Melbourne continues to enjoy a well-balanced opera program of large and smaller scale productions featuring a wide array of local and international artists.
World opera news was dominated by the accusation of sexual misconduct levelled against legendary singer Placido Domingo. Domingo stood down from his position as artistic director of Los Angeles Opera, cancelled all US performances and withdrew from the opening of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Meanwhile, his career and adulation continue in Europe.
Prominent Italian tenor Marcello Giordani passed away at age 56 in October. Acclaimed American soprano Jessye Norman died at age 74 in September. Legendary opera director Franco Zeffirelli died at age 96 in June. Respected Australian baritone John Wegner passed away at 69 in November.
Opera Australia blessed Melbourne with a higher number of mainstage productions in 2019, setting their work apart from local companies with the spectacular scale of their productions. Their season premiere of Rigoletto (below)was undermined by an attempt made by aggrieved composer George Dreyfus to address the crowd by megaphone from the centre of the front row. The performance continued successfully, introducing expressive Mongolian baritone Amartuvshin Enkhbat in the title role and giving Melbourne soprano Stacey Alleaume the opportunity for an auspicious role debut as Gilda.
The autumn season continued with the Melbourne premiere of the final work Sir David McVicar’s Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy: Così fan tutte (below). The Australian premiere of Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims boasted a first rate Australian cast (along with a couple of overseas guests) in an extraordinarily conceived production that featured, quite appropriately, art come life on stage.
Superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann returned to Australia, this time performing in an opera in concert in Melbourne as well Sydney. Eva-Marie Westbroek and Ludovic Tézier were excellent co-stars for Kaufmann in Andrea Chénier in Concert. Beloved Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel sang Wagner (and more) in a compelling concert.
Opera Australia presented another independent-style staging presenting spooky chamber opera Ghost Sonata at Malthouse Theatre. The work gave rising tenor Shanul Sharma his second Melbourne role for Opera Australia; future engagements are keenly anticipated. Another small-scale work, pastiche operetta Two Weddings, One Bride (below), was seen at the Playhouse. The brief season brought musical theatre legend Geraldine Turner back to the Melbourne mainstage, with her infinitely talented husband Brian Castles-Onion on grand piano.
The iconic Graham Murphy production of Turandot returned to the Melbourne stage in strong form. The year ended with McVicar’s spectacular production of Faust (below), the first production of this opera at the State Theatre since the old days of the unforgettable Ian Judge production for Victoria State Opera.
Victorian Opera returned to the Palais to present the inexplicably long overdue Melbourne premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal. For their annual Jessica Pratt concert, the company set aside the usual full opera concert to present Heroic Bel Canto (below). Pratt was capably joined by Italian mezzo-soprano Daniella Barcellona as well as local tenor Carlos E. Bárcenas.
Continuing their prolific production of new work, Victorian Opera delighted with new children’s opera The Selfish Giant (below). Further delight came in December with a highly enjoyable semi-staged concert of The Barber of Seville.
Melbourne Opera began the year with another of their ambitious outings to a much larger venue, a move that was again well supported by opera lovers of Melbourne. English bass-baritone Darren Jeffery sang the lead in The Flying Dutchman, with Melbourne soprano sweetheart Lee Abrahmsen in sterling form as Senta.
Returning to the Athenaeum, the company enjoyed sold out houses with their new production of Norma. Melbourne-born soprano Helena Dix shimmered in the title role, wonderfully supported by Jacqueline Dark (Adalgisa) in her Melbourne Opera debut and returning tenor favourite Samuel Sakker as Pollione.
Gertrude Opera and BK Opera continued to entertain Melbourne with imaginative, accessible presentations. In a unique one-night concert, IOpera staged the premiere of Ernst Krenek’s 1929 opera Jonny Strikes Up!. Abrahmsen exhibited her innate talent for twentieth century opera, successfully singing the unfamiliar work with great confidence and gleaming musicality.
In January 2019, Man in Chair visited London and New York, and was fortunate enough to see Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczala and Anita Rachvelishvili in Adriana Lecouvreur (below) at Metropolitan Opera, in another stunning McVicar staging. Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton starred in Bartlett Sher’s production of Otello. Back in London, acclaimed singer actress Ermonela Jaho starred in umpteenth revival of Reichard Eyre’s La Traviata. Westbroek was seen in a rather bizarre staging of rarely seen Tchaikovsky opera The Queen of Spades.
The opening of The Australian Ballet’s 2019 was disrupted with a change of program when the preparation of brand-new Graeme Murphy work The Happy Prince was interrupted by Murphy’s illness. Melbourne saw 2013 Ratmansky work Cinderella (below), with opening night blessed by the glorious performances of married partners Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo. Happily, The Happy Prince will be seen around Australia in 2020.
2017 smash hit Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland returned, providing a second chance to enjoy Kondo as she danced the title role for which she won a Helpmann Award in 2018.
Guest company Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo presented the unique version of Swan Lake, simply entitled Lac.
The major premiere for 2019 was the new production of Sylvia (below), co-produced with Houston Ballet. Choreographer Stanton Welch mined Greek mythology to complement the slight storyline of the traditional version of Sylvia. Study of the synopsis paid dividends in enjoying the new version, which featured lavish production values and imaginative creative effects. Kondo appeared on opening night again, dancing the title role opposite stalwart fellow Principal Artist Kevin Jackson. During the Sydney season of Sylvia, Benedicte Bemet and Dimity Azoury were each deservedly promoted to the rank of Principal Artist.
The year concluded with traditional favourite Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker. At the performance reviewed by Man in Chair, Yuumi Yamada graced the stage as Clara, with Kondo impressing yet again as the Sugar Plum Fairy.
The Australian Ballet School continued their sterling work, making a well-polished highlight of Aurora’s Wedding in their Summer Season 2019. (Having been interstate for their September Showcase, Man in Chair was disappointed to again miss Gershwin ballet Who Cares?, which was not able to be performed on opening night of Summer Season 2019).
On the international stage, Man in Chair seized the opportunity to see a pair of ballets on consecutive nights in Paris in January. Rudolf Nureyev’s Cinderella (below)proved a spectacle on a grand scale, while John Neumeier’s La Dame aux Camélias had a haunting psychological nature.
Perennial favourite Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake was seen in a lovingly re-polished staging. The Royal Ballet paired charming one-act The Two Pigeons (below) with abstract modern-style Liam Scarlett work Asphodel Meadows.
In New York, Man in Chair saw American Ballet Theatre’ very traditional Swan Lake, an experience that was offset with the chance to see Ratmansky’s somewhat controversial The Sleeping Beauty, which he slavishly researched and choreographed in the original dance style of the time of the work’s origin.
Best Operas 2019:
Mainstage: Il Viaggio a Reims (Opera Australia)
Independent: Norma (Melbourne Opera)
Concert: Andrea Chénier (Opera Australia)
Heavenly Performances 2019:
Mainstage: Saimir Pirgu (Faust, Opera Australia); Ruth Iniesta (Il Viaggio a Reims, Opera Australia)
Independent: José Carbó (The Barber of Seville, Victorian Opera); Helena Dix (Norma, Melbourne Opera)
Concert: Jonas Kaufmann (Andrea Chénier, Opera Australia); Jessica Pratt (Heroic Bel Canto Victorian Opera)
Best Ballet 2019:
Heavenly Performances 2019:
Ballet: Chengwu Guo (Cinderella, The Australian Ballet); Ako Kondo (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Australian Ballet)
Photos: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #10, #11, #12 Jeff Busby; #6 Charlie Kinross; #7, #8 Robin Halls; #9, #15 Simon Parris; #13 Sergey Konstantinov; #14 Paris Opéra Ballet