★★★★☆ Operatic “threesome” proves a perfect fit for Oz’s original party palace.
The Hydro Majestic hotel is no stranger to extravagance. Famous in the past as a discreet gentleman’s getaway, where wives and mistresses could mingle with little more than a raised eyebrow, its infamous fancy dress balls were legendary in the 1920s. Over the years, Mark Foy’s landmark pleasure dome at Medlow Bath overlooking the Megalong Valley has played host to actresses and boxing matches, and more recently attempts to break the world record for the most people simultaneously doing the Charleston. Australia’s original party palace has seen its share of opera singers as well, Dame Nellie Melba being just one such early guest.
Where better then to host the inaugural Blue Mountains Opera Festival, the brainchild of pianist, teacher and Blue Mountains resident Grace Kim. The weekend’s entertainments included a cello extravaganza, featuring four cellists from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (Teije Hylkema, Andrew Hines, Elizabeth Neville and Minah Choe), plus an afternoon concert with Kim and Sydney Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Andrew Haveron performing on his 1757 Guadagnini violin. Both of these were held in the elegant Winter Garden Restaurant while guests were able to indulge in high tea.
The main event however was billed as an operatic “threesome” and featured Opera Australia singers Catherine Bouchier and Brad Cooper alongside bass and Opernhaus Zürich repetiteur Damian Whiteley in a mixed programme of hits and rarities. Accompaniments were either courtesy of Kim on piano, or more substantially supported by the excellent Caro String Quartet, an ensemble made up or regulars from the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and Sydney-based Omega Ensemble. The first half was opera, the second mostly operetta, and the programme was a nicely balanced between hits and welcome rarities that, as they mostly fell to him, one suspects were mostly of Whiteley’s doing.
Of the three singers, Catherine Bouchier carried the lion’s share of the drama and pathos. Last seen as the rapidly expiring Princess Nicoletta in Opera Australia’s The Love for Three Oranges, she’s an elegant presence and blessed with a fine, powerful lyric soprano voice. Her Un bel dì was a powerhouse of rich, warm tone, almost overwhelming the string quartet as she rose majestically to nail the high B Flat. Tosca’s Visi d’Arte suited her even better in a moving rendition that at such close quarters was particularly thrilling. She also displayed a relaxed charm, quipping about how the resourceful Tosca would shortly avail herself of a dagger and avoid having to give herself to the frequently unattractive and sweaty baritone. Giuditta’s too rarely heard showstopper Mein Lippen sie Küssen so heis was another highlight, Bouchier’s diction crystal clear, and with a lovely floated top. She made an ideal duet partner too, sensitively matching Brad Cooper in Korngold’s Glück das mir verlieb from Die Tote Stadt – always a winner in concert – and a pertly acted Lippen Schweigen from The Merry Widow.
I last saw Cooper standing in for an indisposed Kanen Breen in Opera Australia’s Albert Herring. A sympathetic personality with a clear-as-a-bell tenor, he was recovering from an infection on this occasion, yet delivered some memorable performances ranging from a delightful La Danza (every tongue-twisting lyric neatly on display) to a blistering, bravura Granada, all gitanas, flores and a great deal of amores. His fine duets with Bouchier were prelude to a Nessun Dorma, sung as a comic trio, the singers brandishing handkerchiefs of ever increasing size.
Whiteley has a big buffo voice and sparkled in comic gems that included Basilio’s La Calunnia, but also lesser-known fare like the Drum-Major’s aria from Ambroise Thomas’ Le Caïd – more French than Middle Eastern with its mentions of grisettes and boudoirs. His pièce de resistance though was Saint-Saëns’ sardonic masterpiece, the “ziggy ziggy zagging” original vocal version of Danse Macabre. He was less successful in the Pearl Fishers duet where he managed to sing consistently a semitone flat in the legato harmonies.
When Kim wasn’t accompanying on piano, the Caro Quartet (Catalin Ungureanu and Airena Nakamura on violins, Neil Thompson on viola and Kenichi Mizushima on cello) offered fine support, the intimate string lines perfect at creating the atmosphere of a fin de siècle salon. Puccini’s gorgeous Crisantemi was a perfect piece of programming, while Ungureanu (Principal First Violin with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra) and Mizushima (one of their regular cellists) were particularly distinguished in the lyrical solo melodies of Borodin’s Notturno (perhaps better known to opera lovers as And This is my Beloved from Kismet).
Given the talent on display, it might seem curmudgeonly to complain, but perhaps a directorial eye would have helped the flow – or at least a stage manager to assist with entrances, exits and cues. As it was, the show went on, but with, at times, an engagingly “making it up as we go along” sort of a feel. Of course, the opportunity to be in such close proximity to first-class opera professionals in a generous accoustic like the Hydro Majestic ballroom makes up for a lot. If retail genius, hydrotherapy evangelist and notorious crossdresser Mark Foy was looking down, I’m sure he would have been delighted by the whole affair.