Visiting superstars, theatre renovations, a maestro exposed and the untimely death of a beloved international baritone dominate the 2017 year of opera.
After a brave two-year battle with brain cancer, Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky sadly lost his life in November this year. An international superstar, Hvorostovsky (below) was loved not just for the rich, burnished timbre of his singing voice, but also for his excellent acting skills and magnetic stage presence. Hvorostovsky’s loss will continue to be felt on the world opera stage; fortunately, he leaves behind a great many video and audio recordings of his magnificent body of work.
Ripples of shock emanated from the United State’s premier opera institution in December when long-term conductor and former musical director James Levine was accused of past acts of sexual abuse. The Metropolitan Opera suspended Levine ahead of an enquiry, with other associated institutions following suit. Levine’s suspension involved him missing conducting the new production of Tosca, set to premiere on New Year’s Eve. The investigation will continue into 2018.
In October, opera’s most high profile diva Anna Netrebko made her Australian debut with concert recitals entitled An Evening of Opera Highlights. Accompanied on the tour by her husband Yusif Eyvazov, a fine tenor himself, acclaimed soprano Netrebko delivered unforgettable performances by giving of herself without restraint. The program showed respect for the knowledgeable taste of local opera lovers, and Netrebko’s superb vocals were complemented by duets with Eyvazov and guest baritone Elchin Azizov.
Opera Australia started the year with their annual season of La bohème, taking advantage of the chance to showcase soprano Nicole Car as Mimì before she becomes fully booked overseas [note: Car will be seen on BBC on Christmas Day opposite Michael Fabiano in a screening of the new Royal Opera production of La bohème]. OA’s struck gold in the summer return of La Traviata when acclaimed Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho appeared for part of the season as Violetta.
The well-attended Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour presented a return season of the 2013 production of Carmen. While the company regularly engages revival directors for return seasons, the decision to exclude director Gale Edwards and team when they were keen to return seemed rather unfair; a change to the direction of the ending caused related controversy.
In autumn, Melbourne was treated to the lively, colourful new John Bell production of Carmen (below), which featured an outstanding lead performance from highly experienced mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham. Next, OA presented the Royal Opera’s 2015 production of Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci. Intelligent direction from Damiano Michieletto molded the two separate one-act operas into a cleverly integrated whole. Karol Syzmanowski’s King Roger received its Australian premiere, offered the rare chance for local audiences to hear opera sung in Polish. The excellent cast received praise, as did Opera Australia for presenting an opera well beyond the regular popular repertoire.
With the Joan Sutherland Theatre at Sydney Opera House out of action due to renovations from May to December, Opera Australia sought other venues for Sydney in winter. Newly commissioned pastiche opera Two Weddings, One Bride played for several months at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House. The much-loved Moffatt Oxenbould production of Madama Butterfly spread its wings for the last time, playing at the Capitol Theatre.
A highlight of the alternative winter season was the concert presentation of Parsifal (below) at Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House. In his signature role, guest tenor Jonas Kaufmann, arguably the world’s most in-demand opera star, thrilled audiences not just with his superb voice but also with his gracious stage presence as member of the ensemble cast of performers.
Curiously, with less opportunity for mainstage opera in Sydney, Opera Australia also dramatically reduced their Melbourne spring season. In recent years, this season had fallen to three operas, but this year just one was presented. The Merry Widow (below), helmed by Australian living legend Graeme Murphy, featured wonderful design and superb orchestral playing, but was let down somewhat by the use of vocal amplification and the unpleasant sexist nature of the revised script and direction. In a long-awaited Australian appearance, Melbourne-born Danielle de Niese was suitably glamorous in the title role, but might be heard at her very best when returning for an acoustic performance. Globetrotting Australian triple threat Alexander Lewis practically stole the show as Count Danilo Danilovich. Rising soprano Stacey Alleaume, heard in both The Merry Widow and Carmen, continued to demonstrate the silvery beauty of her voice.
Independent companies Pinchgut Opera Sydney Chamber Opera continue to provide smaller scale productions to supplement the Sydney opera scene.
In a neatly synergistic piece of programming, Sydney audiences enjoyed Nicole Car in the Opera Australia presentation of Thaïs in concert, while Melbourne audiences were treated to their own version of Thaïs in concert by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and starring Canadian soprano Erin Wall. Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s concert staging of Bluebeard’s Castle was also very well received.
With fewer productions on offer from Opera Australia, Melbourne’s opera calendar was thankfully well populated by stagings from independent local companies.
Ever innovative company Victorian Opera recovered from an opening misfire with the underprepared ‘Tis Pity to go on to present such delights as Ottorino Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty (below), which featured beautiful use of puppetry, a children’s season of The Princess and the Pea and the terrific youth opera The Second Hurricane.
Proving that lightning can strike twice, Victorian Opera followed their acclaimed 2015 concert staging of I Puritani with a fabulous concert of La Sonnambula (below), again starring soprano Jessica Pratt.
Continuing their creative bent, Victorian Opera delivered a charming season of Cunning Little Vixen, in which the excellent cast of adults and children were dressed in highly imaginative costumes by Roger Kirk. Further imagination was expended successfully for a magically innovative season of Black Rider (below), which featured an exemplary cast of characterful performers such as Meow Meow, Paul Capsis, Le Gateau Chocolat, Jacqueline Dark and Richard Piper. Kanen Breen proved a great sport in immersing himself in the performance, ending up near naked and covered in artificial blood. Local mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd continued to prove her supreme versatility and value, appearing in both Cunning Little Vixen and Black Rider.
Melbourne Opera continued to go from strength to strength, presenting three highly polished productions this year. H.M.S. Pinafore returned Gilbert and Sullivan to their full glory; further such productions from director/choreographer Robert Ray are keenly anticipated. Following their 2016 success with Tannhäuser, Melbourne Opera returned to the mighty Regent Theatre for another epic Wagner opera. Lohengrin was a triumphant achievement, and introduced Melbourne audiences to stunning soprano Helena Dix. For the third and final installment of their Donizetti Tudor trilogy, Melbourne Opera brought Dix straight back to Melbourne to star as Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux (below), which was receiving its long overdue Australian premiere. Dix’s effortlessly voluptuous soprano thrilled audiences, and her singing was well complimented by her excellent acting skills.
Lyric Opera of Melbourne continued their commitment to unearthing rare treasures, this year with a royal theme. Sensitively produced, The Japanese Princess proved to have an exquisite score. Powerhouse Patrick Miller, artistic director of Lyric Opera of Melbourne and conductor of each opera, was joined by prolific musical theatre director Tyran Parke for a sensuous staging of The Coronation of Poppea (below). Unfortunately, limited resources meant that the company had to cancel their third planned production, The Little Prince. In sad news, the company announced in August that their much-loved chairman and founder Claude Ullin had passed away.
Although Il Trovatore is one of Verdi’s most popular operas, it is rarely performed in Melbourne. Early in 2017, Citi Opera corrected this with an ambitious full-scale staging of Il Trovatore.
Starting on a modest, achievable scale, relatively new company BK Opera presented Werther, La Traviata and La Voix Humane.
Gertrude Opera continued their invaluable performance training of young singers whilst also presenting a range of innovative performances in a host of eclectic venues.
Best Operas 2017:
Mainstage: Cavalleria rusticana / Pagliacci (Opera Australia)
Independent: Cunning Little Vixen (Victorian Opera)
Concert: La Sonnambula (Victorian Opera)
Most Disappointing Operas 2017:
Mainstage: The Merry Widow (Opera Australia)
Independent: ‘Tis Pity (Victorian Opera)
Heavenly Performances 2017:
Mainstage: Alexander Lewis (The Merry Widow, Opera Australia); Rinat Shaham (Carmen, Opera Australia)
Independent: Helena Dix (Roberto Devereux, Melbourne Opera); Kanen Breen (Black Rider, Victorian Opera)
Concert: Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal, Opera Australia); Jessica Pratt (La Sonnambula, Victorian Opera)
Photos: #1, #4 Keith Saunders; #2 Simon Parris; #3, #5 Jeff Busby; #6, #7 Charlie Kinross; #8 Pia Johnson; #9 Robin Halls; #10 Sarah Walker