MYTHOLOGY OF NAKED FLESH
Brisbane Music Festival
Sunday October 3, 2021
Before going any further, I have to say how impressive the musical elements of this farrago turned out to be. In essence, here was a duo recital with a cornucopia of accoutrements. Brisbane Music Festival director Alex Raineri engaged with soprano Katie Stenzel in Britten’s Cabaret Songs and Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, the latter a tour de force from both performers, not just the singer. Raineri also performed two piano solos: Scriabin’s Vers la flamme and his own arrangement of the Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’s Salome – actually, it seemed to me to include a bit more than the dance alone.
The odd program constituent came in a world premiere: Australian writer Alex Turley‘s Piano Flesh XXX in which Raineri shared the spotlight with actor Matthew Connell. As things turned out, not so much a spotlight as a split-screen exposure with the pianist working in Brisbane, the actor in Melbourne and – as seems to be the norm these days – never the twain did meet . . . not for this piece, anyway. As you might have expected, Turley’s segment of the program was the hardest to interpret; an arcane gesture-laden performance from both artists made even more puzzling when a scrap from Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean emerged out of nowhere and went back all too quickly into the ether.
Thrilling the pedants among us no end, Stenzel proved to be a model of clarity for most of the Britten songs; an achievement to be treasured when you listen to some of the available readings from better-known artists who think that ‘cabaret’ is a synonym for ‘slovenly’. The soprano observed the correct pitches and triplets throughout Tell me the truth about love, giving us accurate chromatic slippages and investing the song with a personality in each of its three stanzas. The following Calypso impressed for its crescendo and accelerando motions and the security of a few sustained top notes in a work that operates for much of the time in a low-ish register. During Johnny, I missed the vocal portamento at the end of the Charity Matinee Ball stanza and, as in many another execution, Stenzel’s below-the-staff notes in Auden’s final stanza tended to disappear while the final note (F?) lacked definition. On the other hand, Funeral blues succeeded on every level, here treated as an ascendant threnody with a defiant, negative finish of impressive power, not forgetting Raineri’s telling give-way-to-none under- and over-pinning.
For the Scriabin poem, Raineri’s preliminary address proposed an erotic subtext; along with the composer’s intended universal conflagration towards which we are all hurtling, you might also find a more personal interpretation in which the short work illustrates a drive towards orgasm. Good luck with that. I was happy to revel in the pianist’s splendid communication of direction and coherence in a score that can degenerate into unabashed flamboyance. Here, the eventual employment of double-note and three-against-one note trills was subsumed into the piece’s dramatic fabric; if I couldn’t rise to the occasion and find a sexual thread, I was able to appreciate the heightening of both tension and fabric as the apocalypse broke out.
Elgar Howarth, the British musician who conducted the premiere of Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre, made arrangements of three of that work’s arias for the Chief of the Gepopo (Secret Political Police), who is trying to warn of an impending disaster but can only produce meaningless vocalisms. One of Howarth’s reductions was for voice and piano; I haven’t been able to trace it, so have little informative to report about this rendition. Further, the two participants took on characters that I can’t find in the opera: Stenzel (in overalls) as Harley Quinn (Harlequin) and Raineri a punk-of-sorts. They performed in front of a pixilated backdrop for most of the time but the arias were punctuated by abrupt shots of the participants alone, Raineri vocalising sometimes as much as Stenzel. You’d be going to find much that made sense here as the exclamations and expostulations flew thick and fast but the interweaving of lines and simultaneity of attack were carried out with excellent skill.
Turley’s piece saw Raineri spend much of his time inside the piano, working on the strings with his hands and using at least one over-sized drum stick with a soft head. Prior to the sounds, we had a mimed approach to the piano, an opening of the keyboard, the change from inside the instrument to orthodox sound production via the keyboard, and what looked like a farewell caress that might have been fetishistic – one of the ‘amazing possibilities’ that the pianist referred to in his introduction. Connell, as far as I could tell, made no sounds at all but attitudinized semi-seductively throughout the work’s four parts.
Then came the Seven Veils finale, executed with high brilliance and an object lesson in transferring a sumptuously colourful orchestral fabric to fit a piano’s limitations. Above his skill in negotiating Strauss’s harmonic vagaries, Raineri fulfilled the essential task and made a convincing dance of it all, complete with the expected curvets and wayward darting forward and then receding with a satisfying sense of balance. Indeed, the performance impressed most when you simply shut your eyes and enjoyed the sonorities rather than looking at the extra-musical element of this concluding gambit.
What Raineri attempted in this Strauss work, he said, was to offer an exercise in subversion. In the opera, the heroine strips herself to nudity; here, Raineri did the same, taking off a seven-part black costume, devised by Joel Dunkley, at various points in his performance. Nothing wrong with that exercise in the abstract but the realization was another thing. It would have been better to have Raineri’s clothes taken off him, in similar style to many productions of the opera where the heroine gets a helping hand or six. As it was, the undressing points were awkward; the final rapid removal of a pair of black briefs suggested nothing so much as misplaced modesty in a change-room. As well, it’s probably advisable to have some reason to take off your clothes; to my vulgar way of thinking, the body has to live up to the music. While I admire Raineri’s pianism mightily, his physique is slight and undeveloped in terms of muscle and tone, as well as in matching Strauss’s whirling score Still, this was probably part of the projected sapping away at both musical and situational parameters in the work.
Something similar came through in the Turley enterprise. In the Melbourne/Connell screen, the actor appeared in facial close-up, looking in to the camera with a narcissistic self-awareness. Eventually, it was revealed that he was sitting on a bed, dressed in a bunny costume which he slowly took off to display his torso. The process struck me as little more than a pale imitation of striptease; Connell seemed to be wearing a female wig as well as the forced smile that typifies this entertainment. But, for all the ambisexual suggestions from Melbourne and the Brisbane intimations of the piano-as-sexual-substitute, you found nothing in the presentation that raised a frisson of eroticism: we had a piano, we had a bit of flesh, but the triple X promise needed the input of a sympathetic and daring dramaturge.
With the Ligeti, I believe that most of us would have been distracted or titillated by the visual dickering provided by Jai Farrell which reflected the quick-fire musical content of Ligeti’s arias and superimposed a Dadaistic visual complement. Raineri referred to ‘energy of a sexual nature’ that could be found in these pages, an observation which might have been a distinct possibility although, viewed from my vague memories of sexual energy, this experience proposed a kind of benign phantasmagoria projecting a wealth of energy from both executants but not much that would strike you as sexual – rather the opposite, in fact. Possibly the pianist was referring to the mutual sparks that the performers struck off each other but those appeared to be entirely a matter of split-second timing . . . which, to be fair, has a definite relevance to sexuality.
While Raineri worked through the Scriabin work, we were offered some visual stimuli from Eljo Agenbach who began with a black screen, a quasi-human-shaped flame appearing at bars 27/28, transforming into a hand holding the flame, before a full-screen shot of a fire spread across the horizon, like part of those immense bushfires in our Black Summer, the focus moving closer to the white centre of the conflagration as Raineri took us to the brink. Sorry: that’s exactly how I took the work – as illustrative of the physical world rather than proposing an erotic vision; mainly this was due to the final scene from Agenbach’s visual commentary which moved us straight into the composer’s definite vision of the world collapsing into fire.
Easiest on this program to take in without caveats, Farrell’s contribution to the Britten songs came mainly through different backdrops for each one: an up-market bar for Tell me the truth about love with Raineri in shirtsleeves and waistcoat while Stenzel stood at the piano’s end like a real-deal chantoozy; a colourful city-road at night for Calypso; a graveyard for Funeral blues with Stenzel sporting a face-veil. All right: this was another instance of over-egging the pudding, yet the results worked surprisingly well, giving us four contrasting scenas with limited musical materiel.
From the way Raineri introduced each work on this program, particularly the last two for which he asked his online audience to refrain from copying or storing, you might have anticipated something a good deal more visually daring than what actually occurred. You gleaned the impression that the artistic director and his collaborators were intent on breaking boundaries, crashing into a new juxtaposition or junction of revolutionary art forms. That didn’t come to pass. I don’t know about past Brisbane events but for decades I’ve been present at plenty of musical/physical exhibitions in Bourgeois Sin City where boundaries haven’t been stretched: they’ve just disappeared, as in Les Ballets Africains, the Samson et Dalila bacchanale from the Victorian State Opera, visiting dance companies for the Melbourne Arts Festival, Stuart Ringholt’s nude gallery tours.
In sum, such an exercise is not the rarity it once was. Further, I believe that the various premises behind this night’s segments fell between two stools and, in the end, failed to yield much aesthetic illumination for their audience. If anything, the demonstrations of proposed eroticism showed a naivete in the face of physical/sexual reality. That’s not to be lampooned or decried but I don’t think this innocence will lead us anywhere new. Even for this battle-scarred but tolerant concert-goer, Sunday’s recital illustrated the truth of that celebrated maxim: prima la musica e poi la sessualita.