Mad, not that bad, little danger

ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE

Opera Queensland

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday October 24

Orpheus

Gluck lovers in this country of a certain vintage will remember with pleasure the Opera Australia version from the early 1990s of this ground-breaking opera that featured David Hobson in the demanding haute-contre hero’s role.   As with most assaults on the composer’s chaste, dramatically spartan works,  the production impressed for its stark setting and focus on the hero, who bears the brunt of the labour in Orpheus and Eurydice.  This recent OQ presentation also exercised both the vocal and physical talents of its counter-tenor, Owen Willetts, who worked through the opera with admirable tenacity and the kind of assurance across the part’s range that typifies a top-drawer Baroque expert.

Not that you can nominate Gluck as representing the Baroque: the whole thrust of his theatrical labour was aimed at repudiating excess in operatic matters.  Rather, the composer’s works from this one forward offer a solid path towards stripped-down classicism.  Which makes the premise behind the company’s collaboration with the Circa ensemble more than a little hard to swallow.   It’s all very well pointing to the brilliant craft that went into the staging of Handel, the exuberance of effects created to stir public interest in 17th century French theatres, the willingness of high-flying European musicians to parade their wares with maximum virtuosity.   But Gluck and his librettist Calzabigi pursued a different, individual aim in which ostentation and distraction were outlawed.

All this is known – or should be known –  by every opera-lover, although, in this country, not so much; thanks to the partialities of the national company, for instance,  you’re more likely to be swamped in the glutinous pleasures of Alcina or Giulio Cesare rather than be purged by the chastening directness of Iphigenia in Tauris or Alceste.   Even though Willetts was constrained to execute some distracting physical exercises, his vocal work compensated for a good deal, right from the character’s initial wrenching plaints of Eurydice! to the opera’s celebratory Trionfi Amore finale.

One of the most pleasing elements of Willetts’ work was an absence of histrionics.  Instead of trying to point up words in the substantial recitatives that stimulate the opera’s progress, the singer kept on an even keel, letting Gluck’s vocal line do the underlining for him.   In his first aria, Chiamo il mio ben cosi, the singer seemed to open the later two verses with a subtle change in dynamic married to a fine clarity of production that hit each note right in the centre.   Later, in the Deh placatevi con me face-off with the Furies and Spectres, you had to be impressed by this counter-tenor’s ability to cut across those vivid choral outbursts and to hold his own through plain emotional constraint – again, with  stalwart determination despite the self-pitying suggestions in the libretto.

After this point, the hero is blessed with two superlative arias in Che puro ciel, here treated with care by both counter-tenor and Dane Lam’s pit which featured musicians from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra; and the work’s most popular excerpt, Che faro senza Euridice?, given without those Mozartian excursions at the end of the final stanza and all the more effective without them,  thanks to the piece’s inbuilt dying fall.  Here also, Willetts impressed for the restraint of his interpretation, one that erred on the side of faintness, which is justified by the text which shows Orpheus giving up the struggle.

For some reason, the company decided to give the opera’s other two principal roles of Amor and Eurydice to one soprano, Natalie Christie Peluso.   I suppose this economy came about because neither role has much work, apart from recitative.  Amor has the happily rustic Gli sguardi trattieni aria that comes near the end of Act 1 and she contributes to the opera’s final trio with chorus.  Eurydice gets more meat to work with in the duet Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte, followed by the pseudo-rage aria Che fiero momento where more than a few of us potential Orpheuses would have left the lady to her own devices rather than trying to bring her back to life.   Peluso gave excellent service in both roles with a clear, carrying soprano at ease with the benign major key Amor contributions and following Willetts in negotiating the late-appearing heroine’s alarm and anger without recourse to dynamic explosions or gimmickry.

Lam led his forces through a score that looks simple enough but is full of surprises; not so much in what physical demands are made on the instrumentalists but more in the need to polish the edges of paired phrases that are asymmetrical, and in giving fresh voice to the many repetitions – mainly of dances – that are an integral part of the Orpheus experience.  No over-prominent woodwind, a pleasantly reliable brass choir and an unflagging string ensemble all supplied a well-rounded reading of the opera.   As did the 16-strong choir which showed few signs of that perennial problem that besets Opera Australia choruses in Melbourne: getting out of sync with the pit.

I’ve enjoyed the work of Circa on their visits to Melbourne, mainly working with Paul Dyer’s Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, although once I took a grand-daughter going through her gymnastic phase to see the company in unadulterated shape at the Victorian Arts Centre’s Playhouse.   With Dyer and his orchestra, Circa simply takes over; the music becomes secondary to the acrobatic/gymnastic display.

Director Yaron Lifschitz put his athletes into the action right from the overture during which a Eurydice clone writhed in a mesh of suspended ropes.  Every dance movement was entrusted to the Circa octet, their movement not necessarily allied to the music accompanying their efforts.

By their nature, the Circa contributions were attention-grabbing, although Lifschitz and his team made a fair effort at integrating both corps, to the extent of having Willetts climb up a set of grouped male backs in mid-aria.   Matters became more than a little confusing when the Circa women wore the same red dress costume as Eurydice/Amor; at one stage, I seem to recall the male acrobats donning dresses, too.   Mind you, comprehension was tight enough towards the night’s end where, in the final bout of recitative, both Amor and Eurydice make individual contributions pretty close together.

Did it work, this attempted fusion?  Well, it did Gluck no harm and it gave this audience plenty to look at and admire in a 90-minute work without much action; perhaps just a bit more than you enjoy in your average Greek tragedy.   At the end, the opening night audience exploded into a standing ovation frenzy; the two middle-aged women sitting next to us whooped and hollered like twelve-year-olds at a Justin Bieber gig.   Certainly, there was a good deal to admire and praise; but I came away unmoved: no catharsis for this soul.

Lifschitz sets the opera in an asylum.  It’s all white walls and stark bed frames.   Orpheus is under restraint at the work’s start; during the final chorus he daubs a message – ‘The Triumph of Love’ – across the back wall using what I think was meant to represent blood.   But, if you make a madman out of Orpheus, it’s difficult to make sense of the work as a dramatic construct.   Not only that: such a conceit gnaws away at the superb lyrical control of the music, even at its most frenetic on the descent into Hades.

Did it make you reconsider the work as a potential commentary on the human condition, specifically insanity?  No: any such enlightenment was lost in the energetic on-stage flurries.  Was it entertaining?   For sure.  But it’s hard to think of any opera that could stand up to such continuous interpolations from an unrelated form of entertainment.  And, no matter what apologetics you try on, forcing a comparison between physical and vocal routines, this production left you/me unsatisfied, faced with the old quandary of many another contemporary take on a classic:  are you eating fish, fowl, or good red herring?

Orpheus and Eurydice will be performed on Tuesday October 29 at 6:30 pm, Thursday October 31 at 6:30 pm, Saturday November 2 at 7:30 pm, Tuesday November 5 at 6:30 pm, Thursday November 7 at 6:30 pm, and on Saturday November 9 at 1:30 pm.

 

 

 

 

November Diary

As I’ve relocated to the Gold Coast, the musical events outlined below (few as they are) relate to Brisbane and its environs.  Fortunately, some of the organizations and ensembles that perform in Melbourne also appear in Queensland’s capital – Musica Viva, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian String Quartet.  And there may be the chance to see what’s become of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in the 20 years since I last heard it live, as well as the possibility of getting to a Camerata performance at last, and perhaps opportunities to witness Queensland Opera grappling with Tristan and Aida.

 

Friday November 1

TCHAIKOVSKY AND BEETHOVEN

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

Alondra de la Parra, chief conductor of the QSO,  introduces this program with a work that springs from her Mexican family’s heritage: the Sinfonia No. 2,  Las Antesalas del Sueno, by Federico Ibarra Groth.   Well, it’s arrestingly different to be invited to explore the antechambers of dream, whatever and wherever they are; all you can do is withhold judgement until the 10-minute score has reached its termination.   Matters become more predictable when Franco-Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulovic, fresh from a short recital tour (Hobart, Melbourne Sydney) with Ensemble Liaison, fronts the Tchaikovsky D Major Concerto.   De la Parra fills out the night pleasantly enough with the Beethoven Symphony No. 6 which will give the QSO woodwind ranks plenty of scope to exercise their bucolic talents.

 

Saturday November 2

MUSIC BY THE SEA

Orava Quartet

Town Hall, Sandgate at 7:30 pm

These players have enjoyed remarkable success, both in this country and in America and Europe.   I’ve heard them in the Melbourne Recital Centre, the Collins St. Baptist Church, and the South Melbourne Town Hall during their participation in the Asia Pacific Chamber Music Competition; now the occasion presents itself to watch them in their home town, although Sandgate is a tad off the beaten track.  More unnerving is that I can’t find out what will be played.  The group follows this appearance with two more in the Utzon Room and the Potter Salon later in November where they play Schubert’s Death and the Maiden String Quartet No. 14, than which they do not come more demanding, framed by two Renaissance motets: Victoria’s O magnum mysterium and Byrd’s Ave verum corpus.   Both are in four parts but don’t get your hopes up: the Oravas will probably play the lines, not sing them.   And I could be off the track altogether and the actual program will have a marine element to justify the night’s title.

 

Friday November 8

FRENCH REVELATIONS

Ensemble Trivium

Old Government House, Brisbane at 7 pm

On this occasion, the ensemble is a quintet: soprano Rachael Griffin, founder/flute Monika Koerner, viola Raquel Bastos, cello Eleanor Streatfeild, and pianist Brierley Cutting.  Koerner is a known quantity and a highly gifted artist; the other participants are new to me.  But their program features a fair cross-section of French masters: Devienne, Debussy, Roussel, Ravel, Poulenc, Durufle, and Messiaen.  The Devienne piece is a duo concertante for flute and viola; Debussy is represented by his exhilarating Cello Sonata;  Roussel’s Trio for flute, viola and cello ends the program.  But the rest of the evening moves into some unexplored byways.  The Chansons madecasses by Ravel are not left-field material but not suited to every voice; they will be a test of Griffin’s lower register.  Written for soprano and piano, Poulenc’s 1943 Metamorphoses is a very brief cycle of three poems that I’ve never heard.   Similarly, Durufle’s early Op. 3 Prelude, Recitatif et Variations for flute, viola and piano has never crossed my path.  To compensate, Messiaen’s Le merle noir is a highly popular fundamental of modern French writing for the flute-and-piano combination.

 

Saturday November 16

TIMELESS

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

This night’s operations roughly parallel the QSO’s program on November 1.  De la Parra works her players pretty hard with Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole as a warm-up.  Admittedly the first three movements are not over-taxing but the Feria finale asks for brilliance from each part of the orchestra.   I heard the estimable Paul Lewis perform Beethoven’s C minor Concerto in mid-September with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – an honest, original take on a very familiar masterpiece.  Tonight, he takes to Grieg’s Piano Concerto and will probably bring an equal level of insight to its four-square lyricism.  To close proceedings, de la Parra takes on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 where melancholy and lacerating vitality combine in a remarkable construct that falters only in the final pompous pages.

 

Sunday November 17

HANDEL ISRAEL IN EGYPT

Brisbane Chorale, Canticum Chamber Choir, Camerata

City Hall, Brisbane at 3 pm

Perhaps it depends on where you live but I’ve heard this oratorio exactly once; like Belshazzar and Mendelssohn’s St Paul.   Yet, at one time, Israel in Egypt was well-known, if nowhere near as popular to the point of universality, as Messiah, probably because of its multiplicity of choruses.   Anyway, here it comes as a welcome novelty, on a par with Saul, Alexander’s Feast and Solomon and the approximately 20 other compositions in this genre that are familiar only in excerpt form.   Graham Abbott conducts and the work features six soloists: sopranos Sarah Crane and Emily Turner, mezzo Jessica Low, tenor Nick Kirkup, and baritones Shaun Brown and Daniel Smerdon.  I don’t know anything about the City Hall’s acoustics but, going on this country’s tendency to duplicate itself in this regard – e.g., Sydney Town Hall, Melbourne Town Hall and Adelaide Town Hall, which I have experienced – you’d be expecting something booming and with a generous echo.

 

Monday November 18

BRAHMS & DVORAK

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7 pm

Two splendid works from the great composers but the ACO would be the last to toe the party line by playing only the very familiar.  The Brahms is his Double Concerto for violin and cello, while the Dvorak is that composer’s penultimate symphony in G Major which, after a long interval, I last heard at the start of September from the MSO under James Gaffigan.   An optimistic piece, this Dvorak muffles its rustic roots to some extent and the melodic output has less immediate appeal than its successor in the composer’s oeuvre.   But it contrives an impressive union of craft and lyricism.   In similar vein, the Brahms score has suffered by comparison with the composer’s mighty solo violin concerto and the equally strong two piano concertos.   But you’d be crazy to miss the chance of hearing Richard Tognetti and Timo-Veikko Valve launch themselves across its broad canvas.  For preludial material, some ACO ring-ins play Andrew Ford’s 3 minute-long Jouissance for two trumpets and vibraphone which the organization premiered in 1993.   Then we hear American writer Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo for 8 virtuoso violinists that finds a link between the Baroque concerto grosso, Italian Futurist art (specifically Giacomo Balla),and a race car video game; good luck with that.

 

Sunday November 24

COMPELLING THEMES

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio at 3 pm

This program brings to mind the Sunday morning recitals from Melbourne Symphony Orchestra personnel in the Iwaki Auditorium which are always packed out.  What strikes you as different is the variety of participants – or perhaps that’s just due to the demands of this particular program.   The afternoon begins with a Michael Haydn Divertimento for oboe (Sarah Meagher), viola (Charlotte Burbrook de Vere), and double bass (Justin Bullock) substituting for the original violone; not a particularly original piece but an amiable sequence of four movements.   Beethoven’s String Quintet in C uses a quartet – violinists Shane Chen and Helen Travers, viola Graham Simpson, cellist Andre Duthoit – and an extra viola in Nicole Greentree.   It’s the composer’s only original quintet, not a reworking or arrangement of other material.   Finally comes the chance to experience Martinu’s String Sextet, composed in one 1932 week.   Here, the executants are violins Chen and Katie Betts, violas Greentree and Bernard Hoey, cellos Matthew Kinmont and Hyung Suk Bae.

 

Thursday November 28

WHEN THE WORLD WAS WIDE

Camerata

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7 pm

The fifth collaboration between Camerata and director/actor/writer Tama Matheson, this exercise investigates the relationship between Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson through a melding of music, narrative and acting.   Well, the excerpts from the two poets’ writings will be very welcome in this age when their reputations grow dim.  As for the music, Camerata have outlined what they intend, beginning with May Brahe’s Bless This House song from 1927 which certainly suggests the between-wars period and a facet of its emotional atmosphere.  Two Lawson settings follow, both by John Horn and coming from his 2015 song cycle Looking for Lawson: The Shame of Going Back and Faces in the Street – one a plaint on failure in life, the second a warning of social revolution.   Peter Sculthorpe’s Port Essington recalls the attempts to found a Northern Territory settlement.   It compares and contrasts the out-of-place world of the garrison and settlers with the Aboriginal culture that eventually reclaimed the landscape.   John Tavener’s Eternal Memory for cello and strings follows: like Port Essington, an Australian Chamber Orchestra commission.   Back with the people concerned most in this evening, Camerata resurrects Miriam Hyde’s Fantasia on Waltzing Matilda in, I assume, the 1943 version. The finale comprises Brisbane film composer Cameron Patrick’s Impressions of Erin, which is drawing a long bow if it refers to the background of either poet.  But it matches the program’s opening in its musical summation of an era.

 

Friday November 29

GIANNI SCHICCHI

Opera Gold Coast

Helensvale Library Community and Cultural Centre at 7:30 pm

One third of Il Trittico – the only decent one of the set – is to be presented by a group that is new to me.   The opera’s humour is broad, the action completely improbable, the characters straight out of a commedia dell’arte copy-book.   But there are two passages of melting Puccini magnificence in Rinuccio’s Firenze e come un albero fiorito and O mio babbino caro sung by the titular character’s daughter, Lauretta.  Most of the productions I’ve seen (3? 4?) have been directed poorly so that Buoso’s grieving relatives have no personality while Schicchi usually has too much because the temptation to over-act is not resisted.   But it’s a quick piece – less than an hour – and this presentation boasts a ‘live orchestra’, although conductor and singers remain anonymous.  The temptation to see what’s happening just up the road is near irresistible; God knows, I’ve wasted my time at many higher profile operatic essays.

This opera will be repeated on Saturday November 30 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm.

 

Saturday November 30

CINEMATIC

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at  2 pm

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, or its administration, fell in love with film scores some years ago and is presenting heftier swags of them as the years roll by.   Some of these have been enchanting experiences, especially if the film dialogue is subtitled since the orchestral fabric can drown out the words.   This concert is less ambitious in that it comprises music from great and not-so-great films, but without pictures.   Nicholas Buc conducts, a veteran in this music despite his youth (for a conductor: he can’t be 40 yet).  As you’d expect, John Williams scores well: the main theme from Star Wars, selections from the Harry Potter films, Rey’s theme from  Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Nigel Westlake’s output is whittled down to some scraps from Babe; Jerry Goldsmith is also shrunk to the end credits for Star Trek: First Contact.   Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future music appears – hopefully, not all of it – and his Avengers Theme.  Michael Giacchino is represented by his score to The Incredibles and a Star Trek: Into Darkness suite.  Another suite has been assembled from Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings scores.  A swag of singles I don’t know or don’t recall fleshes out the material: James Horner’s main title for Apollo 13,  an excerpt from the How to Train Your Dragon by John Powell, two segments from Austin Wintoury’s sound-track for the game JourneyNascence and Apotheosis, and the brief Time from Hans Zimmer’s score for Inception.   Younger ears will doubtless enjoy much of this: the more senior among us will silently lament Korngold and Steiner.

This program will be repeated on Saturday November 30 at 7:30 pm.