Director aside, there’s much to enjoy in half of the Con’s operatic double bill.

Sydney Conservatorium of Music

May 17, 2014

Note to directors of student showcases: it’s a showcase for the students. And if you are going to give us a clever, attention-seeking idea, please, please make it one that holds water. As it is, Sally Blackwell’s staging of this double bill for the opera alumni at the Sydney Con proves quite a hurdle for its young rising stars. Fortunately several of them manage to make it over the line, but only just…

A production of Menotti’s intriguing 1939 radio opera The Old Maid and the Thief is a rarity and it would have been nice to let us see what it’s made of with no distractions. Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (or The Impressario), on the other hand, is the composer’s slenderest of works comprising virtually no plot, a series of weak unfunny caricatures, and five musical numbers. Worse, two of the four characters barely sing. So why choose it to showcase young talent? And why, oh why, run the two operas concurrently, effectively scuppering the Menotti’s chance to gain crucial dramatic momentum? Ariadne auf Naxos this certainly isn’t. Add to that some overlong ‘radio adverts’, a team of visible Foley artists, and a charisma-scarce MC reading his lines from notecards, and you’ve got a right royal mess. “What have these operas got in common? Not a great deal,” says Blackwell in her program note. Nuff said.

Whinge over. Now for the good points. Number one is the Conservatorium orchestra who put in a fine performance, especially in the Menotti, under Musical Director Stephen Mould. Orchestrational felicities abound and the occasional tendency to overwhelm the singers doesn’t detract too much, thanks in part to some impressive diction on stage.

The Old Maid and the Thief, with four good roles and a clever plot concerning an elderly busybody and her scheming maid who simultaneously fall for a good looking itinerant, is full of detail and singable music with an essentially tonal and lyrical score. Blackwell’s actual staging of the opera in itself is excellent with plenty of characterful detail. The Foley stuff however is a distraction. Invisible doorbells work, but why replicate footsteps offstage when you can see the actor walking onstage?

As Miss Todd, the small-minded spinster, mezzo-soprano Anna McDougall is a delight. She captures the fidgety awkwardness of the character and never strikes you as less than the relevant age. Her comic timing is excellent – all boggly-eyed malice aforethought – and the voice is spot on, evenly produced across the range, with a good use of comic bottom notes. I heard pretty much every word, even over the loudest of passages. Corinne Parker matches her step for step as the opportunistic maid, Laetitia. Her ample soprano soars and her use of text is effective and invariably appropriate. The big number, What a curse for a woman is a timid man, was heartfelt. The blend with McDougall was perfect – two singers to watch out for.

As the wandering love interest Bob, Andrew Williams puts in a reasonable turn, although the characters motivation is a little muddy. The voice is firm and focussed in the middle and lower range, but the top has a worn edge with a touch of vibrato – and he needs to communicate more directly with his audience through eye contact and text. Bridget Patterson is enjoyable as Todd’s fellow gossip and nemesis, Miss Pinkerton. Another appealing soprano voice, she is occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra but she has plenty of personality, and in a relatively small role she manages to leave you wanting more.

Setting aside the slightness of the Mozart, and its frustrating habit of getting in the way of the Menotti, its two sopranos are an enjoyable contrast. Kathryn Williams as Madame Heartmelt has a fine, mature voice, if a little strident under pressure. Her solo aria was excellent although the coloratura just escapes her at times. Maia Andrews as Mademoiselle Silvertone has a slightly easier showcase aria and pulls it off with aplomb. Her charming soprano has a real German soubrette feel to it and her acting is secure, if a little fussy here and there. Daniel Tambasco as the beefy impresario works hard with a woeful script and shows a pleasing light tenor in the 'cough and a spit' he gets to sing. Christopher Nazarian as the purposeless Mr Bluff sings all of eight bars, or so it seems, in a cavernous bass. Otherwise both men are wasted.

The four Foley artists work hard and have a ball. Their physical, musical and vocal contribution is terrific in itself – that it’s also superfluous is hardly their fault. The four bellhops who sing the extraneous radio ads also put in a nice turn, but by the end I wanted to tear up their ‘Applause’ signs and pop them in the nearest rubbish bin – the joke wears very thin. Elizabeth Gadsby's stylishly abstracted set and costumes are excellent as is Alexander Berlage's lighting design.

So, at the end of the day, a decent opportunity for some, while others would have been better served by a more judicial choice of dramatic vehicle. Stagings of the Menotti are few and far between, however, so if you are adventurous and want a chance to see an interesting curiosity, check it out.

The Old Maid and the Thief and The Impressario runs until May 26 at Sydney Conservatorium of Music.