka; if you don't feel it, then you've a heart of stone which no amount of pointing out could fix. Her "Mein Elemer" is a quicksilver tour de force. "Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein", well, I've already waxed lyrical about this — Peter and Cheryl in duet radiate true love, vocally and physically, with a sincerity almost too potent to bear. She handles the Act Three confrontation with clarity, passion and towering dignity, a commanding presence and yet delicate, lovable and so, so, so beautiful. From opening night in Sydney to closing night in Melbourne, all this has been true of Cheryl throughout; but then, that's just what she does. She's Cheryl. (I'm mad about her. Is it obvious?)
Production, cast, consuming gorgeousness of Cheryl, all this was unchanged. One thing, however, was very, very different in Melbourne — the choice of tempi. I heard Lionel Friend conduct the opera once here in Sydney, when Richard Hickox was home with a virus. There, he was a proxy Hickox. In Melbourne, he is his own man and his conception of this opera is markedly different. This was fast. Sometimes pleasingly so; sometimes not. In parts, Friend's lightning dash did a nice job of draining off a bit of excess syrup (though I don't find this opera as saccharine as some do) and there were times his zippy recitatives did aid the pacing of the piece. All in all, though, he was too fast for me. A good portion of the glow of Arabella emanates from its ecstatic dwelling on gorgeous melodies, and I think it's okay to allow to just sit and radiate for a little while, no need to keep pressing on and on. Not that he denied us all luxury, not at all — but nevertheless I couldn't help but feel a certain impatience simmering beneath even the most drawn out passages.
The other issue with this fast forwarded Arabella — more obvious to me because I had the performances under Hickox for comparison — was its detrimental effect on the staging. Everything was happening faster, which meant that the carefully measured stage business which seemed so well matched to Hickox's performances, now appeared rougher and more rushed. There was a moment when Zdenka had to blurt a final line more or less over her shoulder, just to get off the stage in time. Arabella re-entered the room while the door was still swinging shut behind Matteo. I think Theodor was singing about his bills before even looking at them. And the depictive Act Three prelude turned from fervent to chaotic; evidently Hickox and Friend have very different visions of Zdenka's First Time. The change of pace, while awkward, isn't ever vastly problematic, and if, like a sane person, you've only seen the production in one city or t'other, I don't suppose it's a problem at all. Having seen it at both speeds, though, I can say I absolutely prefer the slower version, both musically and theatrically. Still, I'm pleased to have heard both, as there was much to love in Friend's reading and in the fluid, fabulous playing of Orchestra Victoria, ably assisted by a far kinder acoustic than that of the Opera Theatre.
And it seems I was not the only blogger making the Sydney-Melbourne Arabella road trip. Marcellous was there too, and his post makes more detailed mention of the brisker tempi — apparently Friend's reading of the score took about fifteen minutes off Hickox's time, which seems a pretty significant difference. Marcellous attended the same performance I did, which does make me wonder if he might perchance be the distinctively dressed gentleman whom I often see at concerts and opera here and whom I also happened to spot filing into the State Theatre on Friday night. But no, I suppose that kind of coincidence only happens in opera, not in real life.
Obviously I can't let Opera Australia's concert performance of The Pilgrim's Progress pass without some kind of blog comment. After all, it did involve practically the entire Opera Australia roster. This is not a review as such — I'm writing one of those, when I figure out how on earth to do it, for NZ Opera News. But no sensible print review is going to be able to mention every single singer — there are too many of them (forty-one solo roles!) and too much else about the piece and its performance to talk about. So that's what I thought I'd do here. A sentence at least — often more, because that's what I'm like — for everyone involved. Here goes.
Conal Coad started things off nice and solidly as John Bunyan himself, with gratifyingly clear diction. There was no text provided in the programme, and the Concert Hall can't do surtitles, so we were at the mercy of the performers if we were to have a hope of understanding what was going on. Alan Opie as the Pilgrim began sounding suitably burdened; later his singing grew broader and more lyrical as he moved towards serenity and peace. To do him justice I'd have to mention him about twenty more times in what follows. So just take it as read that he responded brilliantly to all the piece's shifting moods and sang with persuasive passion throughout. And while I'm making sweeping statements — stellar contributions throughout (that's completely an understatement) from the Bach Choir and the Opera Australia Chorus. Shane Lowrencev, who is nine or ten feet tall at least, was a commanding Evangelist. The Four Neighbours were pretty great, with their quickfire cries of "Danger! Back!" — all reappeared later in other roles, with the exception of Graeme Macfarlane, a bit of a shame as a mark in my programme indicates I rather liked him. The Three Shining Ones were Lorina Gore, Taryn Fiebig and Pamela Helen Stephen, who appeared from on high — meaning through a door into the stalls behind the orchestra. A pretty coup de théâtre though it did make them a little difficult to hear or see. It also required them to walk in solemn procession all the way down the steps to the stage in high heels which I was especially impressed by. Audience members in lower heels fall down the stairs quite often. They blended beautifully and wore appropriately sparkly frocks. Henry Choo had the first swoonworthy solo of the evening; this kind of repertoire would seem to be his ideal home. Barry Ryan as Watchful, the Porter followed him with a solo almost as swoonworthy and sung almost without accompaniment. Michael Lewis was sort of frighteningly intense as A Herald, partnered by appropriately triumphant trumpet solo. And speaking of scary, Richard Anderson's unseen, gravelly Apollyon was menacing in the extreme. Two Heavenly Beings then swept in, the shape of Hye Seoung Kwon and Catherine Carby. For my tastes, Catherine was the more genuinely heavenly of the two — she's fast becoming a Mezzo I Like A Lot — but Hye Seoung was very sweet. Kanen Breen, previously the Neighbour Pliable, reappeared in Vanity Fair as Lord Lechery, amazingly resisting the opportunity to completely over-act. He sounded more comfortable vocally than he was a while, even in Vaughan Williams' vastest moments not as swallowed up and tiny as he was in Arabella. Andrew Moran, Charlie Kedmenec, Tom Hamilton and David Corcoran all enjoyed themselves as a group of shady characters. I think I might be beginning to see why the judges so enthusiastically named David Corcoran winner of the McDonald's Aria. Lorina Gore had a chance to slip back into character as Fiakermilli to sing Madame Wanton, though the shining charm of her Fiakermilli wasn't quite so much in evidence here. Alongside her was Pamela Helen Stephen as Madame Bubble. I like Pamela Helen Stephen and only wish there was more of her in the Sydney season — she's Carmen in Melbourne but as far as I can recall, this is her only Sydney appearance for OA this year. Please, Maestro, more nepotism! (Pamela [or does one call her Pamela Helen?] is married to our illustrious Music Director.) Abraham Singer — yes, A. Singer is a singer, and I don't imagine that joke has ever been made before — was brief but effective as Pontius Pilate. Another appearance by David Corcoran as the Usher; I hope those judges are right about his potential, lord knows this company needs another convincing Italianate tenor in its stable. And then Conal Coad as Lord Hate-Good. I liked him better as Bunyan, where he was obliged to be serious; his evil as Lord Hate-Good was a bit much and a bit too buffoonish. Antoinette Halloran made her long-awaited (by me, at any rate) appearance as Malice, and in her Antoinette way, immediately commanded the stage. The little she had to sing sounded fabulous. And there were a million people (well, almost) on stage and all kinds of things going on, but there is something about Antoinette which draws the attention. That said, Dominica Matthews was also pretty commanding, dominating the ensemble with the kind of contralto which Must Be Obeyed. There's a very distinctive Dominica Sound, and it's growing on me. Henry Choo is back, as Superstition. In my programme, I've written "again, swoon" and that doesn't really need elaboration. Richard Anderson is a bit less scary the second time around, as Envy. Matthew Clark has an interminable solo as the Woodcutter's Boy. My apologies, I cannot abide boy sopranos; no doubt he's a good one but I'm afraid I just wanted him gone. When he was, Kanen Breen was back yet again. This time in the most characterful of his roles, Mr By-Ends. This piece really is a good choice for him. The oiliness which irritated me no end in his Elemer is completely right here, and in any case, more refined. His wife, Madam By-Ends was lovely Catherine Carby, gleefully misbehaving. And after all havoc and raucous mischief of the Vanity Fair scene, we moved into its polar opposite — a totally gorgeous, serene and perfect encounter between the Pilgrim and Three Shepherds. Henry Choo was lilting as ever. Shane Lowrencev also good. But oh. Joshua Bloom. Here was the highlight of my evening, the moment of enraptured enchantment. What can I say? We know I'm his fan, despite his not being even slightly a soprano. He has one of the most beautiful voices I know of, male or female; and I am happy to find that he is as utterly engaging in solemn mode as he is in comedy. While I recovered, a few non allegorical solos. Solo Soprano was Hye Seoung Kwon, more compelling than she had been as a Heavenly Being; it was a nice change to hear her in something which required real thrust and power rather than smiling prettiness. Pamela Helen Stephen in her third frock of the night was a passionate Solo Alto. As the Solo Tenor, Kanen Breen back yet again — I've said all I need to already. Then more Lorina Gore, on the quiet side as the Voice of a Bird. And David Corcoran as a Celestial Messenger which means the Pilgrim's journey is over at last. Conal Coad as John Bunyan returned, a little woollier before but still making his point. Then a silent re-entrance from Alan Opie and the piece comes to its radiant conclusion.
The other women of Arabella
I did say in my first Arabella post that I would save comment on the singers-who-aren't-Cheryl for my review, but (as is my wont and my prerogative) I have changed my mind. Having spent two evenings and a matinée with them, a few among them deserve further attention; not to mention a bit of the uncritical adoration which this forum allows.
Lorina Gore is a blinding revelation to me. Though Fiakermilli is her Opera Australia début, I have heard her once before — as Norina in NZ Opera's touring Don Pasquale. As I recall, I was about the only person not to give her a total rave; I found her pretty and polished but not phenomenal. Fiakermilli is another story; whether the transformation owes itself to her own artistic and vocal progress, to the different repertoire, to the change in venue, or to all or none of the above — or whether it's just me, being my usual capricious self — I've no idea. But a transformation it certainly is, and she well nigh knocked my socks off on opening night. Here, operagods be praised, is the kind of full voiced, ringing, precise and genuinely virtuosic coloratura I've found disappointingly lacking from Opera Australia. Not an overpushed soubrette, not an agile but essentially lyric voice; she's the stuff of which Zerbinettas are made — indeed, having discovered she's out there, I'm keener than ever for an Ariadne. I wish she'd sung Olympia in last year's Hoffmann; and I hope Opera Australia plans to take sensible but full advantage of her talent, which is a rare one among their current stable.
I have already lamented the paucity of opportunities to hear Jacqueline Dark in this city. The fortune teller is another too small role but at least it affords a reasonable opportunity to hear her at full throttle, and I'm increasingly aware of what a pleasure this is. What impressed me in her Tisbe impresses me here too, which is that underpinning the rather gorgeous voice is a real idiomatic intelligence, an understanding of style and of phrasing. She struck me in Cenerentola as one of the few who knew how to make her recitative as lyrical and expressive as her arioso and her ensembles; how to integrate it into the musical whole, rather than chopping it up with the mannerisms of speech. In Arabella she carries those long, long Strauss lines exactly where they need to go without glossing over the details; we can enjoy the dialogue between her and Adelaide while simultaneously enjoying the opportunity Strauss offers to bask in two contrastingly lovely mezzo voices.
Which brings me to the other mezzo of Arabella, the ever more significant Milijana Nikolic. Every role I hear Milijana in leaves me more impressed by her — a real dramatic mezzo with the vocal heft, the range of colours and the versatile, vivid stage presence to do justice to the roles which should become her bread and butter. From a genuinely terrifying Zia Principessa, to a ghostly yet imposing Mother of Antonia, to a toweringly seductive Venus and now a hilarious and adorable Adelaide — she's fast becoming a very important part of the company, and I look forward to more and more and more of her. As I think we've already discussed in the comments elsewhere, Opera Australia looks to be doing Aida next year, and I can think of no better Amneris among the company.
And, just briefly, the one-and-only Arabella of Arabella
Fear not, you shan't have reprise of my last paean just yet. However I did my (delectable) duty post-matinée on Saturday, and queued in the foyer to have my programme signed by divine Cheryl Barker. Who arrived, let me add, in full Act Three costume — she only had twenty minutes to get from curtain call to signing session. We're talking lavish and lacy Viennese ballgown, hoop skirt and all, and flowers in her hair. She looked like a dream, was delightful to speak with, and I'm crazier about her than ever. She was also signing at the ABC Shop in the QVB today, so I hope some of the Cherylites reading this blog managed to take advantage of one (or both!) of these chances to enter the the radiant Presence Of.
I have the following problems with Cheryl Barker —
Strauss is eye-closing music, but I couldn't close my eyes to Cheryl's Arabella if I tried.
She keeps going blurry at just the moments I most wish to see her clearly. Curse you, tear glands!
She's messing with my senses. Peripheral vision — gone. It takes real effort to see what's around her. Sense of hot and cold — hard to tell, what with all the goosebumps, etc. Sense of hearing — is the famously consumptive audience actually coughing less? Or am I just oblivious? Oh, and rationality is shot too. On Saturday afternoon I will spend three hours looking mostly at a wall, perhaps the odd glimpse of stage; I appear to be happy and excited about this.
The operas she sings in end.
I came to her first Arabella already besotted. I expected the greatest of great things from her. I expected absolute gorgeousness. I expected a three dimensional and utterly believable Arabella for whom I could instantly fall head over heels. I expected that voice which is oh-so-Cheryl and oh-so-thrilling to be in full bloom and knock me over. It's difficult to imagine higher expectations than mine; so how, exactly, did she manage still to surpass them? Or perhaps I mean, to transcend them. She was all the above but more importantly, she was Cheryl and she was Arabella. If singing opera is just a job, she did her job to perfection; if it is an art then she is an artist of the first magnitude.
Little things mean a lot. She is supremely talented at pretending to look out a window. She colours the word "nein" during the lead-in to her duet with Mandryka in a way which manages, in one syllable, to express the entire character and emotional life of Arabella. When others are singing to her, she doesn't "react", she actually reacts, word by word, phrase by phrase. It is an actual conversation. She twirls gorgeously on the dance floor. Her voice blazes brighter the deeper in love she falls and when she reaches that final, crucial phrase — "Take me as I am" — it's a wonder the theatre doesn't just come crashing down. If we clapped hard enough, it might. We did try, I think. I did. (But they discourage long ovations at the Opera House. They bring the curtain down and the house lights up and give you no choice but to shut up and go home.)
And while I do not for a second doubt her acting abilities, it adds to the moving splendour of it all that she is actually in love with her Mandryka, and he with her. Husband and wife on stage together does not in and of itself guarantee electricity, but in this case, it's most definitely there. Never more so than in their Act Two duet. They pledge undying love to one another. Still in character, but with such palpable sincerity and affection that it seems almost intrusive to sit there and witness it. It's a moment of almost unbearable (and thus, completely and wonderfully bearable) beauty. Intense, but tranquil and assured; quite unforgettable.
The me of this moment would like to reach back in time and smack the me of October 2006 around the head, for hearing her Jenufa and not immediately feeling her exquisite power. I'm making up for it now, and then some. I cannot believe my luck — our luck — to have such a luminous and fascinating artist practically at our doorstep and fulfilling dream after dream. Just for now, forget I'm a foreigner and let me be Australian, so that I can say with pride: Cheryl is ours, and we adore her.
Quite often at the opera, people in neighbouring seats feel moved — perhaps because I am toute seule and not grey-haired — to ask me if I am "enjoying it". I'm effusive if I am, and as polite as possible if I'm not. Nobody asked me that during Arabella on Friday night, and thank god — an innocent, friendly question might have landed them with a sobbing stranger to deal with. I actually held myself together quite well during Act One; it wasn't until the curtain came down that I found myself in a semi-paralytic haze, unable to understand how the people around me could just return happily to chattering about nothing and turn their attention to interval drinks. I coped, I got up and walked out into the foyer, but I was only half there. The rest of me was somewhere else; Vienna, I suppose.
And if anything, Act One was the warm up. It got better and better and better and... you get the idea. Of course, it had a lot going for it on paper: a top shelf cast, for the most part; an eminent opera director with a special affinity for Strauss; Richard Hickox; and of course, the fact that it is an opera by Richard Strauss — which is certainly a guarantee of my happiness, and of many other felicities besides. They're not what made it amazing, though; something else happened — the alchemy of opera. This was opera in the ideal sense, the perfect blend of drama and music which gives neither primacy but instead creates a single, transcendent whole which is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. I have read about these sorts of evenings; until Friday, I'd never had one of my own. Which is not to say I haven't experienced some truly amazing performances; but there has been nothing so totally out of this world as Arabella, nothing which, twenty-four hours later, had me still going about in a sort of haze.
I've yet to write my proper review. This will either be incredibly easy or incredibly difficult to do, and I shan't know which until I sit down and start. In the meantime, all that I can think of to do is share a few scattered thoughts — aspects of this Arabella which contributed to, or perhaps grew out of, its unfathomable beauty.
For one thing, I have decided to blame the unremitting dullness of the current Un ballo in maschera on the revival director, and perhaps on the cast; Ballo, like this Arabella, is a John Cox production and it's obvious to me now that anything boring or foolish about the direction couldn't possibly be his fault.
On a related note, heaven be praised — a ball scene without nine billion people on stage. Francesca Zambello's Carmen piled the crowds in at every possible opportunity; the ball in Arabella simply suggests a crowd rather than squeezing the lot of them in. Much, much better; we don't care about the crowd, after all, we care about what's happening on the outskirts between Arabella and Mandryka.
Obviously my reaction to this opera isn't anything like an impartial one; a lot of what has made it such a landmark for me is quite personal. For instance, though he has been one of my most adored composers for years, this was my first live Richard Strauss opera. I've long been in love with the sound world he creates — both in the lush and pretty pieces like Arabella and Der Rosenkavalier, and in the big loud things like Salome and Elektra — but this, in a way, was my first time really living in that world. Oh, there was Zarathustra last year, and the Four Last Songs, but they aren't the same thing. When I learned to love Rosenkavalier, a whole new realm opened up to me and I feel a little as if with Arabella I've finally stepped properly into it. And it was a reminder of how strong my affection for Strauss is; though a relatively new opera to me, in a way it was like coming home.
Having not seen much more of Arabella than a still here and there, I had the wrong idea about her. I imagined somebody quite solemn and sensible, upright and virtuous. She is a very good person, but that shows itself in ways I hadn't anticipated. Her wit, her playfulness, her endearing strength of character made me not just admire her, but adore her too; she was far less distant than I expected. If I might mix genres for just a moment — I expected Jane Bennett and was delighted to find I'd got Lizzie instead.
What I haven't mentioned yet, of course, is the singing. Funny that. Commenting on individual performances feels sort of beside the point. Not that I can claim to have been totally enraptured and oblivious; I am me, after all. There were a couple who were average, several who were superb, and one who was so staggeringly, monumentally beautiful that I'm still getting my head around her. I'll save all of them for my review, except the last — and she deserves, and shall receive, a post to herself. To follow.
Devotion being what it is, I steeled myself to suffer (or at least yawn) through a second Carmen just to see the Escamillo of Joshua Bloom. Of course I needn't have been such a martyr about it because, as usual, I was wrong. Not that I have suddenly developed a great affection for the opera, or that I wasn't bored or irritated in parts. Still not my kind of opera, still not a gripping production. But I liked it better than the first. The opera hasn't changed, but the singers have.
Most notable among the changes — Kirstin Chavez has now been replaced in the title role by Catherine Carby. There's little doubt that Kirstin is by far the more obvious and ideal choice; a dream of a Carmen, born for the role. Catherine Carby, on the other hand, is not at all an obvious Carmen. She does, however, have a voice which suits me down to the ground. Does she sound like an earthy, free-spirited gypsy girl? Hardly. Is she the kind of mezzo I like best? Absolutely. This is the first proper opportunity I've had to hear and see Catherine properly and at length and I'm delighted with her. She was a nice reminder that for all my grumbling, I don't actually hate this opera; it's mostly indifference, and so a voice which I'm drawn to can shake me out of that somewhat. Catherine's Carmen is a little on the stiff side, especially when it comes to the writhing, leg-spreading moments — none of Kirstin's easy, overwhelming sensuality — but she's good humoured, and does an excellent line in stubbornly out-thrust chin. That doesn't make her a Great Carmen, but it makes me like her; and it augurs well for her performances later in the season of another Spanish woman, one she's better suited for — Donna Elvira.
A new Micaela, too. I heartily applaud the switch and can only say, it ought to have been the other way around. Opening night audiences ought to have had the privilege of Tiffany Speight, who sings the role the way it ought to be sung — with full-bodied lyricism and a sweetness underpinned by steely determination. Nothing mousy, or fragile, or cloying. It's a year since I last heard Tiffany (as Susanna) and I'd forgotten how much I liked her. Micaela seems to me a female equivalent to Don Ottavio — easily made irritating and insipid, but in the right hands, exciting and lovely. Tiffany's is a Micaela after my own heart, and I thank her for it.
By the time Escamillo arrived, Joshua seemed almost like a wonderful bonus than the main event. He was glorious as ever. There's not much left for me to say about him, and what there is I think I'd better reserve for his Leporello in August. Escamillo is not exactly a perfect fit, but, as with Catherine's Carmen, that's fine with me. If impossible smoothness and glitzy egotism aren't traits he naturally projects, so much the better. Meanwhile his voice is a gift from the heavens and his presence on stage an unalloyed pleasure.
But enough of this. Forget Carmen. Come Monday, I know I will. Something big happens on Monday.