Tony Thomas

A blight at the opera

There’s nothing like a disaster: Captain Coward upending the Costa Concordia; Canberra race riots on Australia Day, 2012; the National Broadband Network; my first marriage…

In such a hideous catalogue, I should include the two performances of Puccini’s Turandot at the Palais, St Kilda, December 14 and 18, 2004. For my $120 ticket, I got even more drama than I paid for.

In scale, Turandot is like Aida, minus elephants. In coordination of resources, think Normandy landings. Turandot, after all, killed Puccini, half-way through the third Act. Someone else had to finish the score.

This Palais performance hinged on an imported Italian soprano we’ll call Ms ‘Z’. The diva was interviewed for the Melbourne production: "The soprano, who has sung the role at Torre del Lago in Tuscany where the open-air Puccini Festival is held, says she is carrying on the tradition of singing exemplified by Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland."

As is usually the case, a lot was riding on the success of this. Premier Bracks, along with Lord Mayor John So and Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, were invited to the Palais, but not out of mere politeness. Melbourne Opera’s chairman, Peter Donnelly, and Lady Primrose Potter had buttonholed Bracks wanting $2.3m a year for the company, and Turandot “shows we can back up what we are saying”, Donnelly told him. 

 The production – sets, costumes, supervisors and the two principal singers, Ms ‘Z’ and Spanish tenor Antonio Ordonez – was shipped to Melbourne from  Tuscany. This volatile mix was supplemented in Melbourne by an unpaid (volunteer) chorus, ballet dancers from the Victorian College of the Arts, a children’s chorus from Carey Baptist Grammar, a troupe of body-builders as the opera’s burly executioners, and an 80-piece paid orchestra. Local diva Rosemary Illing was the tortured and ill-fated slave girl, Liu, though not as tortured and ill-fated as the audience.

This Turandot had a rough ride from the outset. Supposed to open in November, it was delayed a month, requiring a vast phone-around to alert the myriad ticket-holders.

The ticketing and attendants system ran rough (the Palais, in all its faded grandeur, seats more than 2000). On Tuesday the show started 30 minutes late. (A scheduled Thursday performance disappeared).

Between the Tuesday and the Saturday, someone discovered that the two imported principals lacked work visas. The Palais itself was a nightmare for performers, with its backstage passageways and stairwells airless and so narrow that the cast of 120 suffered grid-lock en route to their entrances. Costumes could not be washed: the plus for the cast was that by Saturday all smelt equally bad.

‘Z’ made a big  impact at her first rehearsal. A chorus member, also a Melbourne University employee, provided this account:

“She looks about my age or a little older, has a dramatic Italianate face and this tumbling mane of black hair. And she’s a size 20 easy and dressed dramatically in black and white. She walks from her face down – that is, her head and face go first and the body sails around underneath it. Very Dame Joan although without the lantern jaw.

She started to sing and we all thought "oh bugger" because none of the parts of this HUUUUGE voice seemed to be connecting and she’s supposedly this big international star. But then she went right up the top and did a NOTE of extreme loudness and bigness and made-my-ears-go-blat-and-ringness and KAPOW! There it was. This big, big, big dramatic soprano voice which one could use as a blunt instrument in a riot. She sort of picks it up and launches it into the music, like a bowler hefting a bowling ball. In her lower ranges it’s almost a growl, it’s so feral, and it doesn’t get any less feral as it goes up, just more intense. It’s an extraordinary, exhilarating, exciting sort of sound.

But it’s just a little too much for indoor use. Having that sort of thing shot at one from 10 feet away in a dusty, echoing church hall was an experience neither I nor my eardrums will ever forget.”

Others have remarked on Z’s voice. I noticed one comment on a youtube about ‘Z’ in the role of Amina, the lyrically vulnerable Swiss village maiden, in Bellini’s La sonnambula:

“She is mistress of the Art of Can Belto! She attacked that air with gusto and wrestled it to the floor. . . and Bellini and his Amina definitely were the losers here.” 

How bad was Thursday’s opening of Turandot? The Australian’s Martin Ball wrote:

"Maria ‘Z’’s singing as Turandot was completely inadequate. She was out of time, out of tune, out of breath – in a word, terrible. What is more, she appeared to be aware of this, and her bravery in going for the high notes was almost poignant but for the fact it was largely in vain. Her curtain call was greeted with muscled boos….”

One of the boo-ers later outed himself as a ‘Philip Murphy’, who wrote:

“Aside from the planning bungles, Z in the title role was quite atrocious. So much so that I felt compelled to bring some Continental realism to the proceedings and, much to the shock of my companion that evening, threw out some raucous ‘boos’ at the curtain call.”

The Age’s critic John Slavin concluded: “I could not discern whether she had a bad cold (why not alert the audience beforehand if this was the case?) or the voice had passed its use-by date, but her tessitura was crumbling at the edges and she sang flat…One of the greatest soprano roles was reduced to a case for an ear-and-throat specialist."

Slavin also conjured up a titillating description of the set: "Pietro Cascella’s art nouveau set design is evocative of the ‘female’ principle. A semi-abstract egg embraced by a crescent moon strains to drop into the narrow slit of a throne that represents the female yoni."

Insert your puns at will. Slavin must have a highly-charged imagination – I just couldn’t put the alleged yoni pieces into any anatomical order.

Audience members were traumatised to varying degrees. For example, a University of the Third Age class member, apparently as therapy, turned his recollections of the performance into an essay on Schadenfreude, after changing the name of the soprano and the opera.

Another audience member, “Bertie”, blogged that if an opera is not over until the fat lady sings, the show must be still going on. My spy in the chorus was wearing a wig resembling, she said, a dead marmoset. She put the debacle of the first night down to a bad case of pride, self-delusion or “plain old terror”. She wrote:

“We were all happily excited, and ready to strike a few blows for The Re-Establishment of Opera in Victoria.

Come 8pm and the audience was pouring in STILL and we were all backstage ready to go and suffering through an excruciating half an hour of "can’t we start yet?".

Finally – the oboe note in the orchestra – the signal for tuning up   and we got to go on and start.

First act: it went well. They clapped. We tried not to be too excited.

Second act: it goes well. Until the arrival of The Soprano   as Turandot. Let me say that this is a bugger of a role and it starts with an absolute bugger of an aria "In Questa Reggia" which is an Olympic-class aria and it needs to be sung by a big dramatic voice in full command of its faculties. ..lots of top Cs and bated breath all round for this act to work.

And Jesus Mary Joseph and Ethel Merman, her voice went PHUT on only about the second page of the aria. She squeaked, she missed a note, and it went PHUT again.

As one, the chorus froze and then broke out into a hot-and-cold sweat. We were guilty of murmuring: ‘She isn’t’; ‘No she IS’; ‘I thought she was better’; ‘You know she’s always awful the first 10 minutes’; ‘No, this is something worse, there’s something wrong with then middle voice’; ‘Oh BUGGER’.

The look upon Richard Divall’s [the conductor’s] face was scary to behold.

She limped through the aria. Limped? She CRAWLED. The middle voice was just not working.

Just to attempt "In questa reggia" shows true self-delusion. Maria ‘Z’’s voice is so freaky anyway, that we really didn’t know what would happen next at rehearsals. But usually it got better.

Not this time. The bit where she gives him curry was more sort of a Maggi Hot-Pot (with soggy sultanas) than the beef vindaloo (with extra chilli) that it needed to be.

We were in agonies and although they clapped again at the end of the second act we were now knocked sideways, unsure of everything….and bloody ANGRY. Here we had toiled away for months and months and this …ITALIAN PERSON had just scuttled it with her DRAMA.

I seem to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time backstage because I got to hear the conductor go past muttering ‘I can get any singer through ANYTHING but first they have to tell me that there’s a PROBLEM’. I also had a chat to a couple of our chorus tenors who are bloody knowledgeable and they assured me the third act would be fine because it was all in the upper part of the soprano’s voice.

And lo, it came to pass that we got through the third act in fine style and she got through it and at the end we all got a rousing reception and much applause and love from the good people of Melbourne, bless them.

So we were much cheered: Saturday was days away, her voice must surely get better, and, Gods-dammit, we had just sung a grand opera in full traditional style to a full house at the Palais theatre!!” 

As for the Saturday’s grand finale, a full picture can be drawn, thanks to my own note-taking from the stalls and the brilliant account of my back-stage informant. (The newspaper critics had had enough after Tuesday and Saturday’s catastrophe went unreported). My account:

“In ‘Z’’s first big scene she was wobbly, her voice broke, she tried singing lower, and crumbled on every big note. When singing softly she was thin and feeble, and then she started breaking down altogether. Poor hero Calaf (Antonio Ordonez, from Spain) was trying to sing his part of the passionate duet to a vacuum and getting thrown, with a ‘where am I, what is going on?’ manner.

Midway through the piece, ‘Z’ stopped and clutched her throat. She called across the stage to the conductor in Italian, saying ‘I can’t go on’, and the prompt and the conductor (Richard Divall) were gee-ing her up to get through the scene.

This short debate continued while the orchestra paused in wonderment. The audience was agog. Divall struck up the band again and mercifully the second act finished soon after.

As lights dimmed again for the third act, Divall strode alone to the front of the stage and said, as near as I can recall:

"The soprano (he didn’t use her name) is having great difficulty, she is suffering from a serious allergy. During interval I suggested to her that we had several choices. We could stop the performance at the death of (Calaf’s loyal servant) Liu (Rosemary Illing), which often occurs by tradition marking the point where Puccini’s own death cut short his composition of the opera. However, in loyalty to the fellow cast members, the soloists, the chorus, the dancers, the producers… who have worked so hard for the performance, she said they should have the opportunity to take it through to the end. My wish is to minimise the strain on her. We have other choices including that she sing at times an octave lower, or that I do something I have never done in my career and that is deliberately have the orchestra drown her out. You are attending a wonderful production and you are a very special audience. This whole episode is an event I have never faced before, and I hope you will give the performers your best support."

The audience applauded. The third act went forward with ‘Z’ managing to hold her role together, though singing in a very restrained way and not attempting any peaks.

At curtain call the cast all got a good ovation but ‘Z’ didn’t show until the last (we initially thought she was opting out) . She got some sympathetic applause and no boo-ing, as occurred on the first night.”

Now let’s go to the backstage version with our articulate chorine:

“Saturday afternoon: open the stage door and descend into the Stageworld again. I breathed deeply of excitement, sweat, adrenaline and the Funny Smell. We waited for half an hour for the audience (ANOTHER full house – bless the people of Melbourne) and we did a bloody good first act. They really clapped!

Gazelle-like tenors (pranced) again in the dressing rooms.

Second act: Yes! it’s all good. And here comes Maria! Who was WORSE. She actually STOPPED in the middle of the effing aria!!

Ididn’t think it was possible to feel even more panicked and hot-and-cold-sweaty than opening night. But it seems the body has endless reserves of adrenaline overload.

Antonio was magnificent – supported her all the way through the damned aria, sang over the top of her where possible – but if someone does a Sally Robbins and STOPS, even to apologise – no no no no NO! It was so all WRONG.

We came off and again I sat in the right place just off in the wings with other despondent chorines. We might as well have been furniture. We were incidental to the DRAMA, you see.

Maria had fled in tears (yeah – you SHOULD cry, you nutsoid soprano) to her dressing room and locked herself in, all so DRAMATIC. Oh the scurryings! The director, the director’s assistant, the other director’s assistant, the stage manager, the repetiteur, the chorusmaster, the producer and finally the conductor. Back and forth, many many tight conversations in Italian and broken English.

Rampant speculation all over backstage: Would she go on for the third act?? Would we continue?? What about Nessun Dorma? if Antonio didn’t sing that we’d get lynched!

More scurryings. More conversations. Finally, Richard Divall (who should get a knighthood or something) went past metaphorically pushing his sleeves up and saying "Right". Then nothing for a while.

Finally Richard came back. And he leaned over to me and another chorine and said "I should have been a mother."

By which – loud cheers! – I took to mean that we were going ahead. I’d already spotted the orchestra coming back in and they only turn up when there’s a paying gig, so I was confident.

Richard went out and made The Announcement and he was brilliant – in a few short phrases he turned the audience around to cheering for the stupid woman who Had Bravely Decided to Battle On. Berloody Hell! I was fascinated. I thanked him later for doing this and he said "That’s called Showing Leadership". What is more, it absolutely was.

We zoomed through the third act and got another rousing ovation (the chorus got loud cheers – yay for our claque!). But victory was overlaid by the bitterness of the mismanagement of the whole Maria thing – her mismanagement of her voice and her inexplicable decision to go ahead without knowing how to deal with an Australian audience (ie let them know you’re struggling they’ll be with you every note of the way – treat them like idiots and you deserve everything you get) – and the mismanagement by the producers of the situation. No understudy, no backup – how did this blind spot happen??

I leave the final words on the matter to my dear friend Elley. 

As we were wandering along Acland Street looking for coffee afterwards I said "Well, she won’t ever work in this town ever again."

And Elley said "What are you talking about? She hasn’t worked in this town YET."

However, to all this came a happy ending. There was no disaster, Madam ‘Z’ triumphed, and the audience was in raptures over her performance, or so the Italians in Italy were informed.

In faraway Livorno, Italy, the local newspaper (Stampa) carried a review, which I have rendered for you (via google-translate) in English.

MELBOURNE. Ten minutes of applause for Turandot   in Melbourne before the 2,800 spectators at the Palais Theatre… 

“Many personalities attended this highly anticipated event.

“The performance ended with a standing ovation and bestowed a special tribute to the soprano Maria ‘Z’…Huge success for the interpretation by soprano Maria ‘Z’…”

I have no idea whether this auspicious production inspired Premier Bracks to decant millions of taxpayer dollars onto the Melbourne Opera Company. I’d certainly hope so.

Tony Thomas enjoys opera. Hang the taxpayers.

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