The speed with which Gaetano Donizetti wrote his operas almost defies belief, especially in our more leisurely age of composition. Don Pasquale (1843), as we know, was written in eleven days. When Donizetti, newly contracted to Teatro San Carlo, fetched up in Naples in May 1835, he had already written fifty operas. He was thirty-seven years old. Recent triumphs included Anna Bolena (1830), L'elisir d'amore (1832), and Lucrezia Borgia (1833).

This time, because of the intransigence of San Carlo, he had to hold his horses. The libretto was not forthcoming until July. Six weeks later, Lucia di Lammermoor was finished. The première at San Carlo on 26 September 1837 was another success for the composer from Bergamo. Tacchinardi Persiani was Lucia; Gilbert-Louis Duprez, inventor of the chestful high C, Edgardo. Donizetti wrote excitedly to Ricordi, his publisher: 'Lucia ... allow me amicably to be immodest and tell the truth ... pleased the audience, and pleased it very much, if I am to believe in the applause and in the compliments I received ... Every number was listened to in religious silence then hailed with spontaneous cheers.'

Donizetti never apologised for his native celerity. Pressure suited him, and he knew it. 'You know what my motto is? Quickly! It may be reprehensible, but the good things I've written were always written quickly: and often the accusation of carelessness is made against the music that cost me most time.'

The (belated) librettist, in this occasion, was Salvatore Cammarano. It was their first collaboration; seven more operas would follow. Cammarano later worked with Verdi: Luisa Miller (1849), recently performed in Sydney to much acclaim, and soon to be repeated in Melbourne (with the sensational Nicole Car in the title role), was their third opera together. The Lucia libretto is a famous invention: brisk, cogent, telling. Cammarano adapts Sir Walter Scott's novel The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), which was based on a true story from the seventeenth century. The librettist, sensing the opportunity for another fashionable mad scene, transplants the cowering, historical Jane Dalrymple from the conjugal bedroom to the wedding banquet. Obliging directors from Franco Zeffirelli on have splattered her with blood, to ram home the point. (Here there was so much gore it was hard to see the virgin nightie.)

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The Donizetti moment shows no sign of abating. Long gone is the age – century really – when Lucia was practically the only Donizetti opera (he wrote sixty-seven in all before going insane at the age of forty-seven) that was frequently performed. Nowadays at least a dozen are in the operatic repertoire. The Metropolitan Opera, in its current season, is offering at least five of them, including the three Tudor Queens – Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda (1834), and Roberto Devereux (1835) – all sung (in a rare feat) by the American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky (to great effect, judging by the recent Met broadcast of Anna Bolena). Last year, Arts Update was at the Glyndebourne Festival, which opened with Donizetti's embattled Roman opera Poliuto (1848, after many vicissitudes) – the first time it had been seen in Britain, but not a ringing success in Mariame Clément's lugubrious production.

Both Opera Australia and Melbourne Opera have several Donizettis in their repertoire. Melbourne Opera will follow last year's highly successful Maria Stuarda) with Anna Bolena in October 2016.

Lucia, of course, has been a staple since Joan Sutherland reintroduced it to Australians. Half a century has passed since those legendary performances around Australia during the Sutherland–Williamson tour. One veteran told Arts Update that there were fewer T-shirts in the foyer at Her Majesty's on 10 July 1965 – the Melbourne première. Sutherland repeated it here in 1980, at the Palais; a further Sydney season followed in 1986. Of the recent Australian Lucys, Emma Matthews is the most notable.

Charles Osborne, noting the opera's longevity, has written: 'Lucia di Lammermoor, by far the finest and most successful of Donizetti's serious operas, is the epitome of the bel canto style and is unlikely to go out of favour with audiences as long as there are dramatic coloratora sopranos with the technique, agility and range to surmount the difficulties of Lucia's celebrated mad scene.'

Jessica Pratt's return to the company was much anticipated, especially after her magnificent Elvira in last year's concert version of I Puritani. Previously, Pratt has only sung here in one full production (La Traviata, 2014). Pratt, though only thirty-six, has already sung in umpteen productions of Lucia. Like Melba and Sutherland, she has performed it at La Scala.

Cameron Menzies' production is faithful to the story and sturdily old-fashioned. Would it have looked very different on 10 July 1965, Arts Update wondered. There is a fountain, there are lengths of tartan, and there is a grand curved staircase (up and down which Pratt, unlike the stricken Sutherland, chooses not to run). Smoke billows, moodily. We have a skull and a rubied goblet. The costumes and wigs, not always flattering, announce that we are in Scotland in the seventeenth century.


Victorian Opera 2016 Lucia di Lammermoor high res Jeff Busby 4 Jessica Pratt and Carlos E. Bárcenas in Lucia di Lammermoor (photograph by Jeff Busby)

 

All night the direction seems wanting. Between the principals there is little rapport, especially during Lucia and Edgardo's duet in the second scene of Act I. Even natural singing actors like José Carbó (as the nefarious brother, Enrico) seem rather at sea. The mad scene is absorbing, but not as memorable or unsettling as it should be. Lucia plays with her veil and knife – but not the madness itself. The wedding guests, strangely placid, don't recoil from the rambling Lucia, covered in gore. No one thinks to grab her knife. When, mad scene over, Lucia approaches Enrico, weapon raised, he hardly reacts.

Pratt's singing on opening night did not rival her form in last year's Bellini. Some of the high notes seemed effortful and mannered, à la Edita Gruberová: they interrupted the drama, drew to attention to themselves. Things improved during the duet that followed her opening aria – the magnificent scena culminating in Verranno a te – though the tenor chose to cap it with a high note that defied classification – one with a will of its own. Pratt's ensuing duet with her brother was a highlight (these two duets are among the best things Donizetti wrote). Carbó – Pratt's Germont père in 2014 – brought his fine Verdian baritone and exemplary diction to this unpleasant role, and was vocally impressive. The wedding scene was suitably tense, as Lucy is deceived into marrying Arturo (foppishly played by the welcomely extrovert Michael Petrucelli), and the famous sextet upon Edgardo's discovery of his usurpation was beautifully shaped and sung.

The acoustic at Her Majesty's is not warm; even in row F in the stalls there was a lack of fullness or amplitude in the voices. Arts Update wonders how clearly the singers can hear one another and the band on that stage.

Still, Donizetti animates and melodises all his characters, however minor. Shakira Tsindos was a striking Alisa. Jud Arthur, as Lucia's chaplain, Raimondo, was heard at his best, and looked the part.

The orchestra, conducted by Richard Mills, played beautifully. The harpwork before Lucia's Regnava del silenzio was exceptional, as were the horns. In the coup de théâtre of the evening, Mills honoured Donizetti's original, abandoned intention to use a glass harmonica (Benjamin Franklin's invention) in the mad scene, not the accommodating flute. This unearthly sound suited Lucia's fragility, which is always underscored by the orchestration that accompanies her. None of the coloratura in this long, famous, exacting aria bothered Jessica Pratt; nor did the closing cabaletta, Spargi d'amaro pianto.

Young Colombian tenor Carlos E. Bárcenas – not an instinctive actor, it must be said –was nonetheless a fine Edgardo, despite the role's difficult tessitura. Bárcenas's diction was clear, the high notes generally accurate. Edgardo – naturally jealous and suspicious, vengeful as the next Italian tenor – is not a sympathetic character, but Bárcenas impressed.

Jessica Pratt in Lucia di Lammermoor photograph by Jeff BusbyJessica Pratt in Lucia di Lammermoor (photograph by Jeff Busby)

 

For many listeners, the drama effectively ends with Lucia's collapse. Indeed, the long ovations that often follow the mad scene can make the third scene of Act II seem anti-climactic. But there is nothing otiose about this concluding and highly neurotic scene in which Edgar, morose in the tombs of Ravenswood, warns Lucia that she should on no account walk his way with her groom, only to kill himself when he learns of Lucia's demise. Edgardo's two arias, Fra poco a me ricovero and Tu che a Dio spiegusti l'ali, are among the finest things in this exceptional opera, especially the latter (which, according to legend, Joan Sutherland once sang at a party). Bárcenas gamely interpolated a high C in Tu che a Dio spiegusti l'ali.

The chorus was consistently good, notably in the ashen chorus that precedes the mad scene, which was taken slowly, full of feeling, without bombast – true to the spirit of bel canto.

Lupinists will miss the Wolf's Crag scene, which was savagely cut.

Last week Arts Update was in Sydney for the new production of Giacomo Puccini's final opera, Turandot – the fifth opera in the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour series. What a phenomenon this series is: the current production will be performed twenty-seven times before it closes on 24 April, while the main company goes on presenting operas in the Opera House. Even on an overcast night, rain threatening, it was an amazing experience to sit there watching opera, with the mighty bridge beyond. The grandstand wasn't full, but it was a decent-sized audience, involved and appreciative.

Happily, Chen Shi-Zheng's production is a decided improvement on last year's meretricious Aida. The sound (oppressive in 2015) is noticeably better. Even outdoors, the principals retained their individual timbres, and the many choruses came through undistorted.

The set on the raked stage is much more coherent than last year's camp fright. On the left, a dragon twice breathed fire. At the rear of the stage looms a high pagoda – redoubt of Princess Turandot, always enraged by the rape and murder of an ancient ancestress – and with a seeming horror of sex. Turandot's entrances are spectacular, the gradual descents more precarious as the lowered staircase shudders like an old Paris lift.

turandot photograph by prudence-uptonTurandot (photograph by Prudence Upton)

 

Handa Operas require alternative casts. This one featured three fine principals, all worth hearing. The chorus, which has much work to do, sang well; the lunar chorus in Act 1 was especially good. Serbian soprano Dragana Radakovic – a seasoned Abigaille, Tosca, and Aida – survived the hellish music that Puccini gives Turandot. In questa reggia and the massive singing that follows, as Turandot resists and taunts and gradually succumbs to Calaf, were accurate and powerful, and Radakovic was suitably imposing and flamboyant. Riccardo Massi – heard here in La forza del destino in 2013, as Radames at the Met the year previous – was an impassioned Calaf. Nessun dorma was ringingly sung. (Followed the obligatory fireworks.) It will be good to hear Massi as Rodolfo in Luisa Miller next month. Liù, the slave girl, has some of the most beautiful music Puccini ever wrote. Hyeseoung Kwon was convincing in this small but affecting role: Signor, ascolta was a highlight of the night.

Brian Castles-Onion conducted the hidden orchestra and drew fine, rhythmic playing.

Turandot, with its remote characters and fanciful scenario, is not everyone's favourite opera, but Puccini wrote some of his finest tunes for it, and the orchestration as ever is incomparable.

Lucia di Lammermoor, composed by Gaetano Donizetti, directed by Cameron Menzies, for Victorian Opera. Season continues at Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne, until 21 April 2016. Performance attended: 12 April.

Turandot on Sydney Harbour, composed by Giacomo Puccini, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, for Opera Australia. The Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour continues until 24 April 2016. Performance attended: 7 April.

Arts Update is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.

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In this era of the jukebox musical, it is not surprising that the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century equivalent, the pasticcio opera, should be undergoing a revival. A couple of seasons ago, New York's Metropolitan Opera created a version, The Enchanted Island, which received a mainly positive response. Now Musica Viva and Victorian Opera have combined to produce their own version, Voyage to the Moon.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, opera scores and libretti were not set in stone. Amendments and additions were constantly made. Star singers travelled with what were called trunk arias, favorite showstoppers that they would insert willy-nilly into any opera they were performing. Mozart himself wrote alternate arias for singers to interpolate into his operas. Not too long ago, Cecilia Bartoli caused a mini-sensation and had a major falling out with director Jonathan Miller by insisting on singing Susanna's alternative arias in a Met production of Le Nozze di Figaro. Even Wagner got into the act, writing an extra aria for the priest Oroveso in Bellini's Norma.

Given the overwhelming demand for new works, it was only a small step to cobble together some sort of plot, insert already written arias, which would suit the available singers, and ecco – the pasticcio was born.

The producers of Voyage to the Moon have gone about its creation in a considerably less ad hoc way than their seventeenth-century equivalents would have done. They had the sense to involve the playwright and director Michael Gow and the very distinguished conductor and musicologist Alan Curtis, whose sudden and untimely death was a blow which the creative team have triumphantly overcome. One of the challenges of creating a pasticcio is bringing together a collection of arias and ensembles that are varied but sufficiently similar in approach so that there is a sense of stylistic unity, something that the first performances of The Enchanted Island apparently lacked. Even though the composers chosen by Curtis and his team range from Vivaldi, born in 1678, to Gluck, born in 1741, there is no sense of stylistic incompatibility.

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Voyage to the Moon (photograph by Jeff Busby)Voyage to the Moon (photograph by Jeff Busby)

 

Michael Gow has taken a section from that favorite work of baroque librettists, Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, as a basis for his plot. The knight Orlando has been driven mad by his unrequited love for the princess Angelica and is preparing to create havoc. With help of a handy magician, Orlando's friend Astolfo travels to the moon to regain Orlando's sanity from the lunar princess Selena. Although Selena is at first resistant, Astolfo wins her over with his devotion and triumphantly returns to Earth to deliver Orlando from his madness. Given the simplicity of the plot, there is mercifully little need for the endless recitatives that bog down performances of original baroque operas, and Voyage to the Moon proceeds at a brisk pace.

The production has been designed to tour and the set, such as it is, and lighting are extremely basic. It is left to Christina Smith's costumes to give us some sense of the visual extravagance with which pasticcios would have originally been staged.

On the opening night in Sydney (the piece has already played in Melbourne) the three soloists threw themselves into their roles with such energy and conviction that they carried all before them. Doubling as Orlando and Serena, Emma Matthews seemed at the start a little uneasy. In her first aria, De Majo's Tutto tremar doviete, there was a slight and most uncharacteristic sense of forcing, but Matthews quickly settled down and her final bravura aria, Hasse's O placido il mare, was sensational, showing off her range and extraordinary vocal flexibility. Once into her stride she demonstrated yet again why she is one of Australia's most popular performers. It is to be hoped Opera Australia have plans for her in future seasons.

When it came to bravura singing, Sally-Anne Russell also proved herself to be no slouch, but the highlight of her performance was an exquisitely sung version of Cleopatra's mournful aria Piangerò la sorte mia from Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto. The young bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman was in no way outperformed by his more experienced colleagues. With a rich sound, an understanding of the baroque style, superb diction, and an imposing presence, Kleeman made much of a rather nebulous character.

Victorian Opera 2016 - Voyage to the Moon High Res - Jeff Busby  14Voyage to the Moon (photograph by Jeff Busby)

 

The singers were supported by an instrumental ensemble ably led by Phoebe Briggs, whose sprightly playing was mercifully not accompanied b the somewhat anaemic sound produced by some baroque ensembles.

For those of us who approach four hours of baroque opera with a certain trepidation, pasticcio is the perfect alternative. Let's hope this is the first of many.

Voyage to the Moon, written and directed by Michael Gow, is a collaboration between Musica Viva and Victorian Opera. Performances continue in Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra, Perth, and Adelaide until 12 March 2016. Performance attended: 22 February (Sydney).

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    In this era of the jukebox musical, it is not surprising that the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century equivalent, the pasticcio opera, should be undergoing a revival. A couple of seasons ago, New York's Metropolitan Opera created a version, The Enchanted Island, which received a mainly ...

  • Review Rating 3.5
Monday, 20 July 2015 09:44

Sweeney Todd (Victorian Opera)

In the argument over the programming of Broadway musicals by Australia’s opera companies, it is usually assumed that audiences know the difference between the two forms. But even superficial markers can be misleading. Bizet’s Carmen (1875) uses dialogue and song forms that are traditionally associated with the musical, but is classified as an opéra comique. When it was transposed into English as Carmen Jones (1943), with even less dialogue than the original, it was inexplicably classified as a musical. Stephen Sondheim himself, notoriously indifferent to opera, acknowledges the arbitrary nature of categories in his book Finishing the Hat (2010): ‘When Porgy and Bess was performed on Broadway it was a musical; when it was performed at … Covent Garden it was an opera.’

It may, therefore, be of little comfort to lovers of both forms that Victorian Opera has chosen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (1979) as the final in their trilogy of works by this towering figure of the American stage. While it shares some of the qualities attributed to opera and to musicals, it takes most of its musical cues from another medium altogether: the film score.

From the roiling chords of the organ and piercing factory whistle that open the play to the racing hysteria of the final notes, the piece is driven by the brooding underscoring throughout; it is a source of tension and dread that serves as a love letter to the film scores of Bernard Herrmann. Orchestra Victoria, under the baton of Phoebe Briggs, plays sensitively and with great force.

The tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, is deeply rooted in the penny dreadfuls and Grand Guignol that captivated late Victorian audiences, a precursor to the cheap thrills of film horror. Sondheim’s musical adaptation picked up on playwright Christopher Bond’s additions to the myth: namely, Sweeney’s motivation for murder.

Sweeney Todd Victorian Opera (photograph by Jeff Busby) The cast of Sweeney Todd (photograph by Jeff Busby)

Todd (Teddy Tahu Rhodes), a transportee, returns to London from Australia fixated on vengeance, after his wrongful conviction at the hands of the noxious Judge Turpin (Phillip Rhodes). His wife is dead and his daughter, Johanna (Amelia Berry), is now the judge’s ward and prisoner. He soon reconnects with his former landlady Mrs Lovett (Antoinette Halloran), a pie-maker of dubious skill and an eye for opportunity.

‘While it shares some of the qualities attributed to opera and to musicals, it takes most of its musical cues from another medium altogether: the film score’

Todd has two crooning love songs early in the piece, a brief one on the subject of his wife and a more passionate one on the subject of his razors, entitled ‘My Friends’. It is disturbing to note his priorities. Later, too, Todd will sing of his new barber’s chair – which will send random innocent throats into the depths – that ‘I have another friend’. His anthropomorphic fetish of implements of violence gives an indication of his psychopathy.

It is a relentlessly bleak and bloody-minded part, alienating and strangely detached from the action, yet requiring a singular, fervent purpose. While Rhodes is certainly up to it musically, it may be beyond his dramatic range as an actor. Physically and vocally Rhodes dominates the stage, but he struggles to anchor the play emotionally.

Halloran, on the other hand, is revelatory as Mrs Lovett. Capable of fierce bursts of determination, she keeps her black heart veiled by a sunny charm, rather like those deep-sea predators that use phosphorescence as a bait for their terrifying jaws. Her moments of genuine maternal feeling only serve to highlight her dreadful nature. She is more than a match for Sweeney, and often threatens to walk off with the whole production.

Victorian Opera 2015 - Sweeney Todd photograph by Jeff Busby(photograph by Jeff Busby)

The rest of the cast is strong and the singing, not surprisingly, is uniformly excellent. Berry and Blake Bowden as Antony make a sweet, lyrical pair of lovers and Ross Hannaford’s Tobias, from a timid start, grows admirably with his misplaced ode to loyalty, ‘Not While I’m Around’. Kanen Breen is magnificent as the Beadle, unctuous and menacing, like a poisonous lizard.

‘His anthropomorphic fetish of implements of violence gives an indication of his psychopathy’

Roger Kirk’s design is pitch perfect, a palpably grimy Victorian London that also suggests a gateway to hell, aided immeasurably by Philip Lethlean’s creepy lighting. The resources that have gone into the staging – notably absent from Victorian Opera’s previous Sondheim productions – pay off handsomely, and Stuart Maunder’s direction is mercifully light on his usual predilection for cheap laughs and broad characterisation.

Sweeney Todd is largely about class warfare; it tells a tale of injustice and inequality erupting into uncontrollable violence and bloodshed. That motivation may be a domestic one, a rogue individual’s misguided attempt to right a wrong, but the wider implications are still clear. They are also disturbingly relevant, which may go some way to explaining the enduring popularity of this blackest of musical thrillers.

It wasn’t always so. The original Broadway production was a financial disaster, but over time Sweeney Todd has proved one of Sondheim’s most popular works. Its gruesome blend of high and low culture seems strangely apt for the stages of Victorian Opera after all.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: A Musical Thriller, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Stuart Maunder directs for Victorian Opera. Season runs from 16–25 July 2015 at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne. Performance attended 18 July.

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    In the argument over the programming of Broadway musicals by Australia’s opera companies, it is usually assumed that audiences know the difference between the two forms. But even superficial markers can be misleading. Bizet’s Carmen (1875) uses dialogue and song forms that are traditionally associated with the musical, but is classified as an

  • Review Rating 4.0