If the idea of chamber music and opera in a stunning historic setting, combined with fine food and wine, tickles your fancy then there can be few more pleasant ways to spend a weekend than at the Blue Mountains Opera Festival, presented at the exquisitely refurbished, wonderfully opulent yet eccentric Hydro Majestic Hotel.
After the success of last year’s inaugural festival, the event returned over the Queen’s Birthday Weekend under the continuing Artistic Directorship of Grace Kim, a concert pianist, teacher and Blue Mountains resident.
Grace Kim. Photograph © David Hill, Deep Hill Media
For the 2017 Festival, Kim put together a sparkling programme that was eminently accessible and just right for the relaxed setting, but that also satisfied musically. The Festival began on Saturday morning with a High Tea Concert in the elegant Wintergarden Restaurant with its sweeping views across the Megalong Valley. Frank Celata, Associate Principal Clarinet with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and the Enigma Quartet – a Sydney-based string quartet (Marianne Broadfoot and Kerry Martin on violin, Rosemary Curtin on viola and Rowena McNeish on cello) – gave a lovely account of Mozart’s gorgeous, popular Clarinet Quintet written in 1789 for clarinetist Anton Stadler a few years before the composer died.
Celata – who told the audience that he has played the piece every year for the last 30 years – caressed the undulating phrases and lyrical trills with great delicacy, floating over the strings and creating a sensitive musical conversation with the other musicians, while the clarinet line had a skittering, joyous quality in the final Allegro.
Frank Celata and the Enigma Quartet. Photograph © David Hill, Deep Hill Media
Soprano Sally Wilson, tenor Brad Cooper and bass Damien Whiteley were scheduled to give the audience a taste of what was to come that night at the Opera Gala Dinner with two Mozart arias. However, Cooper had had to withdraw from the Festival having lost his voice, so Wilson went it alone with a spirited rendition of the Habanera from Carmen, moving through the restaurant and interacting with guests.
That evening, tenor Warren Fisher – who had replaced the indisposed Cooper at the 11th hour – joined Wilson and Whiteley for a mixed bill of well-known opera arias and other songs ranging from Granada (Fisher) to a comic number (“a ditty about learning an instrument – with apologies to Mozart!”) performed by Whiteley at the keyboard.
For the rest of the concert, the singers were accompanied by an excellent string quartet (Sun Yi and Monique Irik on violin, Neil Thompson on viola and Minah Choe on cello), or by Kim on piano (not to mention bongo drums). Yi, who has been Associate Concertmaster of the SSO since 2007, also gave a beautiful rendition of the famous Meditation from the opera Thaïs. It wasn’t until the chamber music concert the next day that we were told he had been so ill he almost couldn’t perform.
Sally Wilson at the Opera Gala Dinner. Photograph © David Hill, Deep Hill Media
The Opera Gala Concert was performed in the Majestic Ballroom, with its stunning vaulted ceiling creating a bright acoustic. Whiteley and Fisher got the concert off to a lively start with the duet Viva Bacchus! Bacchus lebe! from Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. The singers introduced themselves with some amusing patter about tenors, basses, sopranos and mezzos and the roles they tend to play. From there, Wilson gave an effervescent rendition of Una voce poco fa from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and proved very game, slinking her playfully predatory way around the tables again for Carmen’s Habanera. All three singers worked the room well, creating an engaging rapport with the audience. Fisher also moved through the audience for Granada, while Whiteley got a couple of patrons to give the bongos a go before handing them over to Kim for La lune es blanca, one of two numbers from La Tabernera Del Puerto, a Spanish zarzuela.Other repertoire included Una furtiva lagrima from The Elixir of Love, La fleur que tu m’vais jetée from Carmen, the Final Trio from Gounod’s Faust and Brindisi (The Drinking Song) from La Traviata to finish the night – which perfectly suited the spirit of the evening and received an enthusiastic response.
Sun Yi. Photograph © David Hill, Deep Hill Media
The Festival finished the following day with another High Tea Concert, which began with Yi, Irik and Kim playing Shostakovich’s Duets for Two Violins and Piano, with the violinists moving to a different spot in the restaurant for each of the three pieces, which was a nice, intimate touch. Then came Mendelssohn’s enchanting Octet, performed by the two string quartets from the previous two concerts. Written in 1825 when Mendelssohn was just 16, it is a mercurial, hugely popular piece, full of youthful verve – the perfect way to cap off a delightful weekend.
In between the concerts, the Blue Mountains offer many different attractions for visitors from bush walks to garden visits to shopping in Katoomba to simply relaxing at the Hydro Majestic. As the guest of The Escarpment Group, which owns the iconic hotel and oversaw its recent $30 million refurbishment, Limelight was taken on a tour around the Mountains in Flora, a 1929 Cadillac LaSalle, courtesy of Blue Mountains Vintage Cadillacs, and visited the beautiful Everglades Gardens.
The Hydro Majestic itself also offers a terrific history tour of the building. Built by dashing retail baron, world traveller, hydrotherapy evangelist and notorious cross-dresser Mark Foy, the hotel spans 1.2 kilometres along the escarpment edge of the picturesque Megalong Valley in the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains. The hotel has undergone many changes since it first opened its doors in 1904 and the hotel’s concierge Jim is a fountain of lively information and fun facts about the lavish, quirky building. Today, after its stunning renovation, it really does feel as if you are stepping back in time to a decadent, by-gone era.
Limelight magazine attended the Blue Mountains Opera Festival as a guest of The Escarpment Group.