Opera houses, Dame Joan Sutherland: OM, AC, DBE and Rigoletto

Nights at the Opera: Dec., 2010/Jan., 2011

Opera brought me to two very different houses in the past few weeks. The first was the new 700-seater theatre which proudly houses the Wexford Festival Opera, famed for its rare pieces and introducing exceptional young talent – many of whom have been later acclaimed on the great stages of the world, including those here in Vienna.

This year’s casts continued that tradition with singers such as the American soprano Angela Meade who sang the lead in Mercadante’s Virginia alongside two rival tenors sung by the Sicilian Ivan Magri and Bruno Ribeiro, who was a Don Jose in Carmen in Klosterneuberg this Summer. The Vienna based young soprano, Katia Bakanova, who was a memorable Gilda in St Margarethen last year, stole everyone’s heart as Serpina in Pergolesi’s delightful La Serva Padrona.  This semi-staged performance was brilliantly directed by Roberto Recchia. These and the young baritone, Gavan Ring are names that we will certainly see again. By the by, Wexford will be celebrating its 60th Festival in 2011(hopefully!).

After an overnight in Vienna, I was winging my way to OZ and the iconic opera house in Sydney, flying with Emirates and a choice of fifteen operas to enjoy on board! My favorite was a recording of Rigoletto, the classic 1971 Decca recording with Sherrill Milnes, Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti.  Over and over the music sauntered in and out of the twilight of in-flight sleep. My mind wandered to the English Theatre in Vienna and the Ronald  Harwood play Quartet (2003). This featured the 1984 recording of the great quartet from Rigoletto with Bruson, Gruberova, Shicoff and Lloyd that left the audience in an unforgettable paroxysm of emotion.

In Sydney, the Opera Australia season was coming to an end in this great house, which with the Harbour Bridge are the landmark symbols of the city. I met a sprightly 85-year-old man who recalled walking across the bridge on the 19th of March 1932 when it was opened by the Prime Minister.

At the opera, which occupies the smaller side of the gigantic building, I managed to see the final performance of Der Rosenkavalier, in which Baron Ochs was too much polite baron and not enough ox, but the final trio and duet came straight from heaven.  The last performance of the Season was on the 4th of November before Opera Australia decamped to Melbourne for the Summer.  It was none other than Rigoletto, in a very decadent “between the wars” production.  Not quite a one man show but Warwick Fyfe strutted, or rather limped and stumbled his way through an explosive performance of outrage, passion and despair which brought the 1,760-strong audience to its feet.

But it wasn’t all over.  On Nov. 9 the house was full again for a State Memorial Service for Dame Joan Sutherland, who Pavarotti described as the greatest singer of the 20th century. Dame Joan, who died at home in Switzerland on Oct. 10, sailed from Sydney to London in July 1951 for a career in opera at Covent Garden. All the many aspiring singers here in Vienna will know that she succeeded (and how!), but it should be remembered only after her fourth audition.  In 1954 she met her future husband, Richard Bonynge, who pointed her in the direction of the bel canto scores of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.

In 1965 she was back in Melbourne, and as she took her final curtain call, a scratchy old rehearsal piano was wheeled out onto the stage. One can only imagine the atmosphere as the music began and she sang “Home Sweet Home.” At the Service, there was hardly a dry eye left as we watched a film of her singing this favorite song.

Tributes were paid by the Prime Minister of Australia; by the Governor of New South Wales, as well as by her lifelong friend and founder of Opera Australia, Moffat Oxenbould, who recalled her, as a 20 year-old in Dido and Aeneas, singing Dido’s final aria “Remember me, remember me.” Adam Bonynge, her son, recalled his eulogy at her funeral, sharing his memories of a loving mother rather than of a great star.

The operatic excerpts included the mad scene from Lucia, which more than any other role brought her to the great fame she enjoyed.  Dame Joan Sutherland gave her last performance in October 1990. After her curtain call she walked off the stage, never to return

I arrived back in Vienna late in the afternoon of Tuesday, November 16 and made it to the Staatsoper in time to see the opera, which, as you probably have guessed, was……Rigoletto!

There is so much opera to enjoy in Vienna in December and January that I scarcely dare to make any choices.  Actually I hope to make them all, though, at Christmas and New Year, the stage must be cleared for performances of other kinds.

I wish you all the blessings of Christmas and many joys of opera in the New Year.

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