Opera review: The Sopranos

An Opera Queensland commission that defies stereotypical representations of victimised women and offers bold and spirited alternatives.

When the going gets tough, opera’s heroines don’t shop, they sing. It’s no secret that women are victimised, ridiculed, murdered, bullied or languish on day beds with terminal illness in operatic storytelling. The mouthier the woman the more she is likely to die a horrible death. 

This refreshing, worthy show that’s been conceived and written by Sarah Holland-Batt with insightful direction by Patrick Nolan and Laura Hansford, unspooled the brilliant legacy of women’s voices in the genre’s history from Monteverdi to Finsterer. And the program highlighted the multiple ways spirited heroines are traumatised in operas by Purcell, Mozart and Poulenc. 

After a frustrating period of live performances being brutally axed, this show gave a large cast of women, several male soloists including the silver-toned Jose Carbo, and Opera Queensland’s robust, polished chorus, the chance to sing in a gritty mix of intense arias. On show was an intense selection of classics in which plucky heroines put up a helluva fight and don’t mince words. 

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Bizet’s grisly ‘Les dialogue des Carmelite’s,’ based on a true story, features 16 ‘nuns’ guillotined in the French Revolution. The playlist celebrated works by Australians Mary Finsterer, Peggy Polias and Peggy Glanville-Hicks and Europeans Purcell, Puccini, Donizetti and Tchaikovsky.

Sofia Troncoso and Michael Honeyman, distinguished themselves in ‘Please Don’t Die Jan’ by American composer Missy Mazzoli from Breaking The Waves. The bleak, at times stormy orchestration, resonated with Britten’s seascapes in Peter Grimes. Troncoso, in fine fettle, climbed the steep melodic contours of Mazzoli’s vivid language.                                                                                        

The arias were connected by drifts of murmured ghostly whispers that functioned as a Greek chorus and linked the 20 arias and choruses together. To be picky, the momentum waxed and waned and dragged in the first half, perhaps because the program of slower-paced arias all peddled gloom and tragedy. Despite the worthy political message, the program still needs to be entertaining too. 

One of the strengths was the simplicity of the setting that featured orchestral players on stage, liberated from the pit. The irrepressible Jessica Lethin supported rather than dominated the singers and when the instrumental commentary soared, it wasn’t at the singers’ expense. Stunning video projections added depth, atmosphere and intriguing visual interest. Costume design by Karen Cochet was classy. And to the stage designer’s credit, the concert hall stage didn’t convey an awkward compromise but rather an authentic simplicity. 

Illness plagues live performance these days. Dominique Fegan replaced Lisa Harper-Brown and launched the evening with Tosca’s tortured, ‘Vissi d’arte.’ Fegan mined the pathos with a sinewy, determined voice, big vibrato and a loving respect for Puccini’s music. 

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Eleanor Greenwood as Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio could be opera’s answer to pop star Alanis Morrisette. Not vocally, but because of her theatrical flair for delivering white hot spitting rage. Her distinctive lower register complemented a lovely upper range. 

Hayley Sugars’ fluid clarity in Purcell’s much-loved lament ‘When I’m Laid in Earth’ with its swirled undertow of scorching pain had appeal and she rocked as Carmen in Bizet’s sassy, man-baiting, ‘Pres des remparts de Seveille.’ Katie Stenzel embodied queenly evil in The Magic Flute’s murderously difficult ‘Der Holle Rache’ and, her admirable execution of the repetitive segments of stabbing staccato were fired like deadly bullets. 

Eva Kong channelled luminous lunacy as Lucia in ‘O giusto cielo.’ Later in a strong voice she fielded Turandot’s tragic oratory.

Opera Queensland’s exploration of the soprano voice will hopefully inspire librettists and composers to create three-dimensional heroines who are not exclusively defined by their relationship to men. The proud cast on stage humming ‘Coro a bocca chiusa’ from Madame Butterfly was a magical conclusion.

The Sopranos
By Sarah Holland-Batt
Opera Queensland in association with Queensland Symphony Orchestra
Concept: Sarah Holland-Batt and Patrick Nolan
Conductor: Jessica Gethin
Director: Laura Hansford and Patrick Nolan
Costumes: Karen Cochet and Bianca Bulley
Lighting: Christine Felmingham
Dramaturg: Jane Sheldon
Chorus Master
: Narelle French
Cast: Sarah Crane, Amber Evans, Tania Ferris, Eleanor Greenwood, Lisa Harper-Brown, Leanne Kenneally, Eva Kong, Kate Stenzel, Sofia Troncoso, Hayley Sugars, Shaun Brown, José Carbó, Simon Lobelson, Carlos E. Bárcenas Ramírez
Opera Queensland Chorus

The Sopranos was performed from 29 March to 2 April 2022 at the Concert Hall, QPAC.

Gillian Wills is an author and arts writer who has published with ArtsHub, Australian Stage Online, Limelight, Griffith Review, Australian Book Review, The Australian, Weekend Review, Good Reading, The Strad (UK) Cut Common, Loudmouth and Artist Profile. Her short stories have been published with Dillydoun Review, Antonym, Dewdrop, Unbelievable Stories and Hare’s Paw Literary Journal. Her memoir, Elvis and Me: how a world-weary musician and a broken racehorse rescued each other, Finch Pty was released in 2016 in Australia, America, Canada, The UK and NZ.