June - 'The Huguenots'
Joan Sutherland’s farewell performance in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s The Huguenots at the Sydney Opera House in 1990 is available on YouTube and was the selection for June. Great singing and staging - an emotional night for all her fans. (2022...Unfortunately this version is not on YouTube now - however this is a beautiful production featuring Sutherland...)
The story culminates in the historical St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572 in which thousands of French Huguenots (Protestants) were slaughtered by Catholics in an effort to rid France of Protestant influence. Although the massacre was a historical event, the rest of the action primarily concerns the love between the Catholic Valentine and the Protestant Raoul. Both are caught up in the violence and choose to die together at the end.
Our May opera was Jules Massenet’s Cedrillon. This is his version of the Cinderella story complete with wicked sisters, handsome prince and a happy ending. First performed in Paris in 1899 and repeated in many opera houses internationally. This tuneful opera was staged as a pantomime as if Cinderella may have dreamt it all. An enjoyable light opera for an Autumn evening.
Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers was our choice this month. Set in exotic Sri Lanka, Leila, a priestess, is taken to a fishing village to invoke the gods to protect the fishermen throughout the fishing season and bring them good catches. Although she lives in the village with them she can have no contact with the villagers or her magic will not work.
One of the fishermen, Zurga, had met her previously and fallen in love with her as had his best friend Nadir.and both had pledged to forgo their love for her to save their friendship. Nadir arrives at the village and immediately Leila and Nadir meet and declare their love. A terrible storm occurs and Zurga finds out about their liaison. He condemns them to death, but eventually relents and allows them to depart peacefully.
This 2015 production by the New York Metropolitan Opera was beautifully sung and staged.
We looked at the Glyndebourne 2016 production of this tuneful opera.
Berlioz was enthralled by Shakespeare and this opera is a version he produced of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. A very sarcastic Beatrice constantly hurls barbed comments at Benedict and he replies in kind. Despite this, these strong feeling are eventually changed into a reluctant acknowledgement of love and they marry rather hastily.
One wonders how it would work out? But not to worry, we don’t get to see them experiencing domestic bliss. Feminists should beware of this opera, it supports the old clichés of women reluctantly placing themselves under the domination of men. What on earth would Shakespeare think if he had to try and write a play about equal partnerships in modern marriage?
The music was great and we enjoyed this teasing opera that has a happy ending.
February - Gounod's opera, 'Faust'
Our merry band listened to Gounod’s opera, Faust, enjoying the 2011 New York Metropolitan Opera’s stunning production. Jonas Kaufmann sang the role of Faust but most of the group felt he was out-sung by Rene Pape in the role of Mephistopheles and the gorgeous singing of the Russian soprano, Marina Poplavskaya, in the role of Marguerite.
The contemporary set, often bathed in darkness, seemed the perfect foil for this disturbing story of a man who sells his soul to the devil.
The 2019 season 'A Night at the Opera - French Style' will explore some of the great nineteenth century French composers like Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc who were interested in opera as a musical form. Lovely arias, tuneful music, great singers and performances.
As usual the group meets at the presenter’s house on a Wednesday evening at 7pm. Drinks and light refreshments are offered.
Maximum of 10 participants can be seated.
June - 'Dr Atomic'
Our final opera for this year's 'Exploring New Operas' program was Dr. Atomic, an opera first performed .in 2005 and written by the American composer John Adams. It explores the tensions and doubts of the group of scientists who developed the first atomic weapon in the Nevada desert in the last days of World War Two.
Bad weather almost forced the group to cancel the crucial last test of the weapon prior to it being used in the war against Japan. While the military commander insisted the test proceed, the meteorologists refused to give the ‘all clear’ with the weather. Meanwhile scientists were placing bets on whether or not the test would be successful and some were convinced they were in danger if the bomb was prematurely exploded in the bad weather.
Production was by the Nederlands Opera in conjunction with a Chicago opera cohort. Dance enhanced the surreal staging of the opera and Adams musical score was highly praised. As with many modern operas the music played as a continuous background soundscape rising and falling with the tensions expressed in the libretto.
This exploration of twentieth century opera has demonstrated how far the genre has deviated from the joyous and musical treats of the great operas of the nineteenth century. Interesting as the new operas were, our group is looking forward to revelling in the great arias of this by.gone era again.
May - 'Lulu', Alan Berg
May saw the group watching the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of Alban Berg’s LuLu.
Set in Berlin in the 1930s the opera traces the rise to wealth of a young woman, LuLu, who is a victim, a criminal, a femme fatale and a naïve young girl.
LuLu initially is married to the rich but elderly Dr. Goll who dies of a stroke when he enters an artists’s studio to find that LuLu has succumbed to the artist’s advances. However she is now rich and enjoys the benefits of her inheritance in an elegant apartment. She marries the artist who becomes famous but dissatisfied with his life. Her friends from her former days still visit her, including Dr Schon, a former lover, who asks her to cease seeing him as her reputation is scandalous. The artist discovers this past affair with Schon and kills himself. LuLu is unmoved by his death, decides she wants to marry Schon. As the Opera progresses LuLu becomes involved with many other men, most of whom try to tame her but do not succeed.
The crash of the 1930s leaves her penniless and she lives precariously in some backstreet rooms that she shares with her father, an old beggar, and a former countess who is also without money. Lu Lu is now very ill and is finally murdered by a man who she brings home. Throughout the opera LuLu is seemingly unmoved by all the tragedies, the wealth, the friends that she encounters and even in her last dire situation she accepts her fate.
The Met’s production was stunning with contemporary scenery that matched the fragmented story of her life. A difficult opera for the singers, but well handled by Marlis Petersen as LuLu.
April - 'Sophie's Choice'
Our small group of enthusiasts saw the DVD of Nicholas Maw’s opera Sophie’s Choice First produced in 2002 Maw presented the story of a Polish refugee Sophie who migrated to New York after the second world war. She is courted by a seemingly charming schizophrenic man, Stingo, and they live together in a boarding house. His frequent rages are painful for the narrator to watch, who wants to protect Sophie and eventually persuades her to run away with him. Here she tells him her dreadful story of incarceration in a concentration camp during the war, where she was forced to make a choice about saving one of her two children and surrendering the other to be taken to the gas chambers. These experiences have permanently damaged her ability to cope with ordinary life and she leaves the safety offered by narrator to return to Stingo. Within days he hears that Stingo and Sophie have both committed suicide together, each unable to face their demons.
Unlike twentieth century musical theatre (Evita, Chicago etc), Opera has travelled a dark path in the last 100 years
March - 'The Turn of the Screw'
Benjamin Britten’s opera based on the novel “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, was our subject in March. First performed in 1954 in Venice, we viewed an Opera Australia production from 1992. This is another “chamber” opera which can be performed with minimum stage effects. However this DVD used lavish and contemporary effects to simulate the dark and mysterious recesses of an isolated country house in nineteenth century England. Two children and their governess are troubled by the ghostly appearances of the former governess and the estate manager both who died after having an illicit liaison and corrupting the two children. Britten’s bleak music and libretto create a troubling backdrop as the new governess tried to rescue the children from their nightmares and memories. We all needed quite a lot of cheering up after this viewing.
An enjoyable evening was spent viewing Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, 1989, [American]. This DVD is of a recording session made by Bernstein himself and is regarded by some as the best recording of the work.
The presentation of it is different from most operas we have seen so far. Bernstein presents the work with the orchestra on stage and the singers presenting it as an oratorio instead of as a drama.
Bernstein chose an eighteenth-century novel “Candide” by the French philosopher Voltaire as his subject matter. This seems unusual for the mid twentieth century composer. In the novel Voltaire savagely satirises Optimism. Dr Pangloss is the eternal optimist who believes that everything that happens, happens for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire tests this by putting Candide, the innocent young man, through a series of wildly improbable events all of which are increasingly unpleasant. Monarchy, the churches, war, greed and betrayal were savagely attacked by Voltaire and turned into some marvellously amusing arias by Bernstein.
Born in America, Bernstein was quintessentially European in musical tastes and outlook and had been greatly affected by the events of the holocaust and the concentration camp orchestras in the Second World War. Composer and conductor (New York Philharmonic) he was one of the key musical influences in America in the twentieth century.
'Exploring New Operas' 2018
'Exploring New Operas' will run in the first half of 2018, one night a month, with a maximum of 10 participants. We will be looking at operas from the twentieth century with perhaps a couple of older examples as well, if time permits.
Alban Berg's Lulu, 1937 but revised 1979 (German)
Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice, 1973 (British)
Leonard Bernstein's Candide, 1989 (American)
Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice, 2002 (British)
John Adam's, Doctor Atomic, 2005 (American)
Most of these operas are based on twentieth century novels or events. DVDs all have English subtitles, which helps viewers even though four of these are sung in English.
The curtain is coming down on our 2017 Opera Season. I thought you might like a list of those we have seen over the last eighteen months because many of them are in the Top 10 Favourite Opera Lists.
Mozart Cosi fan Tutti Contemporary Dress
Donizetti La Fille du Regiment Joan Sutherland as Marie
Verdi La Traviata Placido Domingo as Alfredo
Verdi Rigoletto Pavarotti as Rigoletto
Rossini Otello Zurich Opera production
Strauss Fledermaus Opera Australia production
Giordano Andrea Chenier Jonas Kaufman as Chenier
Bizet Carmen Jonas Kaufman as Don Jose
Puccini Turandot Zefferelli Production NY Met
Puccini La Boheme Opera Australia production
Britten Peter Grimes La Scala production, British cast
While the Italians have featured with their marvellous nineteenth century arias and stirring orchestral movements, we have also sampled some of the twentieth century’s great singers and heard some surprisingly beautiful singing from lesser known but equally wonderful performers.
Nor have we forgotten our own stunning Opera Australia.
Fortunately, the advent of the DVD has meant that we can see and hear some of the great performances from opera houses from across the world.
October - Puccini's 'Turandot'
Our Opera group reconvened for an October opera. The DVD was Puccini’s Turandot. This lavish production, staged by Zeffirelli at the New York Metropolitan Opera, was a delightful treat with the inimitable James Levine conducting and the lead male role of Calaf sung by Placido Domingo. None of us had heard either of the female leads before and so were delighted with Eva Marton as Turandot and the beautiful interpretation of the slave girl Lui by Leona Mitchell. Although this version was filmed in 1989 it is still probably the best.
Turandot, an Asian princess, refused to marry unless a princely suitor could answer three riddles that she gave him. If he failed he was executed – a high price to pay for love! Many had died but Calaf, an unknown prince, took the riddle test and to Turandot’s displeasure answered correctly. However, he declined to marry her when she told him how distasteful it would be for her. Instead he gave her a riddle which, if she guessed the answer before morning, would cancel her obligation to marry him. She had to find out his real name.
She cruelly sent out servants to find the answer and had the faithful slave girl, Lui, tortured, but Lui killed herself rather than reveal her master’s name. All were horrified by this death and Calaf told the unrepentant Turandot his name giving her the chance to answer the riddle correctly the next day. But the cagey Calaf also kissed her in the moonlight and so broke down her implacable resistance. The next day, Turandot revealed that the secret name was “love” and so the two were married to the joy of the kingdom which was heartily sick of the slaughter of so many young princes.
Coincidentally we played this opera on “The Day of the Girl”, an annual celebration of girl-power. Fortunately, the girls of today don’t go to such extremes to reject a suitor, but still seem very susceptible to love.
'In the Mood for Opera' will resume in October. Meg will email participants on her return.
Something to watch when 'In the Mood for Opera' over the coming months!
To read background information and view the video, go to
http://www.roh.org.uk/news/watch-live-a-first-glimpse-of-the-royal-operas-new-production-of-verdis-otello, or you can watch the program on the You Tube link below.
Fledermaus by Johann Straus was our final opera for this half year. We enjoyed our journey from Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutti through the C19th tragedies of Riguletto and Andrea Chenier, then the light-hearted Daughter of the Regiment to a taste of the gritty C20th with Britten’s Peter Grimes.
Fledermaus or The Revenge of the Bat was first performed in 1874. Its trifling narrative is completely vindicated by the lovely music and arias. This DVD by Opera Australia delighted us with magnificent staging, costumes and singing.
This light-hearted fantasy was built on the comic revenge that Dr Falke sought on his friend Eisenstein for leaving him in his bat’s costume in a public park when they walked home after a fancy-dress ball. Falke in league with the world-weary Prince Orlovsky, arranges to have the main characters attend Orlovsky’s grand ball, but disguised under false names. Eisenstein deceives his wife into thinking he is going to prison that night, but she sees him at the ball introduced as the Marquis de Renard; she attends in disguise as a Hungarian Countess. Her maid, who was to visit a sick grandmother, is there too wearing one of her mistress’s grand gowns and pretending to be an actress called Olga. And Frank, the policeman, comes as the Chevalier Chagrin.
Orlovsky is delighted as his guests flirt, make fools of themselves and leave none the wiser of the trick played on them. The next morning at the local police station they all assemble and the truth about their identities is revealed. They all forgive each other and blame the evening on the large quantities of champagne they all drank.
May - 'Peter Grimes'
Our May modern opera was Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten, produced in 1945. It is the story of a modern English fishing village that vilified Peter Grimes, a morose and bad tempered fisherman whose apprentice died at sea. Village folk thought Grimes was unsuited to be in charge of young apprentices who were mostly taken from the orphanage.
Grimes loved the local schoolteacher who befriended him and tried to soften his grim character but to no avail. The villagers rebelled against his decision to get another apprentice boy from the orphanage despite the schoolteacher trying to ensure the boy was not harmed. One stormy night the apprentice slipped to his death while climbing down the cliff to Grimes’ boat and Grimes took the body and disposed of it in the sea. A terrible clash occurred when villagers confronted him with where the missing apprentice had got to. Grimes distraught with anger and grief took his boat out to sea and sank it thus drowning himself.
Most of us found the opera “interesting” as a modern opera but missed the lush orchestral music and arias of the great C19th operas, despite the beautiful singing and staging of this version. Britten’s music was reminiscent of the sea and storms and contained the lovely orchestral interludes that are often played by themselves as a suite of Four Sea Interludes.
Our March opera was “Otello” by Gioachino Rossini (1792 - 1868).
Otello, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Othello, was first performed in December 1816. Desdemona has pledged to marry Otello the Moor whom she loves. Otello’s jealous and faithless friend Iago plots to destroy him by intercepting a letter Desdemona has written to Otello but not written his name. Iago shows it to Otello claiming she wrote it to another lover. Jealousy overwhelms Otello, he confronts her and kills her just before a messenger arrives who reveals the plot to him. He then kills himself in remorse. No happy endings here!
Rossini had been living in Naples for some time and writing operas. Otelo was the second of ten serious operas he wrote between 1815 and 1822. This group of operas were transformational in changing the light joyous C18th style of opera to the C19th style of more serious opera-drama. It is also a tenor’s dream as all the main male roles are tenors. John Osborn sang the vacillating Ottello with Peter Kalman as the sly Elmiro and Javier Camarena the faithless friend. Desdemona was sung by Cecilia Bartoli. Our recording is the most recent DVD production from the Zurich Opera in 2012.
In April we listened to Giordano’s opera, “Andrea Chenier”.
This opera was written in 1896 and continues the C19th tradition of composers looking for drama in actual events or situations that are common to their times. The French Revolution [1789 – 1799 ] offers many awful opportunities for a composer to explore revolution, betrayal, brutality and love. In a way the revolution was far more dreadful than any composer could envisage 90 years later. The drama is tempered by the love story between the poet Andrea Chenier, a supporter of the revolution and his love Maddalena, the daughter of a Count, a member of a class that is being exterminated by the revolutionaries because of their indifference and cruelty to the middle class and the poor.
There is no Scarlet Pimpernel in this opera to save the two doomed lovers, but we thrilled to the voices of Jonas Kaufmann singing the role of Chenier, the Serbian tenor Zeljko Lucic as Gerard and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Maddalena. This is a Royal Opera House DVD originally performed in London in 2015.
A full house turned up to see Joan Sutherland in an Australian Opera production from 1986 of “Daughter of the Regiment” by Donizetti.
We started with this early DVD so that we could appreciate Sutherland’s wonderful voice in this jolly story of Marie the baby abandoned on the battlefield who was adopted by the victorious French regiment. She grew up to manage the regiment’s canteen and fell in love with Tonio, a handsome young Swiss who joins the regiment in order to be with her. Sulpice the Captain who has acted as her father discovers that a letter left with the baby identified her as the Niece of the Marquis of Berkenfield who just happened to be passing by and asked the regiment to give her safe passage to her castle. Sulpice is bound to tell the Marquis of her niece whom she swiftly claims and takes to her castle to teach her some approved manners and to arrange a wealthy marriage for her.
Bound to do her duty and obey the Marquis, Marie gives up hope of marrying Tonio and reluctantly agrees to marry the rich and titled suitor chosen for her. Sadly she has not learnt to behave as a shy and delicate maiden and her rough regimental manners soon shock the mother of her intended husband. Just in the nick of time the regiment marches through with Tonio and demands that Marie be allowed to marry him. The Marquis agrees and confesses that Marie is really her daughter and not her niece and she should marry for true love.
This Comic Opera was first performed in Paris in 1840, then in Milan, New Orleans, New York and London. By 1847 it fell out of favour until revived by the Royal Opera London in 1966 for Joan Sutherland.
2017 - In the mood for opera?
Following the 2016 U3A season of ‘Opera on the Dark Side’, a monthly opera will be offered to those interested in following mostly popular traditional operas, including Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti, Strauss etc. We can stray into some modern twentieth century operas in the 2nd half of the year e.g. Ravel, Debussy, Vaughan Williams, Bartok, Glass etc. DVDs of the best possible versions will be screened with subtitles in English and participants will receive a synopsis of the story in the week prior to screening. Limited to 10 participants.
We have finished our series of four operas for the year. A marvellous Rigoletto [Verdi] with Pavarotti as the evil Duke of Mantua outsung by the splendid Louis Quilico as the hunchback Riguletto, father of the beautiful Gilda. You can guess the rest. Gilda is kidnapped by the Duke’s men and made captive in his palace. Riguletto tries to have the Duke assassinated in revenge but only succeeds in having Gilda murdered by mistake! Absolutely magnificent singing.
After this excitement La Traviatta [Verdi] seemed less savage but no less tragic. The lovely courtesan Violetta falls in love with Alfredo and gives up her life of pleasure in Paris to live with him in the country. His father visits her and pleads for her to give up his son as the relationship dishonours his family and prevents his daughter gaining a successful marriage. Violetta does so, but Alfredo has no idea why she has left him and spurns her viciously at a Paris party. Violetta is dying of consumption in Paris when Alfredo learns the truth and rushes to her side only to have the chance of singing one aria with her before she dies. This production by Zefferelli with Placido Domingo as Alfredo and Teresa Stratas as Violetto was outstanding.
Finally we viewed a modern interpretation of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte [Women are always like this]. This jolly story of two soldiers who swap their girlfriends by pretending to be Albanian noblemen explores the various things that can go wrong when you try to test your fiancés’ loyalty in this way. The moral is “Don’t try this!” Things are bound to go pear shaped. The two teenaged girls are no match for the cunning counts. Somehow everyone gets married to the right person at the end. mThis Netherlands Opera Production was beautifully filmed and almost made us believe this could happen in the 1960s.
Meg Dillon – Coordinator
Our group had its first meeting to see Bizet’s opera Carmen which was first written and produced in 1875. When first performed in Paris it shocked the audiences and was not initially a success as it was the first of what would become the “new realism” in opera. It was a contemporary story about a modern soldier of the guard, Don Jose, who became entranced by a fiery gypsy woman who worked in a cigarette factory. He let her escape after she was charged with fighting and was demoted and imprisoned for his neglect of duty. When released he went to find Carmen at a tavern where her gypsy compatriots met to plot their smuggling trade. She forced him to join them if he wished to remain with her. He later regretted this when she left him for a toreador and he stabbed her outside the arena where the bull fighting took place.
The new and exciting tenor, Jonas Kaufman was a splendid Don Jose, while Anna Antonacci sang and acted the role of Carmen with thrilling passion. This Decca version was filmed at Covent Garden, London and is one of the best DVDs of Carmen available.
A pre-course message from Meg
All is now ready for our program of opera adventures to start on the dates below.
There are 10 participants in the group. I will be emailing a reminder about one week prior to each performance. It will include a basic summary of the storyline of the opera. Please email Meg a reply to acknowledge whether you are coming or will be an apology.
All operas will be sung in their original language but the DVDs will have English subtitles .We will have an interval with a brief break for refreshments.
This selection of DVDs will enable you to:·
This program will be held in the evenings, starting at 7pm at 21 Warana Court, Benalla. Ph 5762 6558
Wednesday, October 12 - Bizet’s Carmen with Jonah Kaufmann [the rising star] and Anna Antonacci
Wednesday,October 26 - Verdi’s Rigoletto with Pavarotti [the master!] and Louis Quilico
Wednesday, November 9 - Verdi’s La Traviata (film directed by Zeffirelli) with Domingo and Teresa Stratas
Wednesday, November 23 - Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, (in modern dress) with Sally Mathews and Luca Pisaroni
Opera - four wonderful seasons with Meg Dillon
'Opera - On the Dark Side' (2016)
'In the Mood for Opera' (which included 19th Century favourties) (2017)
'Exploring New Operas' (when most operas were based on twentieth century novels or events') (2018)
'A Night at the Opera - French Style', which explored some of the great nineteenth century French composers like Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc who were interested in opera as a musical form. Lovely arias, tuneful music, great singers and performances. (2019)
Scroll through these pages to enjoy, and for those who attended, reminisce about, four courses offered by Meg Dillon, supported by Terry, at their home, DVDs of the best possible versions were screened with subtitles in English. Limited to 10 members, participants received a synopsis of the story in the week prior to screening.
Thank you so much, Meg! What a truly wonderful program you developed for our members!
Convenor & Contact Details
Meg Dillon 5762 6558
2nd Wednesdays from 7.00 pm - Semester 1 only in 2018.
Developed and maintained by members, this website showcases U3A Benalla & District.
Photographs - U3A members; Benalla Art Gallery website; Weebly 'Free' images;Travel Victoria and State Library of Victoria