CHORUS! Opera Australia at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 4 February-10 March 2023. Photography by Keith Saunders
The Opera Australia Chorus has long been one of the most admired elements of the company, and regular audiences are extremely proud of it. With reason: this exhaustingly hard-working gang of badasses is a national treasure. And mostly, we don’t really see them until their one and only curtain call. Until now, that is.
Former Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini programmed this 60-minute compilation of choral greatest hits at a time when it seems to be The Thing – with other opera companies around the world having much the same idea. As it is, Chorus! is much more than a simple concert performance. The stage of the Joan Sutherland is emptied of all scenery and not a treacherous staircase is to be seen. Instead, the audience is treated to the rare sight of the bare bones of the building, atmospherically lit, with two gleaming grand pianos, side by side and shadowy at the far reaches of the stage.
The 18 pieces range from Bernstein to Wagner. Clearly there is no narrative thread, instead what brings the show together and keeps it flowing, aurally and visually, is movement coordinator Troy Honeysett, and director Matthew Barclay. The 48 voices are conducted by Chorus Master Paul Fitzsimon and they are somehow even richer and more thrilling when the singers are the focus centre-stage.
The evening begins with Matthew Marshall’s lighting barely illuminating the stage as the men appear out of the gloom, one by one, into Tannhäuser’s “Pilgrims Chorus”. They are accompanied by pianists Michael Curtain and Kate Johnson, rather than a Wagnerian orchestra, and the musicians’ ability to fully suggest what would normally be a massive sound makes it clear that this will not be a quite nice parlour recital.
When the women arrive and the program gets fully underway it’s as if they’ve all just come from a gritty contemporary piece set in a 1950s East German car factory. Currently, the costume department must be devoid of all dowdy tweed jackets, beige-ish house dresses, baggy grey flannels, and the other sensible mid-20th-century ensembles in its racks. The front cover of the program is a comical contrast, with a few singers depicted in sunny budgerigar pastels. As one patron commented on the way out, “What happened to this look? I think we’ve been dudded!”
Musically, however, there’s no short-changing. In no particular order of preference, but memorably, there are gems from Faust, Dido and Aeneas, Pagliacci, Turandot, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Eugene Onegin, and many more. The evening ends with “Make Our Garden Grow” from Bernstein’s Candide. Bittersweet, melancholic, and a beautiful vehicle for the massed voices. The audience went out into the night humming, smiling, and thrilled by their Chorus – the sense of ownership says such a lot, and all of it good. Recommended without reservation.