oitpW.A. Opera Company and Chorus
W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Brian Castles-Onion (conductor)
Supreme Court Gardens


reviewed by Neville Cohn


In years of attending Opera-in-the-Park performances, I cannot readily recall weather conditions as ideal as at the weekend when thousands attended this annual gift to the people of Perth. Balmy with the merest hint of a breeze and barely an intrusive sound from traffic along Riverside Driver – and a program compilation a cut above the usual fare offered at these events – made for an unusually satisfying evening.

Instead of the usual bits-and-pieces program – a higgledy-piggledy collection of operatic odds and ends: an aria here, a duet there, an orchestral interlude or two with little or no unifying theme – there was a real effort to provide a program that made musical and programming sense.

There were, for instance, brackets of selections from Gounod’s Faust and from Bellini’s Norma (including the exquisite Casta Diva), both works to be offered in full in the Opera Company’s 2004 season. As well, we heard The Lord’s Prayer from Richard Mills’ Batavia which is shortly to be mounted at His Majesty’s Theatre as part of the Perth Festival. Also on an attractive bill were extracts from Mozart’s Magic Flute (with baritone Andrew Foote splendid, as always, in Papageno’s famous aria Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja. And for once there was almost no noise intrusion from traffic along Riverside Drive.

Brian Castles-Onion is not your run-of-the-mill conductor. Certainly, at the weekend, his linking commentary, the likes of which I have never before encountered in decades of concertgoing, included revelations about his liver cleansing efforts (followed by “I can’t believe I said that”) which suggest that if, at any point, Castles-Onion decides to hang up his baton, he could to advantage have a go at being a stand-up comedian.

His patter, zany and often anarchic, was at times less tongue-in-cheek than foot-in-mouth as he fired vollies of often astounding commentary (reflecting, inter alia, on the corpulence of tenors) that would surely have had some of the political-correctness brigade foaming at the mouth.

Of necessity, electronic amplification had to be used so that listeners – and there was a turn-out of thousands – sitting well back from the stage could listen without straining. At times these arrangements were not entirely satisfactory; at climaxes, notably from the brass section, sound tended to distort.

It was good night for tenor Aldo di Toro who sounded entirely convincing. His diction is impeccable and, almost invariably, he succeeded in adapting, chameleon-like, to the changing moods of whatever he happened to be singing. And soprano Elisa Wilson was a glamorous, gold-gowned presence in a variety of arias – and in Casta Diva, that most touchingly poignant of all Bellini arias, quick thinking got it back on the rails after a brief weakening of concentration – as well as a deeply felt account of the national anthem that brought one of the Opera Company’s best-yet outdoor events to an impressive close.

May I say yet again that having, over years, attended many outdoor presentations of this nature in a number of cities around the world, I have yet to come across audiences as courteous, tidy and orderly as those that gather for these opera presentations. Certainly, police officers and State Emergency Service volunteers had nothing to do other than provide discreet evidence of their presence.

© 2004 Neville Cohn

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