Simone Young began her tenure as Music Director for Opera Australia in January with a Verdi festival around the centenary of his death. The commemorative celebrations included his secular Requiem as well as Il trovotore, Rigoletto and La traviata, the cluster of operas that he wrote in the early 1850s.

Those works are a poor guide to the prospects for the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. Any instrumentalist unfamiliar with their scores should not have got an audition. The test is what can they make of so standard a repertoire.

The answer is that, at their best, the AOBO was, as Verdi said of the Paris Opera orchestra in 1847, ‘slightly better than mediocre’.

The quality of performance improved over three consecutive evenings at the Opera House, starting with Il trovatore. Its light scoring was just as well because the playing met none of the criteria for excellence – pace and depth, lyrical yet gutsy, elegiac and impulsive. The positives were mostly negatives: no ragged entries or exits. Interviewed in these pages in January, Young spoke of ‘unleashing a wild horse’ for Il trovotore. Instead, she bobbed up and down like a carousel pony so that by the close of the first act, the strings were taking more guidance from her body language than her baton.

Not all the lacklustre playing can be blamed on the reworked production which Young strove to motivate from the podium. Surely the only solution consistent with artistry would have been a refusal to perform? The weaknesses were infuriating because they blighted the vocal thrills provided by Bernadette Cullen as Azucena and Dennis O’Neill as Manrico.     

The playing in Rigoletto was a big step up because the acting and the production, though aging, offered purpose. Again, the playing delivered few of the characteristics associated with perceptive music-making, neither tragic sweep, nor emotional possibilities more complex than Gilda’s grace versus the courtiers’ loutishness. In a score of exclamation marks, the AOBO was pushed to keep up with the precision of the chorus. In the storm scene, the orchestra ran a poor second to the stage thunder.

La traviata calls for consistent and layered playing which the AOBO supplied, supporting Regina Schorg as Violetta through her extensive solos. She was disadvantaged only by Neville Wilkie as Germont pere who was as frozen as she was vibrant. On all three nights, the quality of the orchestra varied with that of the voices so that the singers led the band, more often than it lifted them.

The perceptive elements displayed during the first two acts of La Traviata coalesced to carry the orchestra into the opening plangent strains in Act Iii, heralding achievements through to the final curtain. Here, at last, was a base line for future advances, the minimum below which the company should never have been allowed to slip. The question remains: is this the best they can manage under any conductor, or merely the best Young can draw from them?

In the late 1850s, Verdi initiated reforms of theatre orchestras throughout Italy by standardising the pitch and reconfiguring the disposition and balance of instruments, tasks a tad more taxing than the retraining a brace of bands. He also revised his own scores and moved away from free-standing tunes towards the integration of music with plot and staging that he had begun in La traviata.

Nobody is pining for an ‘authentic’ performance of Rigoletto with three-stringed basses. Rather, the task for a conductor is to develop the flexible tempi that avoid the bum-titty-bum rhythms that once made connoisseurs dismiss all of Verdi except Otello and Falstaff. Young and the AOBO were not able to maintain this rubato, which pointed to tje general want of shape.

The Requiem put the orchestra to the fire. After a devotional opening, in which dark and soaring male voices set the chorus way above the instrumentalists, the ensemble lunged towards the Dies Irae but halfway through lost clarity. The resultant noise was made worse by shaky brass and a bass drum that thudded when it should have cracked. Whenever the volume went up, the textures disappeared. By themselves, the winds and cellos were pleasurable. The weakest section were the violins which were devoid of colour. Lux aeterna was without either shimmer or illumination, let alone rapture. The Santus had all the wonder of a gallop from operetta. The performance lacked purpose, approaching the score as just another long and difficult piece to get through. We were brought no closer to the meaning of death.

Young’s decision to work with her players for a on this limited and mainstream program was an essential starting point to improve the AOBO, but it needs at least a year’s consistent drilling. Instead, Young flew out before the close of the Verdi season to conduct Wagner in Berlin. She will be back in Sydney in July for Andrea Chenier. After that, she will not conduct an opera with the AOBO till next year. Her problems are compounded by Opera Australia’s working with two orchestras. When she returns later in 2001 it will be to the State Orchestra of Victoria. Meanwhile, the AOBO will have been to the ballet.

No less an impediment to improvement is the enthusiasm of Sydney subscribers who are star-struck, applauding personalities more than performance. They were not so deaf as to roar approval at Il trovotore, but they should have been booing.