Uncomplicated but odd

ENOCH ARDEN

Brisbane Music Festival & Victorian Theatre Company

Bowen Studio, Bowen Hills

Sunday March 28

Matthew Connell

Richard Strauss’s setting of the well-known Tennyson poem is an uncomfortable fit for classification. The composer was quite sparing in his score, framing the work – sort of – but writing only a few extended passages for the piano alone. At the conclusion, you realize that attention has focused on the speaker/reciter throughout, even when the work moves into a duo format. So the star of this night was actor Matthew Connell, given the task of reading the Poet Laureate’s somewhat Victorian (to state the bleeding obvious) effusion on the nature of self-sacrifice ,a virtue that does no favours for the character who exercises it. By contrast, pianist Alex Raineri, the Brisbane Musical Festival’s director and factotum, had moments of activity but huge hiatuses as well. As for the Melbourne visual contribution/complement, that consisted of atmospheric slides of landscapes and clips of the sea in motion; none of this interfered with the performance and was not original enough to distract you.

Strauss already had a large amount of material under his 32/3-year-old belt by the time that he composed Enoch Arden: two symphonies, the Burleske, Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Macbeth, Aus Italien, Death and Transfiguration, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote on the near horizon, and a wealth of lieder and chamber music. In this company, the duo melodrama looks and sounds a slight product: 24 pages of piano score that feature several leitmotifs, left hand G minor scales (the sea) being the most memorable. One of the most sustained and active segments for piano involves Annie’s dream of self-justification, the determination to accept Enoch’s death and marry long-suffering Philip. That has its second part counterpart in Enoch’s visit to the house of his one-time wife and best friend, an experience that prostrates him.

As far as I could hear, Strauss’s piano part presented Raineri with few challenges. For every surging billow suggestion, the score presented simple progressions, sustained chords, repeated patterns if the speaker needed time to catch up. As opposed to other works like the Sinfonia domestica or An Alpine Symphony, the composer kept his word- or scene-painting simple, eschewing opportunities to lay colour on thickly, as in the lush descriptions of Arden’s island. For all the freedom allowed, Raineri played correctly and precisely, keeping control of the arpeggiated chords and matching his speaker’s delivery with a responsive dynamic range.

As for Connell, he is a young artist and so was able to avoid the tone of sententiousness in certain moralizing passages, while entering completely into the histrionics embedded in the text during the early debate between Annie and Enoch, the over-ripe marriage declaration that ends Part 1, and the returned Arden’s despair. Not as important as his insightful delivery but most surprising as a matter of mechanics was Connell’s fidelity to the text which most reciters arrange to have cut substantially; I could find only a few places where some lines had been left out, For instance, in the description of Philip’s careful wooing, some lines disappeared after ‘By this the lazy gossips of the port’; and, further on, some more strophes disappeared during Enoch’s night-time walk to Annie’s old house (near the parenthetic ‘A bill of sale gleam’d thro’ the drizzle’).

In their combined passages, both speaker and pianist were able to keep pretty much in proper relation to each other. Were they at work in the same space? Or was Connell operating in Melbourne while Raineri performed from his own Bowen Street lair? Whatever the case, the partnership between text and music was noticeably out of synch at the end of that moving scene where Philip sees he has lost his chance at happiness, ‘and rose and past Bearing a lifelong hunger in his heart.’ But that was really the only severely discrepant point. Another unexpected twist came after Philip’s solicitous ‘Tired, Annie?’ when more of Tennyson’s lines than sit in the score were superimposed on this segment’s concluding 13 bars.

These minor points did little to disrupt the reading’s energy which persevered up to the final strangely prosaic line. Both artists seized those opportunities for emotional zeal that at some stages comes close to bathos and managed to display the work’s probity of character as its three protagonists find satisfaction and/or redemption after suffering. I doubt if many more performances of Enoch Arden will come my way. There was an old LP recording that used to be available in the Melbourne Conservatorium library, which is how I first came across it. And Ensemble Liaison presented an odd version of it almost seven years ago to the day in the Melbourne Recital Centre, with extra parts added in from the original score for clarinet and cello.

And the form itself is a cover-term for such a variety of compositions; a case has been made that opera is really melodrama. But Strauss’s effort comes from an era when the melodrama was a more circumscribed object, certainly more so in terms of subject matter which tended to the moralistic. Apart from Berlioz’s extravagant Lelio – which he calls a melologue – I don’t know any other melodramas apart from this one. That is, of course, to ignore the greatest melodrama of them all – Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire – which stands alone, unassailable and inimitable, thank God. But both the VTC and BMF can be satisfied with their interpretation of this Strauss/Tennyson composite, even if I’m not really sure that the visual stimulation added much to the experience.