Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

Park opera still on song after 30 years

27 February 2021

The exceptional talents of some of our great opera stars turned Opera in the Park’s 30th Anniversary Gala into a transcendent experience, Rosalind Appleby discovered.

Opera in the Park 30th Anniversary Gala, West Australian Opera, City of Perth and Perth Festival ·
Supreme Court Gardens, 26 February, 2021 ·

Thirty years ago, the West Australian Opera (WAO) ventured outdoors to perform Die Fledermaus in Langley Park. Since then, the free annual Opera in the Park concerts have drawn more than 15,000 picnickers every year. For the 30th anniversary this year, WAO performed a gala of opera highlights, held over two nights to try to reach as big an audience as possible within Covid restrictions.

The audience was limited to 2500, with an estimated 5000 more watching live online on both nights. Since 2010, the show has been screened live to several regional centres, this year with the addition of cinemas and private live streaming.

As you would expect, the production technology has changed over the three decades – the set-up now involves a digital (wind-resistant!) set design projected on to the stage shell, with six screens and racks of speakers relaying the action across the park. On Friday night, as the West Australian Symphony Orchestra under Chris van Tuinen launched into the overture to Die Fledermaus (a flashback to the 1991 show), the sound was so clean I could hear the grainy rasp of bow on strings.

The luxurious voice and charisma of soprano Emma Matthews were a highlight of Opera in the Park. Photo Rebecca Mansell

Several years ago, the venue changed to the Supreme Court Gardens, over the road from Langley Park. But some things have remained the same: the sunset glinting off the high-rise buildings, the moon gliding up above the tree line and, of course, the glorious music.

I admit I’d been anticipating an evening of loosely strung-together pop-opera hits, lacking the meaty character development and gradual unfolding of musical themes that are crucial to opera. But as the evening progressed with hits from Rigoletto, West Side Story, La Traviata, Carmen, Turandot and more, I found myself completely engrossed. A big part of this was due to Penny Shaw, who compered with a warmth and humour that made it seem as though I was sitting in her lounge room. Shaw is a soprano, and her added insights made sense of the disparate program, with witty teasing that both celebrated and critiqued the artform.

“In operas, bad things happen to girls who want to have fun,” Shaw conceded as she introduced the courtesan Violetta from La Traviata, citing opera’s appalling track record of killing off sopranos. Bizet’s Toreador song from Carmen she described as a demonstration of “the great length and detail men will go to when describing their latest sporting prowess”, while “O mio babbino caro” (from Gianni Schicchi) was an example of “famously tuneful emotional blackmail”. A quiet reference to the pandemic last March, when many Italians – their country hard-hit by coronavirus – found solidarity in playing Verdi’s “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from their balconies, added extra meaning to the WAO Chorus’s majestic performance of “Va pensiero”.

The other aspect that held me entranced was the singing. There is a reason these pieces are so famous – whether you are hearing them for the hundredth time or the first (as was occasionally the case for my guest), the music can be transcendental, particularly when sung by some of Australia’s greatest opera singers, such as WA’s Emma Matthews, Michael Lewis and Sara Macliver.

Tenor Paul O’Neill, left, and baritone Lachlann Lawton sing the popular duet from ‘The Pearl Fishers’, ‘Au fond du temple saint’. Photo: Rebecca Mansell

The highlights were many. Matthews embraced her return to performing with an abundance of charisma, luxurious sound and coloratura flourishes that prove her remarkable voice is just getting richer. There’s nowhere to hide in Puccini’s famous aria, “Nessun Dorma”, but Paul O’Neill’s tenor had impressive heft, and his duet with baritone Lachlann Lawton, “Au fond du temple saint” (from The Pearl Fishers) was spine-tinglingly beautiful. Mezzo-soprano Caitlin Cassidy delivered a darkly wild “Habanera” complete with a Spanish bullring backdrop and her red dress swirling in the wind.

Not everything had that magical frisson – a faulty microphone, wobbly pitch and emotional restraint made for some underwhelming moments. But the warm glow in the audience was unmistakable as the evening concluded. In its 30th year, Opera in the Park connected West Australians (and opera lovers around the world) with the immense power and beauty of opera.

Pictured top: Opera in the Park lights up Perth city with music and warmth. Photo Scott Slawinski from Base Imagery.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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