Melbourne Recital Centre
Saturday February 4 to Wednesday February 8, 2017
Following the success of last year’s The Seven Deadly Sins production, Victorian Opera has decided to mount its own brand of cabaret-with-a-message, a showcase for the multiple talents of the company’s director Richard Mills who has provided both words and music. Not that much is given away about the nature of this new creation; the company makes a virtue of keeping its gestational cards very closely guarded. In its simplest form, this operatic fantasia charts the history of the prostitute from ancient times onward, doing so by means of a series of vignettes.
Given the subject matter, it’s fair to assume that Mills is citing John Ford’s tragedy in his title. Understandably, despite the shenanigans and circus-style razzmatazz played out at the start and lasting for a substantial part of the work, the production’s 70 minutes’ length ends in a sombreness that reflects the play’s tenor. Some days after the premiere, it’s still difficult to come down firmly on a sustainable evaluation of the creator’s intentions.
‘Tis Pity opens with a petit fanfare, as bold and brassy as any extroverted page from Les Six, chanteuse Meow Meow and tenor Kanen Breen setting up a whirlwind of clownish, frantic action before settling into the chain of episodes that constitute the work’s body, each change of era signalled by a brisk mood-changing blurt. While the opening scenes are clearly signposted on large screens positioned on the Murdoch Hall’s back wall above Orchestra Victoria, the distinction between historical periods appears to break down the closer we get to the our own times.
Meow Meow works very hard to differentiate between the types of sirens from ages past, but the message is clear that ‘fallen’ women were (and are) more sinned against than sinning. Musically, the fantasia puts few strains on the singer’s compass; rather, her endurance is tested as the action becomes more helter-skelter and, at two climactic points, her amplification system fails to carry over the OV brass at full pelt. Breen’s tenor enjoys equal projection as he carries out his MC/Chorus role with athletic, angular enthusiasm. Both these principals are assisted by a trio of male dancers – Alexander Bryce, Thomas Johansson, Patrick Weir – who move the set, act as dressers, do a bit of singing and offer a non-gender specific ambience that fluctuates from old-fashioned camp to menacing military slog.
Mills sets up a sort of thesis pretty quickly, first siting his Ever-Womanly in the Greece of Solon, that Athenian law-giver who, according to certain authorities, stabilised sexual conduct in his time – and for centuries after – by setting up statutes that governed brothels. The Roman Empire, I faintly remember, was represented by Ovid, the poet of instruction to both sexes on how to seduce each other. The Dark Ages (unless I have things out of sync) brought up the shade of Tertullian, a Church Father who chastised all women as representing Eve, the original sinner. Matters calmed down with the Middle Ages and Villon’s Ballade des dames du temps jadis – the night’s highpoint for me and its lyrical core – then smartened up for a post-Renaissance scrap from Rochester and a light-hearted description of the emergence of syphilis as an international scourge.
From about this point, the vignettes blended into a real fantasia, centuries passing in a blur of words and musical pastiche before climaxing at a point where the three dancers, with heads down, stamped out a rhythm while a moving screen packed with words from European languages referring to sex and its many professional executants scrolled over the hall’s back wall, the whole scene bringing to mind sadomasochism, military campaigns of rape and the dehumanising face of eroticism when it’s reduced to an automatic procedure, a reflex rather than a revel.
The libretto has something for all, its literary borrowings and allusions a consistent pleasure in a time when wit is often employed without wisdom. The score, in essence, is a series of numbers, many of them imitations rather than parodies of dances from the early 20th century decades. Mills is quite happy to give his singers a broad, lyrical vocal line or six to relieve the tension of concentrating on the quick-delivery one-liners. Intentional or not, the enterprise brings to mind the world of the Cabaret film with Breen a rather unnerving Joel Grey figure who is not simply an introducer and observer but who becomes completely wrapped up in the historical/moral review. Meow Meow changes costume and emotional address with remarkable skill, embracing the parodic aspect of the earlier vignettes and becoming more agitated in manner and vocal effort as the outline of prostitution’s history nears our times and the commentary rises in grim power.
At the end, ‘Tis Pity leaves you ambivalent. While the choreography and prop/costume manipulation demonstrate director Cameron Menzies‘ deftness of craft, the moments that impress most tellingly are relatively static, where the author (who also conducted) pulls back the dramatic pace and the singers can concentrate on singing their lines without stage-business interference. Not that the activity is distracting on a large scale, but there come moments when you would prefer less bounding across the stage or up and into the tinsel-protected bowels of the central mobile staircase.
And what is the moral? After such a wide-ranging commentary, what is the summary lesson? The courtesan we have always with us, from Lilith and Eve onward up to the mobility of relationships in our times where all our sophistication simply underlines the no-nonsense commercialism of the profession with, as in Solon’s day, the religious establishment’s accusations of sin or wrong-doing not worth considering. Mills gives a consistently sympathetic portrayal of women, even in his penultimate vision of the New Age Amazon who may dress up as a valkyrie but is still suffering exploitation in a different guise.
You get no definite answers, more an inbuilt suggestion that, in commercial sex particularly, kindness and emotional generosity should not be impossible elements. A large part of Meow Meow’s sharply insightful skill lies in proposing the observance of humaneness across the sexes without any descent into preaching.