Ex Mongolia raro aliquid novi

A LUNAR NEW YEAR CELEBRATION

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Wednesday February 13

                                                               Tan Dun 

For this year’s Chinese New Year concert, conductor/composer Tan Dun and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave up dickering around with single imported soloists and brought in a complete band: Hanggai, the Mongolian-based (well, partly) rock group that has made a cultural living by adapting folk-songs from the mother-country, singing them in Mongolian or Mandarin, and for this occasion taking a back row at the (elevated) rear of the MSO under Tan, supported in their work with lushly scored accompaniments.

Despite the attributions of some Hanggai numbers to specific composers and lyrics-writers, everything we heard sounded like folk music, although you’d hope that the original tunes had been ironed out into orthodox bar-lengths and contours. It all sounded pretty Westernized and aimed at slotting into Occidental norms, which was a pity but par for the course. One of my saddest memories is of the result yielded after I’d asked a group of Russian/Polish friends to sing that song In the field stood a birch tree used by Tchaikovsky in the finale of his Symphony No. 4; they weren’t particularly excited to give it an airing but, when they did, the ending of all lines had been added to, making the melodic shapes four-square and, compared to Tchaikovsky’s slight abridgements (two beats silence at the end of each line), prosaic. Who was right? I’m hoping it was Tchaikovsky.

On this night, I heard about nine extracts from Hanggai’s collected works, all of them coming from CDs recorded between 2007 and last year. All but two – the group’s hit Drinking Song and (I think) the Lullaby for Borulai – involved MSO backing that in some cases proved substantial, almost drowning out the visitors – except for their indefatigable drum-kit player Zhengha Yang cocooned in his own plastic-surrounded cell. I’m assuming that Tan Dun supplied the arrangements; not that I’m an expert but the orchestration proved continuously clever and loaded with colours that spruced up the original melodies.

I believe the same thing can be seen in British folk music where less scrupulous interpreters and arrangers have bowdlerized the originals to make the products more easy for the general public to imbibe. But against that, you have the shining beacon of Bartok who could do the popular thing (Romanian Folk Dances, anyone?) but who did many European countries’ music a mighty service by transcribing it with searing accuracy and infusing it into his own musical processes with no intention of sugaring the pill.

The Bartok treatment didn’t apply to these Mongolian folk tunes. As you’d expect, they have been put into an acceptable rock-band garb, complete with inexorable regular syncopations and a harmonic scheme that would have astonished Cimarosa with its obtuseness. The singers – Yiliqi, Daorina, Batubagen – spent most of the night yelling, using a head voice and disdaining to employ diaphragms; what need when you’re amplified to learn how to sing properly? Further to this, we were assured in much promotional material that the group had its genesis when one of the foundation members got tired of your garden variety rock and decided to learn throat-singing in an effort to go back to part of his country’s national music roots. Well, we heard precious little of that on this evening; something like it occurred during the ensemble’s last bracket, beginning with Samsara, but, if you’ve heard Tibetan monks at their devotions, this was a pallid reflection of the real thing.

Hanggai struck me as part of the international brotherhood of rough rock and roll; not personally aggressive enough to take on the punk mantle, from which school some of the members sprang, but assuming certain touches in their presentation intended to add to the ensemble’s carefully prepared ‘untamed’ character.

Throughout the night, films were screened behind the players, most to do with Mongolia and showing images of the country as they might be displayed in a travelogue: sweeping steppes, undulating vales of green grass, endless shots of horses running wild or being driven or simply being ridden. Nothing amiss with this; Tan is a top name among film composers and a fair few of his past New Year concerts have been played with a film component.

Even for his new Contrabass Concerto: Wolf Totem, with MSO principal Steve Reeves as soloist, Tan screened three extended sequences showing scenes of lupine life: life on the open range for the pack(s); attempts by the wolves to raid a team of horses at night; finally, men hunting (and killing) wolves. All this while Reeves outlined the composer’s taxing solo line with a goodly amount of high work on the G string, including notes well above the end of the fingerboard. Unfortunately, Reeves met with several pitch problems that sounded out all too clearly as Tan allowed him plenty of exposure, including a flashy cadenza.

In this work also the melodic elements turned towards folk music lyricism, bedizened with atmospheric textures for both soloist and orchestra. The composer wears his emotions openly and both this concerto’s formal characteristics and its scintillating surface combine to make an immediately attractive construct, the score packed with action and – for the most part – an excellent aural illustration of the film.

The night’s only other serious music, also by Tan, was Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds, which involved a bit of audience participation that I mentally pooh-poohed before the performance but which turned out to be close to magical. For this, the composer had asked audience members to download an app to be played from their cellphones during the work’s progress. As it turned out, the pre-recorded mass sound came at the start when the composer pointed to various points of the hall to activate their 52 seconds of sound – a mass of bird chirps, which slowly moved across the hall from left to right – then starting the MSO on its way through the new score which brought fresh textures and sonic surprises at every turn, including brass outbursts of biting intensity, string layering, the orchestra turning on their own bird-sound apps, all the while bringing us back to the ground bass being jockeyed round the orchestra.

I wasn’t sure about the film accompanying this work. Abandoning the wild-life scheme, here the backdrop consisted of Chinese ideograms/letters juxtaposed with and superimposed by and on what looked like ancient Chinese symbols and letters. Still, by this stage I was glad to be spared the endless clips of horse hordes, even still lives of sheep and cattle that illustrated Grassland My Beautiful Home; it meant that your visual incomprehension generated a fall-back in your attention to what was going on with the musicians.

Both concerto and passacaglia were received with clear approbation by a well-populated hall, which also reacted with enthusiasm to each of the Hanggai offerings which included Horse of Colours with its appropriate galloping pace, The Transistor Made in Shanghai for that essential touch of contemporary humour, the afore-mentioned Grassland My Beautiful Home which bore unmistakable reference to country-and-western influences, an unscheduled airing of Uruumdush, and a Swan Geese finale with a mesmerising film of wild bird flights in convoy.

After a good many years’ exposure to attempted fusions of popular music performers with orchestras, I have to confess that the experiences haven’t amounted to generating great enthusiasm on my part. The trouble is worsened when it comes to rock-and-roll because it is essentially a retrogressive form of music. Given the freedom to break boundaries and forge new paths, rock settled into a behavioural groove compared to which New Orleans jazz is a maelstrom of creativity. Electronic instruments with incredible potential have never been exploited, possibly because of the dearth of trained musicians in rock-and-roll ranks, possibly because popular determinations stamped out all attempts at real creativity (Frank Zappa, Hendrix, even Carlos Santana) so that today’s scene is packed with self-indulgent mediocrities whose points of difference are sub-atomic.

Hanggai, from a distance (as they were on this night), are unremarkable. Their frequent appearances on the film stock being unwound before us showed a tendency to see themselves (or allow themselves to be presented) as rebels, isolated heroes, a posse that might have escaped from the set of a spaghetti western, dogged forward-striding figures that recall ageing images of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – anything, in fact, except musicians. Their material is basically sweet and wistful, but they drag it screaming along a predictable furrow. But I’m very thankful to Tan Dun for making the process of experiencing their work a great deal less harrowing than it could have been.

 

 

 

What price the Holy Spirit?

ARVO PART & J.S.BACH

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday February 10

Estonian

                                               Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Starting out 2019 as it probably means to continue, the ACO under Richard Tognetti mounted a first program for its subscription series that stretched across the centuries, its main structural premise to put side by side works from two composers of religious music.  If you really stretch, you can find links between Bach and Part; when I say ‘you’, I mean it because I can’t see any grounds for comparison – not in terms of the mechanics of composition nor in the self-imposed aesthetic of both men.

Nevertheless, this event – playing to a pretty full Hamer Hall  –  succeeded conclusively on technical grounds, if none other.   The guest choir proved to be an exceptionally well-balanced ensemble, apart from a sporadically dominant soprano in Choir 1, with a fine tenor sextet and an appreciable difference in sound colour between the two groups during the Bach works.   It was impossible to take notes during the performance as the hall was plunged into darkness as soon as the music started; which struck me as odd, unnecessarily theatrical when the places for which most of these compositions were composed are usually blazing with light.

Having a firm association with their famous compatriot, the Estonian singers brought out the best in the two Part vocal scores: Da pacem, Domine,  and the Berliner Messe of 1990.  Like many of the composer’s works, the Da pacem shows few signs of harmonic adventure with several finely ground dissonances slightly disturbing the usual placid polyphonic carapace, mainly through supple triadic juxtapositions.  As a requiem for the Madrid train bombing victims of 2004, the short motet-like work is informed by familiar Part tropes, including a slow-moving-to-static pulse, isolated notes for the sopranos, and an atmosphere of ritualised mourning.  The choir sang it from in front of the ACO, before moving to their expected positions behind the instruments.

On this occasion, the version used was Part’s arrangement for voices and strings, which set the timbre field for the rest of the afternoon.   When the next work burst upon us, Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm, the ACO strings doubled the vocal lines and did so for Singet dem Herrn, the four-part Lobet den Herrn, Der Geist hilft and also performed the Berlin Mass in Part’s post-premiere arrangement for voices and strings.

As for discrete works from the two forces, Tognetti took the ACO through Part’s Summa, later recycled as the Credo for his Mass and a transparent sample of the composer’s synchronising of an arpeggio/triad with a mode: stately, not leading anywhere and reminiscent of a conversation where all the sentences stay unfinished.   Following interval, the strings played the Toccata from Part’s Collage on B-A-C-H, the only one of the three movements that is scored for strings alone.   Not so much a toccata as a moto perpetuo satire on continuo homophony, this proved to be the program’s oddity for its pulsating rhythmic drive, as well as for having no connection with the spiritual referents of the other works performed.

Galina Grigorjeva’s In Paradisum gave the EPCC a solo spot and, although the piece would have gained from a space with an abundant echo, it slotted into these proceedings without much effort.  Almost inevitably, this slow-moving setting of the Requiem Mass’s final antiphon showed a predilection for Part’s commitment to triads and the common major chord, best exemplified in the three thrilling bursts of acclaim at the words Chorus Angelorum te suscipiant, even if moments like this show both composers’ debt to Rachmaninov.   But Grigorjeva’s writing is more pungent, especially in the use of 2nd intervals; while her employment of chords-plus-fluent melodic lines in combination suggests the senior writer, her setting style has more magniloquence to it.

I suppose the inclusion of Sculthorpe’s Djilele was meant to demonstrate Aboriginal spirituality through a semi-sophisticated Western compositional filter.  But it rather undercut the surrounding pieces because the fragment gives little more than atmosphere, suggesting the outback with as much subtlety as Chauvel’s film Jedda.  Timo-Veikko Valve made a mountain out of the opening cello solo but I missed the textural contributions of six winds and percussion appearing in the original arrangement that Sculthorpe organised for the ACO back in 1996.

You couldn’t take exception to the Mass as a liturgical construct.   Part kept his language sombre and open to the performers’ own choice of inflections with an inbuilt consistency  in language that complemented a necessary variety in both weight and vocal/instrumental combinations.   Yes, there are longueurs, like the mode employed for both Gloria and Credo which gives a chord or a two-voice interval to each syllable and simply forges ahead on a steady path, regardless of the textual content.   Compensating for this are some surprises with two fluid Alleluia settings that site the work as usable for Pentecost and a setting of that feast’s Sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus, which suggests a slow medieval dance or conductus, albeit one where the metre changes from 3 to 4 beats in the bar with welcome regularity.

While the choral body came across very confidently in this four-part composition, Tognetti’s strings were a much less assertive presence; to such an extent that you might have thought that Part had confined his orchestra to supportive duties only, until you see in the score that many passages have welcome individual touches, including harmonics that in this performance failed to carry with anything like sufficient power.   The lack of weight, especially in the upper string ranks, meant that Part’s carefully disposed chords became attenuated, not the trenchant commentary intended.

At its core, this near-30-year-old Mass, even if a revenant from pre-Vatican II times, is perfectly serviceable as an ecumenical liturgical construct and serves as well as anything else in the catalogue to allow a fair summation of Part’s voice which can be direct enough for the intended purpose and isn’t consistently aiming for transcendence.   In some ways, the Estonian is an old-fashioned writer, utilising simple structures and patterns , suggesting a spiritual remoteness and the silence of meditation rather than the resonant jubilation of proximity to the divine.

With a new year comes a new format in the ACO’s program booklets; new to me, at least.  A short description of each work is provided but the bulk of the material comprises commentary and interview articles.   Amiel Courtin-Wilson , artist and film-maker, gives an appreciation of Part’s role in his mental life: an appealing encomium which stops just short of gushing.   Arab-Australian poet Omar Sakr offers a substantial piece that includes Tognetti’s views on Part and Bach, with the emphasis on the latter.  Finally, ACO librarian Bernard Rofe suggests some ways to approach the program and, in a small space, attempts to find common ground between the pieces being presented.

Much of the central article by Sakr makes invigorating reading, although you suspect that Tognetti is reaching to activate a muted shock button in his evaluation of Bach’s interpretation of the Lutheran zeitgeist.   He is quite right to point to a historical connection between the two composers featured in his program’s title but, given the scores themselves, surely this resolves into both men’s dedication to sacred music.  Even to those among us who are charitably disposed to fluffing up music-history pillows, Part and Bach operate in completely discrete arenas of thought, let alone action; that their metaphysical aspirations are close is probably worth debating but their lives, their musical practice, their creative personalities are as far apart as Josquin and Berio.

Obviously, the new booklet format must be welcomed for putting forward a welter of thoughts that continue to bemuse  both before and after the concerts themselves.  Perhaps this afternoon was – as I think – a mish-mash and not that convincing as a practical compendium of two musics; or possibly the applause that greeted both halves of this concert sees the enterprise differently, showing a more generous, accepting attitude from ACO followers.  What must be said – and I can’t say the same as frequently as I’d like  –  these two hours spent with the ACO and EPCC were unexpectedly fruitful and challenging.

 

 

 

A few bruises but solid core

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN

Melbourne Opera

Regent Theatre

February 3

the-flying-dutchman-melbourne-opera-steven-gallop-daland-lee-abrahmsen-senta

      Steven Gallop (Daland) and Lee Abrahmsen (Senta)

 

Continuing the wealth of Wagner performances that have festooned the citys theatres in recent years, Melbourne Opera follows its Tannhauser/Lohengrin/Tristan successes with this mostly praiseworthy production (director Suzanne Chaundy, sets Andrew Bailey, costumes Verity Hunt-Ballard, lighting Rob Sowinski) of the composer’s trail-blazing initial contribution to German Romanticism.   The principal line-up is an impressive one, particularly soprano Lee Abrahmsen adding another excellent interpretation to her repertoire with the company.

Also functioning efficiently was the MO Orchestra under Anthony Negus, here working under favourable conditions in a real pit.  You could cavil with some horn work – an occasional spliced note, some ragged group entries – but the bulk of the instrumental output came across with suitable gusto after the woodwind had settled into a communally agreed pitch following the matchless overture.   Since the opera was played as intended –  without a break – fatigue became pretty obvious in the final pages.  Yet the general fabric made a favourable impression during the greater part of the score, even if timpanist Arwen Johnston, situated at stalls level, sounded over-willing at  climactic points.

For this production, the MO went all out to assemble a large chorus, necessary if you’re going to have a successful confrontation between the two ships’ crews in the final act.  The numbers were certainly there and made a brave showing on stage, although you could have wished for better balance throughout.   For instance, the Steuermann, lass die Wacht! chorus that opens the last act came over with appreciable swagger and an aggressive heft to the strong beats but the top tenors lacked heft when set against the other three lines and their top B flats and glancing As sounded thin.

Act 2’s Summ’ und brumm’ spinning chorus opening also seemed under-powered at the top even though Wagner is very kind to the singers involved.  Only at the er denkt nach Haus chords did you feel that the parts were properly balanced in dynamic terms.  Later, when the women participated at the conclusion to Senta’s Ya ho-hoe! ballad with their moving Ach! Wo weilt sie commentary/coda, the singers’ delivery showed a fine level of preparation and ensemble.

Negus experienced a few unsettling moments as far as the chorus was concerned, most notably in the first act where the sailors were in danger of over-running the beat – a regular problem even with companies more experienced than this one.   But the searching test, when the maximum numbers are involved during the final act, revealed little of this lack of discipline, the choral complex solid for the most part.  On the other hand, it was hard to fault any member of the principal sextet in this respect and you heard very little of the bar-line ignoring that has bedevilled previous productions of later works like The Ring and Tristan in particular where rhythmic flummery all too often becomes the prevailing texture.

Right from his Die Frist ist um soliloquy,  Darren Jeffrey had the measure of the title character’s role,  revealing a forceful timbre at the Bergehne Hoffnung! outburst and a rich, carrying power in the final peroration.  Further along in the action, the singer almost contrived to make credible the Wie aus die Ferne duet where the doomed sailor thinks he might have found redemption; the effect reached not through a sudden brightness or giving in to the score’s major-key benignity but more by way of a sort of relieved resignation, to such a point that the consoling melodic fluency here and in the end-of-act trio with Daland was articulated with appropriate urgency rather than elation.

Even in the melodramatic final scene, Jeffrey brought into play a vocal determination that gave an unexpected briskness to the character’s final address, Erfahre das Geschick. Even to the untutored eye (or ear), the Dutchman is doomed from the start but the betrayal he feels in these last strophes needs to be unrelieved, so that Senta’s sacrifice stands unalloyed.   In this respect Jeffrey dominated the drama’s resolution, his last self-identification a marvellously exposed bravura passage here handled with excellent forcefulness.

Abrahmsen’s Act 2 also contributed significantly to the production’s commitment to steadily advancing tragedy.  After the unsettling fixation that Senta shows in her opening scene, undistracted by ex-nurse Mary and the spinning girls, the soprano handled her interchange with Erik comfortably enough, sustaining the  girl’s preoccupation and giving her wooer little hope despite the appealing charm of his Mein Herz voll Treue address.  Mind you, there’s not much chance to amplify Senta’s dramatic range in the duet/trio that concludes this part of the opera because the situation offers only a completion of the aspirations with which it began.

As with Jeffrey, Abrahmsen infused her work with a firmness in articulation and dynamic that was constant across the work’s span.   Wagner, despite the reputation he had of drowning out his vocalists, treated them considerately and Senta enjoys as much of this pre-Brunnhilde civility as Elisabeth or Elsa; a brace of high Bs in the Terzett strike you as flashy sparks that shine out strongly in this context but Abrahmsen has a wealth of musicianship, more than enough to weld this opportunity for bravura into a coherent ensemble.

As Daland, the wealth-loving father of Senta, Steven Gallop did his best to differentiate the character’s vocal personality from that of the Dutchman, tending to strain his line in the opening exchanges with the Steersman and sailors but making fair weather of the substantial Wie? Hort ich recht? duet that occupies the second half of Act 1; in this case, an agreable stretch with two basses that sat comfortably side-by-side.  Roxane Hislop was hardly pressed by the small role of Mary: 24 lines only and many of them conversational couplets of no great moment.

Michael Lapina’s Steuermann made one of the opera’s happier characters, most obviously so in the Mit Gewitter und Sturm solo of the first scene which combines an unaccompanied upward scale with a chordal after-strophe: one of the composer’s happier and simpler delineations of personality.  Lapina’s lavishness of delivery, informed by an infectious bonhomie in his stage presence, opened this tale of small happy love and great tragic infatuation with a telling charm.

But the vocal  surprise of the premiere came with the night’s Erik, Rosario La Spina.  I’ve not heard this tenor for some years and was taken aback by his bright sound-colour, both in a ringing Act 2 solo just before he comes to grips with Senta’s preoccupation and delaying tactics, and later the Willst jenes Tag’s last attempt to bring her back to the normal level of inter-personal intercourse that she is inflexibly determined to discard.

Neither of these exposed arias comes close to the inspiration that the score reaches at its more fraught stretches, chiefly because Erik’s vocal line is almost Italianate in its sentiment and shape.   But the music suits this uncomplicated man so aptly that you tend to ignore how out-of-step it is with the surging, harrowing scenes that are the work’s natural setting.   I’ve read somewhere that this is La Spina’s first essay at Wagner: a pity it’s taken so long.  I’ve sat through many a Siegfried and Siegmund who have worked for hours to less effect than this artist’s few minutes of exposure.

On a final carping note, the production offered surtitles above the Regent proscenium.  From my seat, half-way up the stalls, the screened English translation was illegible.  This could have been attributable to advancing years and its concomitant failing eyesight except that recent experiences in other theatres from roughly the same position have been more happy.

There are two further performances of The Flying Dutchman: Tuesday February 5 and Thursday February 7.

 

 

 

 

New take on an old tale

ORPHEUS

Forest Collective

Sacred Heart Oratory, Abbotsford Convent

Thursday January 31

 

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                                 (L to R) Piaera Lauritz, Ashley Dougan, Luke Fryer        (Photo: Kate J. Baker)

 

This is the first time that the Midsumma Festival has offered me a review ticket in its 20 year history.   Admittedly, previous programs have given little room to serious music, the organizers being usually content to present bands and solo artists of limited ability or musicianship.   All the more remarkable, then, that this ambitious project got off the ground under the Festival’s umbrella, and that its character impressed both for its compressed clarity of content and for a happy avoidance of obtuseness.

Evan Lawson has composed a dance opera which pays an elliptically expressed duty to the myths surrounding Orpheus’ marriage to Eurydice and his relationship with fellow Argonaut, Calais who was one of the Boread twins.  To supplement a libretto of gnomic brevity, the work involves three dancers to propose a potent extra dimension to the story-line as sung by Raymond Khong (Orpheus), Kate Bright (Eurydice) and Joseph Ewart (Calais).   These roles’ respective dancers – Ashley Dougan, Piaera Lauritz, Luke Fryer  –  operated in a central area of the Oratory room, the audience positioned on three of its fringes while Lawson’s orchestral decet made a bulwark at the fourth.

The composer has found the constituents of his text in Calzabigi’s libretto for Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Striggio’s verses used by Monteverdi in L’Orfeo, and, for a coda,  the second sestet from Shakespeare’s song Orpheus with his lute made trees from that furiously neglected drama, Henry VIII.   Lawson also claims that as a prologue, he  made use of a Greek sea hymn by Phemocles, about whom I know nothing and could find out even less.  At an informational impasse, I thought that there might have been a confusion with Phanocles, who wrote about Orpheus’ paederastic relationship with Calais; or, more improbably, the playwright Philocles might have been involved.  Was it possible that Phemocles had some relation to the Orphic or Homeric Hymns?   We are left gasping for direction right from the start where the marine salutation is meant to occur but nothing rang any bells, even in the printed libretto.

Lawson’s singers seemed to be static but in fact moved around, singing in oratorio style from the front of the instrumental ensemble, or behind the band, eventually in the central arena.   His dancers made exits and entrances with similar flexibility.  As with so many of these multi-platform operations, I found it hard to focus, especially at the work’s opening where the sound-world proved attractive, even if it consisted in the main of sustained notes and chords, both teetering between post-Monteverdian chord progressions and not-too-astringent dissonance.   To be honest, the sounds won out over the dance action much of the time because the abstract nature of Dougan’s choreography seemed to move simply from attitude to attitude.   But then, I don’t know much that would weather informed scrutiny about the language of contemporary dance.

Still, the sonorities that emerged often proved extraordinary, in particular a passage highlighting Erica Tucceri’s bass flute later in the drama which impressed for its full-bodied power in this hall’s resonant acoustic.  Harpist Samantha Ramirez spent a fair amount of time bowing her strings, which is a device that didn’t seem that different in its results from the product of an orthodoxly addressed cello.  More successful were the various briefs allocated to Alexander Clayton’s percussion, his battery employed with determination and sometimes exemplary drama.

Of the singers, Kate Bright gave a splendid reading of the hero’s unfortunate wife, vitally powerful in the Part II duet and then mounting a bravura performance at Eurydice’s death which focused for a remarkably long period on the interval of a 2nd before the character was allowed to enter a more wide-ranging arioso, much of the scene unaccompanied.  Lawson set his bare-bones text with a wide-ranging compass for all three singers, but Bright alone managed her line’s top and bottom reaches with precision and thrilling vigour.

Khong’s tenor came across with similar force and a security that was questionable only at a few points where Lawson had used a note above the artist’s comfort zone, possibly negotiable with a switch to falsetto although that’s a dangerous ask in a vocal part that comes over as otherwise well-crafted and centrally positioned for the interpreter.  A similar moment hit for baritone Ewart, who enjoyed more courteous treatment and who produced a firm level of enunciation and clarity: a promising exhibition from the youngest member of this trio.

While the instrumental component of Orpheus tends to an alternation between portentous and sibilant, the vocal work is quite unpredictable: for whole stretches, as static as Glass; then suggestive of the placid leaps of Berio.  While you wouldn’t find it difficult to follow the emotional decline in Eurydice’s gasping, brittle death shudders or trace the fearful regret of Orpheus in Hell, it seemed to me that the score came into full flowering at ensemble moments, most obviously in the Shakespeare-utilizing epilogue where Lawson found a striking compositional vein that promised a sort of catharsis; in this tragedy, you find a consolation that broadens out into a generous efflorescence before the inevitable descent to darkness.

As I say, the dance impressed me most for its physicality more than for its expressive power.   Dougan was gifted with a remarkable solo at the work’s centre which I assume was intended to underline the struggles of Orpheus with his life after the final loss of his wife and his rejection of all women, climaxing in his confrontation with the Bacchae and their destruction of his body in a Maenad frenzy.  Lauritz’s pre-death solo gave the dancer a fine opportunity to demonstrate her unflappable solidity of gesture and positioning, and I found plenty to admire in the opening terzett where all three dancers interwove with considerable athleticism and not a trace of overt sexuality, a restraint also found in the final appearance where the dancers worked in unison as three discrete entities, all passion spent.

Orpheus is to be welcomed on several fronts.   Yes, it’s a new opera  –  and welcome for that  –  with a solid musicality behind it.   The production uses the talents of a fine group of professionals from within the Forest Collective organization and outside it; pretty much half and half in the instrumental desks.  It has a relevance to Midsumma through its re-examination of the Orpheus-Calais connection, taking matters some steps further by juxtaposing and interweaving it with the poet’s tragic marriage.   As well, Lawson and his forces handle the twin myths with dignity, taking key points and working with them rather than hammering the relationship triangle into flattened obviousness.  Best of all, the enterprise gives you a freshness of vision, even new insights into an old tale which both Monteverdi and Gluck felt obliged to end with a deus ex machina plot manipulation.  In this new telling, the central tragedie a trois remains intact.  You leave feeling that you have been involved in a ritual, human in its essence and recounted with a scouring freshness.