Nor fish nor . . .


Victorian Opera & Musica Viva

Melbourne Recital Centre

February 15-19, 2016

Jeremy Kleeman

The name of this particular game was collaboration.  In a spirit of camaraderie, the state’s opera company and the country’s largest purveyor of quality chamber music pooled resources to mount that oddest of forms to pull off successfully: the pastiche opera. Not that this modern-day sequence of juxtapositions had much trace in it of the ad hoc nature of pasticcio opera melanges compiled in Baroque times where the aim was pragmatic – getting the show up and running quickly, at minimal expense through cutting and pasting, and showcasing the best points of the vocal talent available. This current-day exercise aimed more highly, as construction and performance of Voyage to the Moon came under the aegis of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Europe 1100-1800.

The doctrines and practical applications of affects underpins solid Baroque composition and performance theory, providing a resource of great moment for musicians grappling with scores that present interpretative quandaries galore, not just in the application of dynamics but also in phrase-shaping, gradual or abrupt changes in timbre, even the nature of attack on individual notes.  Whatever modes of delivery are eventually chosen, they need an underlying framework that sets up a ground plan for a specific interpretation.  For musicians unschooled in this specific craft, the affect-involving process of analysis and construction connected with articulating even simple pieces like harpsichord suites or violin sonatas can be both enlightening and confrontational in that knowing which affect you are seeking to convey causes an ongoing appraisal: you have to deliberate over every aspect of your engagement in re-creating.

Yes, it can lead to mannered renditions where the results have been over-studied to the point where ultra-refinement wipes away a listener’s sympathy but, in competent hands, this period of music thus informed can come across with a refreshing commitment and simple sonic definition that animate musty pages.

Taking its launching place (like so many earlier works) from part of Ariosto’s poem Orlando furioso, this Voyage to the Moon followed a simple plot where the eponymous hero, inflamed by love, loses his reason and goes on a violent rampage.  His fidus Achates, Astolfo, travels with the assistance of an omniscient Magus (is there any other kind?) through space to our satellite, the apparent location of Earth’s lost property, persuades the intransigent Queen Selena to give back the vital spiritual essence, then restores his angrily roistering colleague to sanity.  Michael Gow and Alan Curtis collaborated to create a plot-delineating sequence of recitatives and a re-wording of selected arias from operas by Handel, Molino, de Majo, Gluck, Hasse, Orlandini and Vivaldi.  The score was completed by Calvin Bowman after Curtis’ death in July last year.

This creation is without spectacle, a singular disadvantage for a production of Baroque opera.  The three singers have a full stage to work with but not much by way of scene-setting or visual complements to the scenario’s changes of mood and place.  In fact, Monday’s premiere saw the instrumental septet centre-stage at the Murdoch Hall’s back wall, harpsichordist/director Phoebe Briggs surrounded by a quintet of familiar string players – violins Rachael Beesley and Zoe Black, viola Simon Oswell, cello Molly Kadarauch, bass Kirsty McCahon – with the lone reliable oboe of Emma Black. A small body, this ensemble gave excellent service throughout the opera’s 75-minute length, the upper string trio consistently valuable contributors to the affective changes in the work’s progress. Whether sighing out plangent introductions or interludes like Handel’s Entree des songes agreables, or hurtling through the close-knit accompaniment to Hasse’s O placido il mare, these musicians set their notes into position just as you’d want: precise, resonant, suggestive of the requisite flights of temperament/emotional ambience.

Two of the three singers are very familiar names.  Soprano Emma Matthews (Orlando/Selena) and mezzo Sally-Anne Russell (Astolfo) are veterans of the opera theatre, concert stage and recital hall; both have plenty of experience in Baroque music and the technical equipment to negotiate respectable paths through intricately ornate arias.  Bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman (Magus) has made a firm start on a singing career, turning up in unexpected places – as soloist for the St. John’s Lutheran Church at Southgate’s Bach cantatas during Sunday morning services, for instance, or as one of the Family quartet in Victorian Opera’s recent concert version of Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins.  While Matthews thrilled her devotees with acrobatics and Russell revelled in the night’s most familiar (and best?) music with Handel’s affecting Piangero la sorte mia, Kleeman used all three of his arias to sterling effect, at his most impressive covering the vast range needed for Handel’s Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori.

In fact, Kleeman appeared to gain most from the music selected for his role, in part because his major contributions were Handel compositions but also thanks to his innate consistency in timbre and rhythmic definition. Matthews displayed her velocity from the start with de Majo’s Tutti tremar dovrete right up to a racy version of the Hasse show-stopper.  But these ornate flights of fancy featured some attention-grabbing obtrusions – improbably high notes, in particular, distracted from this operatic form’s already-ornate eloquence.  The lily-gilding continued in the singer’s second role; Handel’s Neghittosi, or che fate came across as jerky, hard work and lacking in supple fluency of delivery.  Russell enjoyed the allocation of Orlandini’s close-order filigree aria Col versar, barbaro as a counterweight to her lilting Handel contribution earlier, and managed to give a persuasive communication of Astolfo’s pseudo-belligerent intention to fight with his comrade and beat sense into him.  However, several bravura passages misfired, possibly because of the vocal register employed, or because of the tempo chosen.

Still, the work’s elements made a pleasant enough melange with enough individuality in the compositional voices to sharpen the appetite for hitherto-unknown works, those by Molino and de Majo in particular.  Every so often, the chamber-like limitations intruded, like the absence of trumpets and an extra oboe in Handel’s Gia risonar d’intorno or the missing tenor voice in the finale, a light-filled chorus from Vivaldi’s Il Giustino.  But the libretto proved more coherent (and intelligible acoustically) than most, the singers in period costume worked successfully with limited means to give physical expression to their emotions, and the opera’s onward movement never faltered.  In sum, this Moon Voyage experience impressed as a worthwhile experiment, an amiable curiosity, its hybrid nature interesting – once.