La Niña must be an opera-lover. After a rain-truncated dress rehearsal—and months of chaotic summer weather—Opera Australia’s first venture into large-scale outdoor performance opened on Sydney Harbour (March 24) with the twin blessings of balmy air and perfectly clear skies. And there was more: as the sun retreated, Venus could be observed hovering brightly above the Sydney Harbour Bridge with Jupiter blazing away in the distance. The gods had come to the party.
With the setting a piece of theatre in itself—a floating stage, the Botanic Gardens hugging the seating area, the Sydney Opera House in the near distance with the bridge looming behind it, ferries bobbing about, and the ubiquitous fruit bats wheeling—the question was always going to be how well La traviata would fare in such a large and compelling arena. Three hours later 3,000 people jumped instantly to their feet to give their answer.
The spectacle was always a given. There were extravagant fireworks to cap the brindisi, the sweetest light-festooned water taxis to deliver some of Flora’s party guests, a couple of ebullient drag queens for Sydney flavour (they happily mingled with the audience during the interval) and, hanging above the raked silver stage, the designer Brian Thomson’s gigantic, sparkling chandelier that changed colour with the prevailing mood.
Less predictable, and therefore more gratifying, was the way in which Francesca Zambello’s direction brought surprisingly intimate focus to the essentials of the drama. Emma Matthews (who alternated with Rachelle Durkin for this six-nights-a-week run) isn’t exactly the courtesan type in demeanour, but looked lovely in her 1950s wardrobe and sounded plush and radiant enough for any assignation. Matthews had the audience hanging on every finely-spun phrase of ‘Dite alla giovine’, delivered to the sympathetic Giorgio Germont of Jonathan Summers; ‘Teneste la promessa’ sounded ripped from her soul. Gianluca Terranova (Alfredo) had an ordinary start from which he never entirely recovered. The notes all ended up in the right place but the chemistry went missing somewhere.
Amplification for the singers was extremely effective, marginally less so for the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, hidden beneath the set and sounding a tad too bright. Nevertheless, with Brian Castles-Onion at the helm, they provided sterling support. All augurs well for Opera on Sydney Harbour to become an annual fixture beyond its assured dates in 2013 and 2014. Next year Gale Edwards will direct Carmen, with Brian Thomson returning as designer.