The companies we keep set the stage for a lively 2013
Cheryl Barker as Salome. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti
MELBOURNE opera lovers are a blessed breed, seldom more so than in 2012. Few cities our size boast our richness of choice, from a generally excellent national company, a visionary state company, and a few small or semi-professional companies with interesting and ambitious ideas.
Opera Australia's three spring productions drew four, 4½, and 4½ stars from me as Age reviewer, or 13 out of a possible 15 - a spectacular short season led by three diverse but exceptional sopranos in Cheryl Barker as Salome, Emma Matthews as Lucia and Hiromi Omura as Butterfly. The company's autumn season of a tired Turandot (Puccini), a fine but familiar Barber of Seville (Rossini), a fantastical, erratic and heavily truncated Magic Flute (Mozart) by Julie Taymor of Lion King fame, and Lehar's frothy Merry Widow had been much more mixed, making spring an unexpected pleasure.
Director Gale Edwards got most attention for the vulgar but brilliantly compelling Salome (Richard Strauss), but it was a fine team effort in which Barker and Thomas Hall as a surprisingly vulnerable John the Baptist combined technical excellence with utter conviction. John Doyle's minimalist new production of Lucia allowed musical and dramatic values to flourish, as did Moffat Oxenbould's much-loved, elegant Butterfly.
The Victorian Opera perfectly fills a valuable niche, with smaller, less mainstream productions encouraging young singers and including each year a work commissioned by the company. Its choices under Richard Gill were always imaginative and enticing, and new artistic director Richard Mills seems set on the same track.
Stravinsky's Rake's Progress, with a high-profile team of director John Bell and choreographer Steven Heathcote, featured the ever-improving Tiffany Speight, and I was captivated by the fascinating sound-world of What Next? by Elliot Carter, who died this year aged 104. This shared a witty double bill with Falla's Master Peter's Puppet Show.
Midnight Son, the new commission by Gordon Kerry and Louis Nowra, based on a lurid Melbourne murder, handled its topic with reasonable sensitivity, running backwards in time across 12 scenes. Again, a strong and even cast distinguished itself, especially mezzo Dimity Shepherd as the mistress. But the company's daring Marriage of Figaro unfortunately did not really work, though Speight made a memorable countess.
A plug in passing is due to the admirable Orchestra Victoria, in the pit for both main companies, which distinguished itself at virtually every production. Melbourne's smaller companies had much to offer as well. I was impressed by Lyric Opera's account of Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti at Chapel off Chapel, though the first half of the double bill, Offenbach's The Red Apple, was too insubstantial to be worth the effort.
Iopera, the innovative occasional company run by conductor Peter Tregear and director Gert Reifarth, gave a memorable Kaiser von Atlantis - the parody of Hitler written by Viktor Ullmann in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The SS guards did not understand what was happening until the dress rehearsal, at which point composer and cast were shipped to Auschwitz. The intimate production at Monash University overcame all hurdles and was deeply satisfying.
Less satisfying to this reviewer was Chamber Made Opera's Minotaur Trilogy, part of the Melbourne Festival. I was castigated on Facebook and a music website for my first paragraph: ''Skrrrrrk. Mwarkkk. GrglBANG. Ooooooooooooh (sung, rising and falling very slowly). Xwgerk! There, you don't need to go to the Minotaur Trilogy, you've just performed it to yourself!''
With hindsight, it might have been better to be less flippant, and I did admire the effort and ingenuity, but ultimately my second thoughts are no more flattering than my first.
Unfortunately, I missed Melbourne Opera's four productions, the Merry Widow, La Boheme, Carmen and the Magic Flute, two of which had to compete with Opera Australia productions.
Excitingly, 2013 - including Melbourne's first Ring cycle - looks just as enticing as 2012.