Early opera, sort of

BITTERSWEET OBSESSIONS

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

November 4-5

                                                                  Karim Sulayman

Paul Dyer and his ABO brought a split personality of a show to Murdoch Hall over the weekend; on one side of interval came stately tragedy, on the other, the closest thing the High Baroque gets to a joke.  You could make a case that the two parts didn’t gel, but you are faced with the same situation on many an orchestral and chamber music program where juxtapositions of unlikely material occur regularly.  But this program succeeded chiefly through the dedication of all involved and the absence of presentation irritations that have marred previous ABO events.

The MRC audience was faced with three scenes, two by Monteverdi and one from Bach. New Zealand soprano Natasha Wilson sang in all three, as did American tenor Karim Sulayman and Danish baritone Jakob Bloch Jespersen.  Local tenor Spencer Darby sang in the opening Lamento della ninfa while actors Melanie Lindenthal and Andrew Sunter took on mute roles in the more substantial works.

Dyer and his instrumentalists – three violins, viola, cello, violone, two recorders, a lirone/viola da gamba. Tommie Andersson’s theorbo/guitar/gallichon set, harp and single percussionist – worked from an open pit on the same level as the front stalls while the usual performers’ working platform became a well-spaced arena for Charlotte Montgomery’s mutable sets: a stylized landscape for the mournful nymph, a large scaffold apparatus for Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and a cafe for Bach’s Coffee Cantata, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht.

A three-section madrigal, the Lamento is hard to present theatrically because nothing happens.  The four  voices outline the situation of a girl left abandoned by her lover; the lady takes centre-spot for the lament with the males offering subterranean commentary, finally come  a few observations about the power of love to round out a 6-minute piece centred on an inexorable ground-bass.  With a large backdrop of a stylized landscape and some cardboard clumps of bushes, the four singers spread themselves around: fine for Wilson’s penetrating, clear voice, not so hot for the males who needed to be positioned in a solid group, if only as a solid source of complementary colour.

For Il combattimento, most of the emphasis fell on Sulayman’s Narrator who surged through Tasso’s lines with requisite fire and dramatic emphasis – in line with the composer’s directions and his music’s illustrative character.  Every so often, the tenor sacrificed precision of pitch for dramatic delivery, which might have made more sense to more people if the surtitles had translated the entire libretto.  But the single-voice experience didn’t pall, thanks to this singer’s vocal vim and textual assurance.  As in the one other staged performance I’ve sen from the national company, the two paladins remained static figures, their combat acted out at ground level by Lindenthal and Sunter in aikido costumes and equipped with staves.

Dyer’s band showed a vital flexibility in this reading, taking every chance to find and deliver the revolutionary score’s flashes of illustrative colour.  Constantine Costi’s direction had Wilson and Jespersen proceed up the scaffolding, become blindfolded as a substitute for the helmets that disguise identities in the original poem, then deliver their few lines from static postures..  In this non-naturalistic mise-en-scene, armour was nowhere to be found on the nominal protagonists  –  just bland everyday clothes, while Sulayman sported a striking red thobe and the aikido fighters wore their usual white, all-enveloping bandage-uniform.

Costi was understandably sparing with his directorial bolts from the blue but noteworthy were the collapse of  the backdrop for the Lamento to reveal the confronting scaffold set, and the dropping of a long red cloth from the top level when Clorinda is mortally wounded by her lover.  Still, like its predecessor on this program, the work is short – about 20 minutes – and, apart from the absurdity of the story and the instrumentation novelties, the presentation’s chief interest lay in Sulayman’s feat of memory and stage dominance.

Framing the two madrigals, Dyer interspersed some fragments by Monteverdi’s contemporaries.  Andersson opened with Kapsberger’s Toccata arpeggiata, curdled by percussion support that featured a wind machine, the action spreading to the lower strings before a wind-driven transition to the Lamento.  Between the Monteverdi pieces came a Falconieri ciacona of refreshing exuberance but sitting completely at odds with the two tragic stories, and Monteverdi’s own overture to Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria that occupies eight bars and can be (and was) elongated at will.  To round off the night’s first half, Dyer and his players moved immediately from Clorinda’s dying sentence to a Consonanze stravaganti by Trabaci which also took on more timbres than merely its keyboard orginal.

For the program’s second part, we vaulted forward a century to Bach’s cantata, prefaced by the first movement of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 with the two recorders and violin solo lines. Nobody wasted any time relishing the counterpoint in this marvellous construct, top billing going to Shaun Lee-Chen’s flight of demi-semiquavers from bar 187 to bar 208; the two recorders were sadly swamped.

There isn’t much to be done with the Coffee Cantata.  It’s just four recitatives with pendant arias, then a final recitative and concluding trio.  The Narrator (Sulayman) introduces the story; father and daughter Sclendrian (Jespersen) and Lieschen (Wilson) share three recitatives, enjoy two arias each; finally, the Narrator folds it all up and all three collaborate for the summation.  As you’d expect, the girl gets to enjoy her obsession – coffee – and the father once again copes with the inevitable.  But the score holds two splendid numbers: the soprano’s lilting last aria, Heute noch; and that last ensemble, Die Katze lasst das Mausen nicht, which is so full of sturdy bonhomie that it makes you forget – almost – the affected and pretentious industry that has grown up around the simple practice of drinking coffee.                        (L to R)     Karima Sulayman, Natasha Wilson, Jakob Bloch Jespersen

Wilson played the spoiled rich girl with convincing flair, her sprightly vocal colour suited to this transparent score.   Jespersen enjoyed his only moments of extended solo work in the night, best exercised in his Madchen, die von Harten sinnen aria where he kept exasperation and self-pity deftly harnessed.  Sulayman occupied himself with the fiddly tasks that typify your born barista – a hard ask, doing nothing for a good stretch of time – but came into his own with a light ringing sound for the concluding trio.

Yes, the company asked you to jump from deep medieval gloom to pre-Enlightenment burlesque across the night but something about Bach’s assurance and innate kindness made the transition come to a softer landing.  Finally, it is hard to speak highly enough of the ABO’s flawless support, although, if pressed, you’d have to single out Melissa Farrow’s delectable flute and its supple ornamentation as a particular delight.