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Celebrating Verdi's power and passion

It's a tribute to the enduring popularity of the music of Giuseppe Verdi that an opera season featuring six of his greatest works doesn't feel unbalanced or even all that unusual.

Opera Australia's artistic director Lyndon Terracini, who is celebrating the bicentenary of Verdi's birth with productions of A Masked Ball (a sell-out world premiere during the Sydney Festival), Il Trovatore, Falstaff, The Force of Destiny, La Traviata and Aida (Melbourne only), says Verdi's evergreen appeal is as much to do with the man as his music.

"Verdi was an extraordinarily complex human being," Terracini says. "He had the ability and talent to create music that stood on its own, but he was also very political.

''His music is powerful and inspiring in its own right, but if you can connect it to his political philosophy as well, then it has an embracing quality to it."

With the works of Mozart, Puccini and Wagner, Verdi's operas are cornerstones of opera company repertoires worldwide, Terracini says.

"You've got to be able to do those operas and do them really well to sustain an audience,'' he says.


''Verdi demands you do it at the very highest level. If your singers can bring it off and really nail all those notes, the audience shares in the excitement. Verdi can change your life."

This is Terracini's take on Sydney's year of Verdi …


Until March 5

Written in 1853, Il Trovatore is one of the most vocally demanding operas in the repertoire, Terracini says.

"You need four of the best singers in the world to do it justice. It is so very difficult, especially for the tenor singing Manrico.

''He has heavy music and a lot of it to sing, and then, suddenly, right at the end of it, he has to bang out a tremendous high C. It's one of the toughest tests in opera."

The Opera Australia (OA) production stars American tenor Arnold Rawls, who came to Terracini's attention during a performance of Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

"The tenor singing Manrico conked out halfway through, so Arnold went on and sang cold. He let go his high C at the end of Di quella pira and the audience was ecstatic; they were tearing up the seats."

Recommended for … First-time opera-goers. "There's the great 'anvil chorus' with anvils being bashed and our chorus singing in a wonderfully full-throated way," Terracini says.


Until March 16

Adapted from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, Verdi composed Falstaff when he was in his 80s.

"It is one of his greatest ensemble pieces. It comes from a period in Verdi's career when he was creating work for singing actors rather than stand-and-deliver singers. All of the main roles need complete performers," Terracini says.

Baritone Warwick Fyfe sings the title role in the OA production, directed by Simon Phillips.

"He is ideal as Falstaff," Terracini says. "He has a wonderfully acerbic sense of humour."

Recommended for … Verdi lovers. "When Verdi was writing this, he was thinking about everything he had achieved, not only as a composer but as a human being," Terracini says.


June 29-July 23

First performed in 1862, La Forza del Destino is among the lesser known of Verdi's major works.

Terracini expects OA's new production, directed by Tama Matheson and designed by Mark Thompson, to change that.

"It's going to be tremendously striking and original," he says.

"There is a massive human skull in the set design, it looks fantastic and the costumes are some of the most beautiful I've seen."

But Verdi's story of vendetta, elopement and disaster also needs extraordinary voices to bring it to life. Soprano Svetla Vassileva makes her OA debut as Leonora, Riccardo Massi plays Don Alvaro, the nobleman she unwisely falls in love with, and Italy's Giacomo Prestia makes his OA debut as Padre Guardiano.

"He's simply one of the great basses in the world right now," Terracini says.

Israeli soprano Rinat Shaham is Preziosilla, the gypsy fortune teller.

"You need a very charismatic performer in that role so I'm thrilled she's doing it," Terracini says.

Recommended for … "Verdi buffs," Terracini says. "But it really is so beautiful, if you were seeing an opera for the first time, you'd still very much enjoy it."


July 30-August 31

La Traviata is probably Verdi's best-loved opera for its melodic inspiration as well as its dramatic design. Elijah Moshinsky's production of it is among the most admired in the OA repertoire.

"We've done it a number of times, but this time Emma Matthews is singing Violetta after her triumph on the harbour stage last year,'' Terracini says.

''She had never sung Verdi before and yet there she was, being absolutely extraordinary. This gives people the chance to hear her sing Violetta in a theatre."

Matthews will be singing with young tenor Martin Buckingham ("he's really pumped for this", Terracini says) and audience favourite Jose Carbo, who sings the role of Giorgio for the first time.

Recommended for … All-comers. "It is such a wonderful love story: boy meets girl, girl gets sick and dies, boy all on his own,'' Terracini says.

''I think a lot of younger people are really connecting with these tragic opera love stories at the moment."