Reductio ad absurdum

ROBERTO DEVEREUX

Melbourne Opera

Athenaeum Theatre

November 11, 14, 16 and 18

                                                         Helena Dix and Danielle Calder

I suppose that it’s some centuries too late to rail about Donizetti’s asinine Tudor operas which pervert history for the sake of improbable, rudimentary if not execrably written dramatic situations.   And it’s undeniable that, compared to the Maria Stuarda plot-line compiled for the composer by Bardari, the Cammarano book for Roberto Devereux cannot come as a shock to anyone used to bel canto pot-boiler libretti.  But experiencing this conclusion to the Melbourne Opera’s  sequence of Donizetti’s Henry VIII/Elizabeth I operas did not make for a particularly happy night in the Athenaeum.

Soprano Helena Dix returned to the company to sing the role of Elizabeth and her vocal display was one of the opening night’s highlights from her opening Duchessa . . Alle fervide preci up to the ridiculous self-indulgence of the opera’s finale, Quel sangue versato where the queen’s self-indulgence spills over into bathos.  You could relish the precision of Dix’s fioriture alongside the control on display in her ensemble work, all without finding much to fault.

But, from the beginning, the  characterization of Elizabeth offered little beyond amusement and not-to-be-suppressed memories of Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.  This queen, brought down to the groundlings’ level, is a figure of fun, pettish and slightly ridiculous, certainly the biggest entity on this stage and encased in an unflattering farthingale.  The malevolent turn that penetrates her first duet with Devereux, In sembianza di reo, presents as almost childishly spiteful and both Dix and director  Suzanne Chaundy seemed unable to give the character a personality with which you might find some sympathy.

Matters hardly improve in the queen’s confrontation of Devereux with Sara’s scarf, the proof (somehow) of his infidelity to her.  You can see that all the running is left to Elizabeth but her display of the incriminating object is schoolgirl-spiteful at best, as is her intransigence with Nottingham’s requests for mercy. The best recourse here was to ignore the staging and focus on the vocal interplay which, on Dix’s part – once you set aside the overdrawn malice – remained consistently impressive.

Henry Choo gave us a well-rounded Devereux, although it was easier to take to the ardour of his Una volta, crudel interchange and consequent duet with Danielle Calder’s Sara than to his initial appearance in front of Elizabeth where the tenor over-stressed the guilty asides both with the Queen and in the pendant scene with Nottingham.  Still, Choo made a fine feast of his focal scene Ed ancor, la tremenda porta where Devereux resolves to keep his secrets and endure execution; here was an excellent sample of lyrical and persuasive bel canto, determined and not over-supple but clear-speaking and consistent across its demanding range.

Phillip Calcagno, one of the company’s stalwarts, worked hard as Nottingham., the friend turned enemy who serves as the all-too-predictable fulcrum around whom the tragedy turns.   His baritone is accurate enough but it lacks pliancy; a single-minded insistence on correct delivery worked in the baritone’s favour during his reassurance of Devereux but proved wearing in his pleadings with Elizabeth, Non venni mai si mesto, probably because of the sharp contrast brought into play with Dix’s fluid phrasing.  However, the angrier Nottingham became, the more convincing Calcagno’s efforts.

It’s no fault of any singer that he has to indulge in a rapid, hardly credible conversion from dedicated confidante to moustache-twirling vengeful cuckold (or so he believes) in an instant; Cammarano’s dialogue sets up this change and Donizetti was in too much of a hurry for any subtlety.  When the penny starts to drop, Calcagno does his best from Orrenda luce balena onward but the transformation is unavoidably melodramatic. The confrontation with his wife that begins Sara, vederlo io voglio gave us the singer’s finest moments where the emotional intensity of this character’s abrupt change in situation almost brought about a commensurate flexibility in Nottingham’s vocal line.

Calder’s Sara opened the opera, fittingly enough with a plaint:  All’afflitto e dolce il pianto – a marvellous gift from the composer – but the soprano was directed in such a manner that the lines made little impression, coming across as more petulant than tinted with tragedy. Things improved markedly in Calder’s ensemble work, her deliberation a worthy match for Choo in the couple’s renunciation scene and an attention-grabbing counterweight to Calcagno’s vicious recriminations in the husband-and-wife confrontation.

Jason Wasley played Lord Cecil without stress, but then there’s not much for the character to do.  Eddie Muliaumaseali’i enjoyed the part of Raleigh, who has a scene of conspiracy with Elizabeth, Assente egli era, where he produces the scarf he has found on Devereux.  It isn’t much to play with but the bass made each phrase count; his delight in ruining a rival almost made you feel some pleasure in knowing that this knight was to meet his comeuppance under James I some 17 years after the opera’s action.

As for the company’s chorus, the general effusions sounded enthusiastic, but the night began in pretty ordinary fashion with the court ladies’ Gemer!   Pallor funesto coming across the footlights to scrappy effect.   As is customary in these 19th century Italian pre-Verdi works, the male chorus tended to bellow when given the opportunity.

Greg Hocking conducted a pit that every so often found it hard to agree on the beat.  The overture’s tutti exclamation chords sounded effective but the following reading of God save the king suffered from an uneven woodwind trio where the oboe drowned out the melody-bearing flute.  Hocking did little to keep the brass restrained which was a pity as his strings worked hard and efficiently while the horns were not always as reliable.  As Hocking knows better than most, the Athenaeum is a small space where the orchestral output sounds acoustically dry with little-to-no resonance.   Duets and trios worked effectively in stage-pit combination but the hurly-burly full choruses, enthusiastically essayed, sounded too hefty for the air volume available.

In a bid to aid communication, the work was sung in English: a practice that works well when the libretto is worth understanding in detail but not so fortunate on this occasion where the audience found plenty to laugh at in Act 1.  This comprehensibility factor favoured recitatives but arias and more complex structures did not always succeed as well as they might have if all singers had been coached in shaping their words.

But is there a point in laying bare the bones of this opera?  Much of the time, it flies in the face of sense, nowhere more so than in the essential plot element involving a ring that the queen gives to Devereux, to be used by him as a court of last appeal if he gets caught up in trouble.   Even at the final curtain, Elizabeth is brandishing this infantile talisman of intrigue, as though the tragedy can be attributed to its misuse, rather than the fact that Devereux was a compleat traitor with a long history, for such a young man, of disobedience and intemperate behaviour.

On top of this, Cammarano and Donizetti portray the queen herself as a venal, uncontrolled personage; her last words in the opera are an apparently splenetic act of abdication, although in reality she had another two – almost three – years to live and reign after Devereux’s execution.   The legend of the Virgin Queen comes in for a belting as well since her physical infatuation comes pulsing though all too clearly in her musing that begins L’amor suo mi fe’ beata.

So, at the night’s end, after the audience’s full expression of pleasure in Dix and Choo’s realizations of difficult roles, the over-riding impression that I took away was one of vulgarity; not just because the creators had played ducks and drakes with the facts but more so that they had demeaned the story, working to an operatic lowest common denominator.   I’m one of very few patrons of this mind, for sure, but I’m glad the Donizetti/Tudor experience is over.  Here’s hoping the company doesn’t attempt to round out the enterprise with a staging of Il castello di Kenilworth.

 

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.

Lively night in North Melbourne

TRIPLE TREAT

Gertrude Opera

130 Dryburgh St., North Melbourne

Saturday September 16

                                                                     Allegra Giagu

For sure, it was a triple bill; the question of a treat, I’m not so certain.  This company, coming up for its 10th birthday, gives a welcome avenue for aspiring local and international singers to gain expertise and repertoire; whether by design or by chance, the participants in this group of one-acters were young, although the GO promotional material shows that this accent on tender years doesn’t always obtain.

For Saturday night’s premiere, members of the company began with Salieri’s Prima la musica, poi le parole: that little entertainment, first performed on the same night in the same venue as Mozart’s Impresario, with which it shares pretty much the same plot-line – the problem of getting an opera written with two competing sopranos in play.  The male roles of Poet and Composer were handled with plenty of grunt by baritones Josh Erdelyi-Gotz and Darcy Carroll; they exuded a persuasive sense of exasperation from the start, setting out the plot-lines competently enough, although Salieri  and his librettist Casti make sure an audience is aware of the competitive collaboration that underpins the action, simply by means of sheer repetition.

Soprano Allegra Giagu sang Eleonora, the prima donna with an ego the size of Schonbrunn.  This voice was over-projected for the room that was used for the triple bill, but she made a fine fist of the three satirical extracts from Sarti’s Giulio Sabino that saw the three soloists involved move into slapstick.  Bethany Hill’s contribution as the good-time soubrette Tonina presented as more hectic than happy, the account of Via largo ragazzi given too rapidly for comfort.  But I did enjoy the wrap-it-up quartet, Lieto intanto, mainly for the unabashed energy that each of the singers gave it.

Second up was Menotti’s evergreen The Telephone, one of the shortest operatic two-handers you’ll ever come across.  Bethany Hill put in another appearance as Lucy, Darcy Carroll also returning for the not-too-demanding part of prospective fiance Ben.  A fluffy piece which gives its soprano all the running, this staging by Greta Nash worked efficiently, even if there’s little enough you can do with it.  Hill proved more effective in this piece, but then it’s an easy ask: the line is simply dialogue (or monologue, if we’re honest) dressed up with notes.

In these days of instant communications where a phone is rarely out of many people’s hands, this work takes on a credibility that is streets beyond its effect in 1947.  The ubiquity of multi-function phones as an extension of personality plays out well in a reading set today, with the added advantage that Hill could (almost inevitably) use her device as a physical appendage – to talk into, of course, but also to take selfies.  Carroll had few occasions to shine, except when his beloved left the room for a short spell and then in the love-duet that concludes the work to general satisfaction.  Not that the singers were playing for subtlety: Ben and Lucy are both as superficial as anyone you can see on The Bachelor or, more pertinently, The Farmer Wants a Wife.

A new quartet came on for the staging of the 18-year-old Bizet’s operetta Doctor Miracle, the most substantial of the evening’s components, in part due to a fair bit of truncated dialogue in the Salieri work.  Resounding with echoes of The Barber of Seville, Don Pasquale, Cosi fan tutti and even La serva padrona, the plot concerns the feisty daughter of the Mayor of Padua who wants to marry a buoyant Almaviva-type military sprig, who gets into the house by disguise, is found out, pulls a swifty on the podesta and gets the girl in the end. Nothing particularly original, yet the music is loaded with attractive melodies and the young composer had a keen eye for how long he could justifiably hold up the dramatic onward surge.

Juliet Dufour sang the daughter-in-love, Laurette, with a keen eye for the part’s vitality, especially in recitative.  The solitary problem came from her pronunciation.  Doctor Miracle was written in French, of course, with a libretto from Leon Battu and the highly prolific Ludovic Halevy, but the Gertrudes presented it (as also Prima la musica . . . ) in English and Dufour’s enunciation showed a lack of ease with idiomatic English singing. While she would have been happy sailing through Ne me grondez pas, it was often hard to decipher her meaning in that romance’s English equivalent.

Bass baritone Henry Shaw made a satisfyingly fussy Mayor, if inclined to overdo his revulsion at certain stages; the objection to Miracle’s clamour was strident enough but the omelette reaction exceeded the bounds of probability.  Nevertheless, his contribution to ensembles like the trio with Laurette and Silvio was assured and moderately resonant.  As his wife, Veronique, Lisa Parker played a comfortably assured vamp, too clever for her current company but pushing all the right buttons; in other words, making her presence felt in spite of having little but dialogue with which to do it.

Tenor Hew Wagner, a guest artist with GO,  made a bright beginning as Silvio, the military man disguised as Pasquin, the Mayor’s newly-hired servant.  His boasting Je sais monter les escaliers self-introduction came across with a breathless vigour and assurance.  A pity, then, that his ensemble contributions were close to inaudible, even in the rousing final quartet. It was hard to see why this ringing timbre went missing in concerted moments, although I sympathized with him in coping with Jeremy Stanford’s direction.

Wagner is a solid fellow, with the physique of a second-row forward and a solid diaphragm at his disposal.  But the tenor was required to climb onto a fairly rickety table at two points in the action, moments where your expectations that he wouldn’t make it or that he would fall were high.  This clambering requirement looked effort-laden and distracted from your focus on the voice and characterization.  A pity as he might have made a more persuasive showing if he’d had his feet on the ground throughout.

The company works under certain constraints, most of which are understandable.  Costumes have to be contemporary, regardless of traditional settings (1786 Vienna?  An American city in 1947?  18th century Padua?  Forget it), lighting is rudimentary and scene-setting errs on the functional side with little room for stage effects.  The most serious problem relates to the absence of an orchestra.  Bizet’s opera requires a pretty standard pit with a quartet of instruments for off-stage noises representing the Doctor’s self-promotion; Menotti asks for six wind, percussion, piano and strings; Salieri has the full woodwind, trumpets and horns, timpani as well as an active string body.

Opera Australia’s veteran Brian Castles-Onion took on the unenviable task of escorting the company’s singers through all three elements of the triple bill; he did so from the piano, just like at a rehearsal which, at times, this night seemed in danger of becoming.  I don’t know what he was doing with Salieri’s opening sinfonia but it sounded like selected bars were hefted out with little care for exactitude.  Matters improved for the actual opera but the results across the three productions were often ragged, the most successful collaboration coming in the Bizet score which, compared to the others, radiated fluency.

It’s beyond the company’s means to assemble an orchestra, although thought might be given to organizing a skeleton band – even a string quartet for something like the 18th century piece would have helped, or some percussion(ists) for Menotti’s entertainment. But serious thought should be given to providing the Gertrude’s singers with something like a realistic accompaniment against which they can show their talents more fairly and with more rewarding results.

The productions have been presented also on Monday September 18 and will receive their last performances tonight at 8 pm.

 

Honest attempt at the improbable

LOHENGRIN

Melbourne Opera

Robert Blackwood Hall

Saturday August 19

                                                               Richard Wagner

The great advantage about getting to the last performance of anything is that you get the chance to garner the wisdom of your colleagues, read what they have to say about the event, retain what their findings have been while you sample the goods yourself, then have a rich backdrop of opinion on which to draw to justify your own.

Well, it could work like that except that, more often than not, the views of other writers tend to act as mental retardant; you can get distracted by too much unanimity about a singer’s worth or a generous communal appraisal of an orchestral contribution, or you can be startled into irrational action by the amount of space that fellow-writers give to ephemera – the costumes, lighting, scenery and directorial imprint.

So it has been with this Wagner work which enjoyed a three-night run in the Regent Theatre before this final performance in Monash University’s hall, rather than in its Alexander venue.

Without cavil I shared the universal approval of all six main principals, could almost go along with the approbation given to the company’s expanded orchestra, was mainly in agreement with the encomiums heaped on the chorus.  Yet it was hard to share in some of the minor enthusiasms that fleshed out several of the post-premiere notices.  Partly this was due to the change in venue.  I’ve not been inside the Regent Theatre for years; not since a younger Hugh Jackman appeared as Joe Gillis in Lloyd Webber’s one-and-a-half hit show Sunset Boulevard.  Without doubt, this Collins St. venue would have suited the opera more comfortably than did the university hall, although the latter had the asset of a long walkway from which choruses could be sung, brass ensembles could bray and even Phillip Calcagno’s Herald could carry out some proclaiming.

Here was one of the production’s unexpected surprises.  The Herald has the opera’s opening words, is the focus when Elsa’s appeal for a champion goes out, sets up the order of combat, then pronounces the changed state of affairs in Brabant before the wedding scene  –  Calcagno’s best moment,  his baritone well-pitched to the space and firm in its chain of announcements.

For the title role, Melbourne Opera brought back Marius Vlad, last year’s Tannhauser.  His tenor is a reliable quantity, only one passage in the lengthy Act 3 duet giving a short frisson of concern.  He negotiated the set pieces –  that rhapsodic self-introduction-of-sorts, Nun sei bedankt; the powerful summation of his final appeal to Elsa in Hochstes Vertrau’n; the blazoning power of In fernem Land where all becomes clear.  Accurate in intonation and, relative to some of his peers, observant of Wagner’s metre, Vlad does not power through his work; when set alongside some of the noted heldentenors who can bellow to order, his timbre is inclined to be nasal rather than gutsy.

Unlike many other observers, however, I thought that the tenor shone brightest in ensembles, notably the duets with Elsa: the first encounter beginning at Zum Kampf fur eine Magd which swept you up rapidly into their mutual, hastily organized commitment; the interchanges that constitute the last scene of Act 2 where Lohengrin turns the tables on Ortrud and Telramund; but especially the closest thing the score has to a love duet, Das susse Lied verhallt.

Of course, Vlad’s success in these segments was shared with Helena Dix’s Elsa, who established a viable character immediately from her character’s awkward entry onto the scene when you might have thought she was catatonic before launching into Einsam in truben Tagen.  By the time her desperate prayer started at Du trugest zu ihm, the soprano had contrived to move beyond the usual depiction of Elsa as more than a tad deranged, making a persuasive case for the heroine’s belief in her champion’s advent.

Later, Cox gave excellent service as the blissful beloved in Act 2 with a splendidly phrased reading of Euch Luften rising above the conspiratorial duet that interrupted its flow, and even managed to make Elsa seem less unctuous than usual during the character’s charitable adoption of Ortrud’s case.  Yet her most valuable contribution came in the later stages of the final act where her gradual progression from placid lyrical responsiveness to irrational insistence by way of self-pity brought on the inevitable tragedy.  Dix has a fine vocal armoury for roles like this with a firm projection informed by a supple command of Wagner’s semi-long phrases and a musicality that accommodates the occasional decorative inlay without over-emphasizing its presence.

Hrolfur Saemundsson initially carried all before him as Telramund, the accusations and nasty one-liners in Act 1 thrown off with exemplary energy and explosiveness.  You might have expected a continuation on the same level in the long duet that opens Act 2 but the baritone here appeared to be dramatically monochromatic, not conveying the swings between rage and depression that the action requires.  Matters improved for his confrontation at the Minster door, Den dort im Glanz, which achieved the necessary disruption of action and emotional backdrop with laudable vocal brawn.

Yet the outstanding figure in the principal quartet was  Sarah Sweeting’s Ortrud.  Not much more than an arrogant cipher at the opera’s opening with a bare six lines in ensemble work, the singer could do little but posture.  But the extended duet of recrimination and revenge that opens the second act gave this singer plenty of scope as she manipulated her husband and laid the groundwork for Elsa’s downfall.  Indeed, it is hard to recall any part of the production that succeeded as powerfully as Ortrud’s Entweihte Gotter! exhortation, launched at the audience with sense-heightening aggression.

It was complemented by Sweeting’s second bout of vituperation in this act, beginning at Zuruck, Elsa! which, like Saemundsson’s challenge a few moments later, brought a halt to the sweet self-satisfaction at work for everyone else.  Here, the impact of Ortrud’s defence of her husband and challenge to Lohengrin’s anonymity proved engrossing, the notes articulated with exemplary precision and barely leashed ferocity.

As King Henry the Fowler, bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i followed the rest of the cast under Suzanne Chaundy’s direction and gave a direct account of the part, the only problem arising during his pre-combat solo, Mein Herr und Gott, where  the top F flat sounded underdone.  But the King’s contributions to the concluding scenes in both later acts proved stalwart and comfortably handled.

This final performance was conducted by Greg Hocking who worked through the score with level-headed competence.  The tempo for the opera’s Vorspiel seemed rather hasty for a real Langsam but the principals stayed within respectable boundaries and the choir stuck to their work without ignoring the pit.  Only a fairly lengthy wind-supported passage in Act 2 threatened to come adrift but a soldier-on ethic came into play until order was resumed.   Hocking had two offstage brass quartets operating – one above the stage, the other to the rear above the stalls.  The forces involved were somewhat under those stipulated by Wagner but, like the chorus, the executants worked efficiently: on cue and on the note.

Because the Blackwood Hall has no pit, we heard the orchestra very well but there were few passages where you would have preferred a softer dynamic from the body.  The clarinets sounded unpolished next to their fellow woodwind; the trombones and horns in the main orchestra tended to drag in slower-moving tutti passages; and you would have preferred more strings at the moments of highest ferment.  But the general combination impressed as an honourable engagement with a score that bristles with difficulties, particularly dynamic contrasts and variable textures.

It’s a possibility that the chorus assembled for this production was the best that the company has presented for many years, although I haven’t seen every work from Melbourne Opera over the past decade.  The double men’s chorus made a satisfying impression across the night, notably in those stentorian swatches of fabric that the composer splashes out at festive and bellicose moments in the drama: a credit to their preparation by Raymond Lawrence.  Yes, the male singers gained markedly from the hall’s lively acoustic reaction to their combination, but the female corps also generated a full-bodied sonority in support of Elsa during Act 1 and, singing from the hall’s upper walkway, the Treulich gefuhrt processional to the bridal chamber.

The set was a minimal one: a set of stage-long steps – and this stage is very long – with video projections for backdrop.  The two appearances of Lohengrin’s swan pleased most of my colleagues, but I thought the wing-beating flurries and the animal’s actual appearance odd in the production’s down-to-earth, naturalistic setting.

Further, the appearance of the missing young duke, Gottfried, at the end – the swan turned human – also struck a mystifying note as the character looked traumatized, not that capable of taking over his realm, let alone leading his forces into battle against the marauding Hungarians.

But this opera is an improbability from start to finish.  Some commentators make much of the proposed struggle between the old gods and Christianity, between Lohengrin and Ortrud.   Others see it as a study of women’s frailty, or of the patriarchal system at its worst.  My Wagnerian guru, George Bernard Shaw, points out the fundamental flaw in the opera itself, one that bedevilled Wagner into many revisions, and that is the improbability of demanding that Elsa be held to the promise that she makes to the hero  –  not to ask his name or provenance.  To their credit, at the end of this night, both Vlad and Dix managed to attract equal sympathy, both victims and touchingly human in different ways, even the noli me tangere prude of a knight.

But I found the whole exercise very satisfying, enough of a composite entity to ensure that you glossed over problems both in music and presentation, even if you couldn’t quite forget them.  It was a long night  –  what Wagner night isn’t?  –  but it seemed to move steadily forward without any stretches of tedium, probably because the production team, cast and musicians took the work at face value and invested it with honesty and their best abilities.  You can’t ask for anything more.

 

 

Janacek on a small scale

CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thursday June 22

       Antoinette Halloran (Fox), Celeste Lazarenko (Vixen)

While it was a fair effort on the company’s part  to get this problematic work onto the stage, a few days after the event it strikes me that not much about the production could be called memorable or striking.  The singers and orchestra went through the score with efficiency but, apart from the principals, you got the feeling that not much else was added. On top of this sense of ordinariness, Stuart Maunder’s direction of the secondary and tertiary figures impressed as perfunctory and, as he had little enough resource material to work with, the unsatisfying effect was all the more prominent.

The last two times I’ve been in this theatre have been for VO work: Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty and Ernest Toch’s The Princess and the Pea – both of which slotted into the Playhouse space well enough.  The Janacek opera is another matter altogether.  You can admire the truncation of orchestral forces by Jonathan Dove as a sad/necessary job done competently but nothing makes up for the absence of power in those terse rhapsodic outbursts that constitute the score’s chief glory.   The main trio of singers – Celeste Lazarenko, Antoinette Halloran, Barry Ryan (Forester) – gave respectable accounts of their roles, and their peers on the human side showed equal assurance: Brenton Spiteri’s regretful Schoolmaster, Samuel Dundas bumbling but lethal as the poacher Harasta, Jeremy Kleeman’s Parson sustaining with distinction his maudlin solo Pomni, abys byl.

On a bare stage with abstract representations of trees, the chorus of forest creatures assembled for the capture of the vixen – but in lamentably small numbers, unable to communicate the composer’s sonorous fabric suggesting the teeming life in this environment.   Ryan’s stentorian timbre proved exemplary from this scene until his final meditation – that marvellous and moving stretch beginning Nerikal jsem to?!.  But his orchestral support sounded meagre, as though the pit occupants were operating from some distance away.  At most points, the animals’ interpolations were left unwoven into the orchestral fabric, the singers treating their interjections and comments with plenty of regard for the rhythm and nothing at all for the vocal-orchestral ambience in operation.

Lazarenko made impressive work of her feminist pitch to the hens, keeping you involved even though her line is a sequence of short phrases.  Even better came in the courting scene; not so much a duet as a dialogue and carried out with reassuring fluency alongside’Halloran.   Although the Vixen has room to establish a character, the Fox has to work quickly and one of the more impressive segments of this production came in that Bozinku, ten je hezke! section where both characters meet.  Neither they nor Janacek waste time and the movement from here to the end-of-act wedding should sweep you into the action compulsively.

Disappointingly, these great moments felt under-powered, like the repetitive post-wedding chorus at the conclusion to Act 2 and the final D flat peroration, reminiscent of the composer’s Sinfonietta, that communicates so honestly the work’s underlying pantheism.  You need heft and timbral depth at both points, qualities that Jack Symonds’ 20-strong orchestra was unable to provide.

Yes, I understand that this was a budget effort and a charitable spectator is expected to make certain allowances.   But the actual look of the work smacked of carelessly cut corners and making-do.  You can mentally compensate for deficiencies in scale when dealing with operas that really amount to operettas without dialogue; Cunning Little Vixen is no such creature.  For all the apparent disjunction of its scenes as they oscillate from human to animal, from inn and house to forest glade, from cruelty to love, the opera works on a large canvas; even the Schoolmaster’s mooncalf-like regretful longings for Terynka need to be negotiated with purpose and spirit.

A fair effort from the company, for sure, and a daring one but the actual realization, visual and aural, gave us all too often only a shadow of the original’s magnificent paean of delight in creation.

The opera will be presented again on Tuesday July 27 and Thursday June 29 at 7:30 pm, and on Saturday July 1 at 1 pm.

A shining light in a drab year

KING ROGER

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Friday May 19

 

                                                Michael Honeyman

 

Szymanowski’s opera presents a few problems to some of us but not for the usual reasons. The work should be easy to imbibe, particularly as it comprises three pretty brief acts which could be run together without any difficulty, except for trying the main character’s stamina.  And this presentation from director Kasper Holten, a co-production with Covent Garden and Dallas, cuts out the libretto’s extraneous exotica to focus on the three main characters with exacting intensity, just as the composer and his co-librettist Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz intended.  But the opera comes with inbuilt baggage that is hard to ignore; well it is for me.  Still, this night’s work came across with such drive and purpose that you easily countenanced the question-marks for the duration.

This version continued the pattern of updates in the national company’s Melbourne season: Carmen in mid-20th century Cuba, Cav/Pag in the same 1980s Calabrian village, King Roger in an abstract environment of the 1920s, this last making the most significant break with the original.   Leaving this chronology element to one side, the finest achievement in the opening night of the Szymanowski opera lay in the musical realization which came close to ideal, conductor Andrea Molino displaying admirable command of a score that juxtaposes garrulity with terseness, euphony and dissonance, seductiveness and brutality.  He was rewarded with an outstanding response from Orchestra Victoria whose playing remained assured from the opening tam-tam strokes to the abrupt final C Major chord.

The action begins with Christian prayers, led by Gennadi Dubinsky as the Archbishop and Dominica Matthews singing his female counterweight, the Deaconess.  As demonstrated by her Mamma Lucia of nine days before, Matthews has a riveting force to her mezzo, made even more confronting in this character who is, from start to finish, out for blood. Dubinsky held his own throughout his 24 lines, the later ones against an increasingly powerful choral backdrop as he stepped up his appeals to Roger for retribution on the free spirit distracting his flock.  Not as forceful as Matthews, Dubinsky impressed as a more querulous figure, albeit one with a rich Orthodox-resonant bass.

As the royal hero, baritone Michael Honeyman gave one of the more memorable characterizations to come from the company’s recent trips south.  Even in Act 1 where Roger has little to say until near the end, the singer exposed clearly the king’s oscillation between firmness and uncertainty, rigid application of the law and fairness informed by agnosticism.  With the opening to Act 2, we are admitted to the man’s mental and physical trepidation in his Niepokoj bladych gwiazd invocation of the stars and his own helplessness. The following exchange with Arthur Espiritu’s Shepherd, the near-stichomythia from Szymanowski’s encounter with Euripides, gave us a vivid chain of outbursts as the ruler’s arguments and effectiveness turned to meaninglessness, Honeyman becoming more and more engrossed in the interplay of libido and authority, his voice reflecting Roger’s struggles with a fine ability at animating the composer’s increasingly taut vocal line.

But Roger really comes under the microscope when he has lost everything in Act 3 and he is faced with the Shepherd/god’s ultimatum.  In a powerful stretch, Honeyman travelled from the rueful Wokol martwota glazow self-appraisal, through the unsettled vision of his wife Roxana, Tyzes to, Roksano!, past the final encounter with the fateful Shepherd/Dionysus, to that final blazoning salutation, Slonce! Slonce!  He contrived to keep these changes consistent in a kind of personality continuum so that the leaps in mood remained credible, the king’s voice a steady force across the act’s changes from depression, through distress and near-hysteria, to an authoritative triumph.

As Roxana, Lorina Gore showed with singular success how to handle a personality who really doesn’t change.  The queen’s initial defence and pleading for the Shepherd were enunciated with fine definition in a vocally crowded passage, but Gore came into her own with the aria that seems to be the only familiar scrap from the score, Usnijcie krwawe sny Krola Rogera, delivered with sinuous placidity and an effortless floating quality, just right for a segment that is predicting Roxana’s rapid slide into the Shepherd’s hedonistic gang. In Act 3,  Gore made a tellingly persuasive case for Roger to yield to the temptations of the flesh with her Jest w gwiazd usmiechu solo, a moment of driving rhapsody that served as an intriguing mirror for Roger’s own last solo.

Espiritu was the only cast change from previous Sydney performances of the opera.  He has a burnished timbre, making an impression for its calm address right from the self-introductory Moj Bog jest piekny jako ja, hitting just the right tone of aplomb and shameless proselytizing.  Even without the traditional setting’s trappings, the singer convinced you of his capacity for transcendence, although prepared, like the Euripides character at the start, to deal fairly with his human prey.  In Szymanowski’s hands, the Shepherd has a kind of tonal certainty to his commands and dictates that found an excellent vehicle in the Act 2 attempted conversion of the King and the seduction of his court and kingdom.

As with Honeyman, so too Espiritu enjoyed a thrilling Act 3.  At this point, the god’s intent is for a complete surrender from the king and his dealings from Rogerze! Rogerze! Czy slszysz glos moj? onward are meant to enfold the king into his followers’ camp.  At this point, the character is a menacing figure who is reaching out without argument but an appeal to abandon self-regard – self-consciousness, really – and embrace the world-as-pleasure principle.  Quite properly, Espiritu left the Shepherd’s blandishments behind and his voice led into the climactic assault on Roger with penetrating authority.

James Egglestone enjoyed his main points of exposure in Act 1, oddly enough.  Possibly it’s an idiosyncrasy of the score but the adviser’s prominence is evident here in dialogue with the king; later, he takes on a very secondary position, both at the start of Act 2 when he attempts to calm Roger, and later at the ruins where he commands his master to act.  This tenor role was the night’s solitary underplayed participant; admittedly, Edrisi has little enough to sing but revival director Matthew Barclay kept him pretty much out of the way, an incidental presence even when his is the only voice speaking commonsense.

As a swathe of publicity shots in the media have shown, the outstanding feature of Steffen Aarfing’s design is a huge head positioned at centre-stage.  This is full-frontal in Act 1, which opens with Roger kneeling before it and the ‘public’ church scene plays in front of and around it.  The head rotates for Act 2 and its back gives us a scaffold-set in its interior, at the bottom of which lie nine near-nude male dancers who carry out the libretto’s choreographic demands.  In Act 3, the head has been reduced to smouldering ashes – all of which is probably a physicalization of Roger’s situation: masterful and confrontational fascism, then uncertainty and mental stratification above a writhing id, eventually the collapse of pretension and a reversion to basic elements.  That’s fine (if that interpretation is correct or justifiable) and the surrounding semi-circle of spectator cut-outs functions well enough as an action delimiter.

Holten’s direction has several striking elements.  In the opening pages, lights play over the dominating head, suggesting the mutability of Roger’s psychological make-up.  The chorus is pretty much just that, their participation in the action limited, especially as the depiction of their surrender to Dionysus in the libretto’s general dances is taken over by the nine professionals.  Szymanowski uses the chorus as backdrop at several points  –  like Roxana’s Act 2 aria, and before the crisis in the last act  –  but their dynamic contribution on this occasion was often muted, even for an off-stage body.   Against this, you have to put the marvellous burst of power that stormed out in the hymn Boze poblogoslaw Panie praodwieczny.  The director also treated with restraint the homosexual subtext that everything associated with the composer appears to summon up these days, King Roger in particular where the Dionysian/Apollonian divide is simplified to a juxtaposition of gay and straight; the use of only male dancers filled that particular bill well enough by allowing for the obvious without smashing us in the face with it.

The composer and his cousin made fairly selective use of The Bacchae as source material.  The Shepherd parallel with Euripides’ herdsman works well enough, although the opera’s superhuman is not as malicious as the play’s character with his appalling boast: I lead this young man to a mighty contest and the conqueror shall be I and Dionysus.  The king is not dismembered in a maenad frenzy, although we get a taste of that madness; rather, he comes to his own victory and repels the invitation to follow the herd; in which sense – bereft of kingdom and standing – he becomes his own man, unlike the grieving and doomed elder generations that survive Pentheus.

In fact, the Euripidean framework and references can take you only so far – which is reassuring, especially for the religiously blameless Sicilian empire-builder that the opera creators settled on as their hero.   Unlike the Theban king, Roger is persuadable in the cause of fairness; he listens to the pleading of Roxana and Edrisi in the first two acts, and he is enough of a poet and insecure like all of us to listen to the Shepherd’s creed. Although his initial reaction is towards the orthodox, the king rescinds his own order for execution, so this latter-day god gives him a second chance and doesn’t send him mad for challenging a divinity.

In fact, the ‘mystery’, as Szymanowski called it, is best explained in Edrisi’s last lines: Przesniony sen! Stargany lancuch zlud!   The dream that threatened Roger – of abnegating the soul and giving in to pleasure alone – is indeed over, and the chain of illusions promulgated by Dionysus has been broken up.  When the malleable hordes have left, including your own beloved, and are following an easy calling that makes no demands on the intellect, you are lucky to be left standing, alone but upright.  It makes for a powerful affirmation of self-hood, regardless of your sexuality, and it caps this extraordinary drama with intelligence and warmth, both qualities that are paramount in this presentation – one of the finest in the company’s chronicles.

The production will be presented again at 7:30 pm on Tuesday May 23 and on Thursday May 25, and at 1 pm on Saturday May 27.   If I had the money, I’d attend all three of them.

 

 

 

Try-hard maths: two into one

CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA/PAGLIACCI

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Wednesday May 10

                         Cavalleria Rusticana

At first glance, this looks like a cost-cutting exercise – having these two often-paired contemporaneously-composed operas set in the same locale, so that the subtle distinctions between Mascagni’s representation of Sicily and Leoncavallo’s deep-south Calabrian village are fused.   You can economise on sets, costumes and, in some cases, singers.   But the bare-bones production look of both operas, particularly Cavalleria Rusticana, is deceptive and, thanks to the State Theatre’s revolving-stage mechanism, each opera has a variety in its presentation, even if some of the director’s staged events are cringe-making.

But what and how an opera is acted out has taken on undue prominence these days; what really matters is the music and how the company copes with it.  Luckily, Opera Australia has some fine artists at work here, with not really any unsatisfactory principals, even if their ardour was rarely matched by a full body of choristers.

The Mascagni piece enjoys a welter of fine melodies, beginning with Turiddu’s offstage siciliana that in this instance brought Diego Torre’s hefty tenor into play well before he actually showed up in person.  Dragana Radakovic’s first appearance as Santuzza showed a singer hard at work but getting very little across the pit, up to the fourth scene’s Romance, Voi lo sapete, o mamma, where the soprano moved into high gear with a driving force that continued throughout her confrontations with both Turiddu and Alfio.

Santuzza, in fact, carries the action and is a continuous presence.  Dominica Matthews sang Mamma Lucia, who spends most of her time reacting to others in dumb-play with some inane recitative.   None of this challenged the singer who went through the expected motions required of an overwrought mother of a wastrel son.  The other female principal, Sian Pendry’s Lola, produced a fair off-stage Fior di giaggiolo and played up to Torre fetchingly in the Brindisi scene.  As the most (only?) attractive woman on-stage, she exhibited the requisite relish for attention but, as so often happens with Lola, she is hard-pressed to make any vocal impression, even in her nasty dialogue with Santuzza.

Torre maintained a striking vocal presence through the opera’s second half, matching Radakovic’s vehemence in their confrontation, playing an effective lad-about-the-village in the catchy Viva il vino spumeggiante, playing efficiently for undeserved sympathy in the remarkable Mamma –  quel vino e generoso aria with its move from hectic, subdued excitement to valedictory lyricism: for me, the work’s finest moment.  The only problem with this Turiddu was the one-dimensional attack, which was rarely less than full-throttle; as a result, the young man presented as an intransigent ne’er-do-well, with whose fate it was hard to feel much sympathy.

Having less to work with, Jose Carbo took this night’s honours as Alfio, bringing some much-appreciated vitality to the opera through his Il cavallo scalpita self-introductory bragging – an aria that puts a bass through his paces with several top E flats and a pair of taxing F sharps.  As with Matthews, most of his vocal work is confined to recitative, yet Carbo built a firmly-etched personality in the short scene of Santuzza’s betrayal, finishing with a convincing Infami loro quatrain, then offering a self-composed balance with Turiddu’s  self-recriminations in the duel challenge.

Andrea Licata conducted, giving full weight to the score’s mellifluous arches of melody and bringing out a steady response from Orchestra Victoria.  The ensemble’s place to shine, the well-loved Intermezzo, passed along well enough, although the pit’s tinny organ substitute dimmed the piece’s timbral lustre more than a little.   In the opening pages, the Opera Australia Chorus sounded lively enough, even if the male voices dominated; but the performance pace slipped to dragging for the Ineggiamo procession.

Director Damiano Michieletto updated both operas to the 1980s, which presents no problem as long as you subscribe to the theory that nothing has changed in the social life of Italy’s poorest region over a century.  The Prelude is played out over a tableau, the villagers all gathered around the dead body of Turiddu; the stage unfreezes and the opera’s action begins.  Much of it involves a bakery, staffed by two men, one of whom I think was Samuel Dundas, who turned up in the same clothes as Silvio for the Leoncavallo opera.  The impression is of a clean but run-down community; Dundas’s yellow t-shirt is a colour highlight, Lola goes in for seductress black, Alfio sports a spivvish orange-brown suit, but the main impression is of soul-quelling dowdiness.

Then the producer has introduced a few oddities.  Why the statue of the Virgin in procession comes to life to make imprecatory gestures to Santuzza strikes me as unnecessary theatrical padding.   Updating Alfio to a car-driving purveyor of women’s gear would be fine, except for the self-identifying text he has to sing.  Also, it’s working against the placid rest from action that the Intermezzo gives us to have Yellow-T-Shirt and a passing girl carry on a little gauche flirtation; that kind of interpolation strikes me as indicative of a belief that, if nothing is happening on stage, then the audience is bound to be bored.  Maybe, but I think that people who can’t just listen to a master-stroke for three minutes should stay at home with their play-stations.

During the work’s progress, someone puts up posters advertising the coming appearance of Pagliacci in the village’s theatre; so we know what’s coming, I suppose.   Still, you’d have to be pretty thick not to be aware of what’s on the other side of interval.

In the second opera, Torre plays and sings Canio with impressive dedication.   This character is a tenor’s delight, revealing himself on every page in every line.  The role’s high-point, Vesti la giubba at the end of Act 1, was a minor triumph with the tenor making every point a winner and giving a vital counterbalancing picture to the jealous brute who is the outward manifestation of the troupe’s leader.   But Torre made his mark at the beginning with a gripping Un tal gioco where he prefigures what would happen if he found his wife Nedda had taken a lover: a fine crescendo of barely-suppressed rage and violence, shrugged off at the end of this solo in a most non-persuasive show of benignity.

At the work’s climax – the entertainment that the strolling players are providing for the villagers – Torre displayed a vocal and emotional command right from his appearance as Pagliaccio, Nome di Dio!   As the scene moved forward and the actor’s self-control deserted him, the tenor gave a gripping realization of Canio’s move into homicidal anger, thus bringing the opera full circle: we were warned what would happen, and it did.

Carbo also performed in the second work, this time as Tonio who enjoys the inestimable gift of Leoncavallo’s wide-ranging prologue, Si puo?  This could have been a fine experience but the baritone was hampered by Licata’s leaden-footed tempo.  Better followed in the Nedda-Tonio scene, Carbo making an excellent self-apologia in the So ben che difforme solo, loaded with self-pity but showing his unhappiness and longing with a rich sound-colour and something approaching dignity before he throws it all to the winds and assaults the disdaining object of his love/lust.

Anna Princeva, the production’s Nedda,  opened with a fine study in contrasts, from her fear of Canio in Qual fiamma avea nel guardo! to the extended flight of fancy where she identifies herself with passing birds, Oh! che volo d’augelli.   This soprano possesses a crisp, bright quality, very accurate in delivery and manipulating her line’s phrasing with admirable flexibility.  To her credit (and that of her colleague), the love duet for once didn’t pall, in large part due to the sprightly nature of her vocal attack and the mobility she demonstrated in segments like Non mi tentar! and the ravishing Nulla scorda! sestet.

Dundas, in a windcheater over the previous opera’s t-shirt/jeans outfit, sang an assertive Silvio, the young lover who has no solo but must delineate himself in his love-duet with Nedda.   Where Carbo suffered from the slow pit pace, this baritone had to work with direction that had him jumping around the stage like a pre-match athlete from an American university, his physical restlessness detracting from the longing and desperate pleas that make up the greater part of his work.

John Longmuir sang Beppe, the general hand/actor whose only chance to shine comes in the play-scene where he acts the 11 lines’ worth of Arlecchino and rarely gets noticed because of the crisis that looms throughout this Commedia scene.

For this opera, the chorus showed a good deal more vocal energy; but then, the demands placed on them are greater – from the opening frenzied excitement, through the Vespers chorus, to the play-within-a-play’s disastrous progress.  Licata’s orchestra appeared un-pressurized, but the great surges of vitality in the work’s middle pages came over efficiently.

Michieletto raised these eyebrows again with his Pagliacci.   For the interlude between the acts, he has Santuzza onstage receiving post-Confession absolution from the priest who led the Easter procession.  She meets Mamma Lucia and demonstrates that she is pregnant; the two go off arm-in-arm.  Some might consider this elevating; I think it’s bordering on ridiculous.   Still, it’s part of the intention of having the two operas cross-fertilise each-other . . . perhaps that clause is unfortunate.   Of more interest is the strange scene concurrent with the presentation to the village in which Canio hallucinates that he sees Nedda  being unfaithful to him – a vision that leads him into his murderous dementia.

A slight problem is one that bedevils every Pagliacci.  Canio catches Nedda embracing Silvio, but the lover escapes without Canio being able to recognize him.  It’s generally a clumsy piece of staging – how can the clown not see his wife’s lover? – and this particular effort is reliant on Canio being pretty myopic . . . or possibly he can’t identify yellow.

Also, as usual, the Leoncavallo work engages an audience more immediately than its Mascagni companion; the drama is more taut, the characters’ motivations more clear-cut, the score more energetic.   But the joint productions’ attempts to bleed one piece of verismo into the other are marginally successful, it seems to me.   If the musical content is taken as the dominant guide in approaching each work, then their internal differences argue for treating each work as a discrete construct, rather than supporting an attempt to push them into the same space.

Further performances will take place at 7:30 pm on Saturday May 13, Monday May 15, Wednesday May 17, and at 1 pm on Saturday May 20.

Lost in translation

THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

March 25

Princess

                                                                  Olivia Cranwell

After a few hours’ post-performance reflection, you’re left with the sense that there’s not much to Ernst Toch and Benno Elkan’s treatment of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable.   It barely lasts for 40 minutes, the characterisations offer no dark shadings or suggestions of internal depth, Toch has composed very few long stretches of work for his vocal septet, and the musical vocabulary itself is a puzzling amalgam of tongues, when it’s not just satirising operatic conventions.

Director Libby Hill set the story in a TV studio, starting out well enough with all the usual feverish off-camera action and the semi-histrionics of technical crew and acting/singing cast.  Candice MacAllister’s set comprises little more than a raised platform for the central action with a square frame surround to mark the screen’s limits; then, matters eventually spill off this acting area and towards the front-of-stage, although the differentiation between the story and its peripheral framework is broken pretty close to the start when studio gofer Olivia Cramwell is prevailed upon to play the Princess and two technicians (cameraman and director), Michael Lampard and Michael Petruccelli, also take on participatory roles as courtiers.

Conductor Fabian Russell controls an active pit with only a few obvious misfires to be heard from his pretty small instrumental force: string quartet with double bass, two flutes and one each of the other woodwind, no trombone but one each of the other brass, percussion and timpani.  The only recording I’ve come across of this work involves a pretty full-sounding orchestra (Berlin Chamber Symphony) but what you lose in depth (in the Playhouse?!), you gain in clarity from the singers.

Here, the production was blessed in a fine cast of extroverts.  Veteran Jerzy Kozlowski gave us a befuddled but booming King; as his consort, Kathryn Radcliffe worked particularly well as the tale’s fly-in-the-ointment figure who casts doubts on the Princess’s aristocratic background; as you’d expect in this era of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, James Egglestone pranced and preened through the Prince’s part, albeit with a fine ringing heldentenor attack; Lampard and Petruccelli backed the rest of the principals with exuberantly forward baritone/tenor duet force in the few stretches where they were required to sing – usually ensembles.

Dimity Shepherd began the piece as a TV Host, explaining the plot and what was happening with all the smiling artificiality of a Playschool adult; then, she entered the action as the courtier with a good idea to test the Princess, and here is where she took centre-stage for a long tract, explaining her scheme with enthusiastic drive and a no-holds-barred dynamic.  Cranwell also presented a forward-stepping heroine, vim-filled and energetic in both movement and vocal flexibility.

You could have no complaint about the company’s singing, then. But what they sang was another matter.  For reasons that escape me, the opera was given in German; hence the necessary plot guidance from Shepherd-as-Host and some sporadic signpost explanations projected on the front walls.  All this would have been fine, except that pretty well every adult there had a child (or children) in tow.  Some adults believe in the child’s innate ability to cope with the unfamiliar; I don’t and this occasion bore out my misgivings.

For the young audience members, the only times the show came to life were when the characters were arranging the multiple mattresses for the Princess’s bed – a whack in the face here, a crotch-splitting intrusion there – and when the Princess herself re-arranged the bed so that she could get a decent night’s sleep, turning the mattresses into a pratfall-generating slippery slide, albeit one made of fabric.  At these points, the laughs came  out spontaneously.

But the little boy behind me typified the prevailing pre-adolescent puzzlement.  ‘What’s she saying?’; ‘Why did he do that?’ ;’Where are they going?’ – a ceaseless interrogative litany which eventually descended into kicking (his own seat, fortunately) and pleas for sustenance.  Of the mother, who betrayed her ignorance every time she opened her mouth (and she adjusted her volume to match her child’s with no attempt to shut the brat up), it boots me not to speak.   Not unexpectedly, my perfectly-behaved grand-daughter found this theatre convention-disruptive counterpoint more intriguing than what was in front of her.  I understand that an English version of Elkan’s libretto exists; why it wasn’t used remains one of the mysteries.

In terms of production values, this piece was rather bare-boned.  The principals had fairy tale-suggestive costuming; the TV crew wore modern dress/studio uniforms.  But the set was as plain as for a Beckett monodrama.  Consequently, the work depended on its singers and, when you can’t understand them, it’s a big ask of pre-ten-year-olds to stay focused.  A lot more slapstick might have helped; the score is perky and jerky enough in its bemusing fusion of Weill, Prokofiev and Stravinsky to support a lot more running around.

The Princess and the Pea was presented three times on the one day only in the Arts Centre and would seem to have been made for touring.   I don’t know what the young of Yackandandah or Yarrawonga would make of this entertainment; for quite a few, it would be a long 40 minutes.

 

 

Respectful treatment of an old favourite

H.M.S. PINAFORE

Melbourne Opera

Athenaeum Theatre

March 14, 15 17, 18 and April 22 (Robert Blackwood Hall)

 

 Melbourne-Opera-H.M.S.-Pinafore-starring-David-Gould-and-Claire-Lyon-editorial

                            David Gould and Claire Lyon

I was aware of Gilbert and Sullivan operas from school days.  Indeed, G&S productions were my secondary school’s solitary cultural product, so I got to know intimately the chorus workings of Patience, Iolanthe, The Mikado and The Gondoliers at a young age.  Later, as a teacher/repetiteur, I  came across the Savoy Operas once more at a school where, again, the solitary musical effort was exerted on an annual production.  So, as well as the ones named above, I became familiar with the full range – several of them three or four times over – with the exception of Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke.

Without denigrating these youthful activities, I have to admit that much of the time involved with productions was spent marshalling Year 12 young women and men to get through their choruses with something resembling four-part harmony intact, as well as watching other elders instruct and negotiate endless hours of choreography practice and handle the easily-bruised egos of minor-age principals in negotiating vocal lines outside their natural abilities.   Still, an inside knowledge of Sullivan’s scores has broken through several social/personal barriers in my time.

What you miss out on when dragging half-willing adolescents into the worlds of Lady Sangazure and Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd is Gilbert’s brilliant satire.  Yes, the easy laughs we have always with us but the critiques that the librettist offered of his own civilization get left by the wayside in the pursuit of colour and movement.  So the continual commentaries on aristocracy, capital, religion, feminism, racism and psychological frailty get overlooked or are given lip service in favour of belting out the rousing choruses, the arias and ensembles that everybody loves.

Fortunately, Melbourne Opera has entered into their opening H.M.S. Pinafore production for 2017 with persuasive gusto and, alongside giving the music its proper due, the company ensures that Gilbert’s biting commentary on ‘station’, jack-in-office stupidity and sacred cows is given prominence at every point.   It’s been a while since I’ve seen a production that keeps these underpinning themes at the forefront; not even the national company’s recording with Anthony Warlow, David Hobson and Tiffany Speight hones in on the script as well as this version from director/choreographer Robert Ray.

I can’t compete with true G&S aficionados in this city like Jim Murphy and the late David Thomas with the scores and libretti (and movements!) at their fingertips, but I can tell the appropriate – not necessarily the D’Oyly Carte – thing from the ersatz, modernised presentations that stretch an opera’s possibilities.  For Melbourne Opera, Ray has kept the faith; even more than this, he has restored Captain Corcoran’s solo (or is it a duet?), Reflect, my child, as well as the original recitative setting of the work’s final dialogue.  He has also constructed stage pictures that are spot-on – sailors in the right gear, the sisters/cousins/aunts straight out of My Fair Lady‘s Ascot scene, plenty of braid on Sir Joseph and credible billowing skirts on Buttercup.

As most musicians know, Sullivan’s scores don’t require a superlative technique but they depend on variety of attack to ameliorate plenty of jog-trot rhythm and – like the stage operations – the pit needs to be synchronous with the singers; no Wagner-type half-beat elisions and delays can succeed in this crisp, open music.   Conductor Greg Hocking controlled a pretty stalwart band, notable for a competent string group whose bowing was generally uniform, and a reliable double sextet of winds. Only a few points showed hesitation, and these were traditional trouble-spots for both chorus and principals.

Another benefit emerged in this chorus, both genders singing with loads of vim and purpose.  I’d forgotten what a joy it is to hear the women’s entry of Gaily tripping into the double chorus before the First Lord’s appearance: a combination of elements that sets you up for similar delights in the later operas.  The MO women proved a fine counterweight to the hefty sailors, who were blessed with some fine tenors.  Ray had positioned them all carefully enough with few signs of cramped movement although the Athenaeum stage is not large.  Still, Gregory Carroll’s bright ship-deck design with a raised quarter-deck platform  tucked into a stage corner gave the performers some latitude.

The company enjoyed the services of some excellent soloists just itching to get into their work.  David Gould sang an unusually powerful Sir Joseph Porter; he observed all that functionary’s effeteness and pattered through a good deal of ‘business’, but his bass didn’t stay on the quarter-strength level of some interpretations I’ve seen, attacking upper-register notes with chorus-reflecting power.  He found a fine balance in David Rogers-Smith’s Captain Corcoran, the bluffest of characters with Gilbert’s wickedly interposed layer of uncertainty and self-abasement in the presence of an upper-class bully.  His low tenor was well-pitched to the theatre’s acoustic and the orchestral challenges; further, he gave a welcome energy to I am the Captain of the Pinafore and subtle strength to the Fair moon, to thee I sing aria that opens the work’s second act – although something of a miscalculation occurred with an oddly soft attack on the final note.

As Josephine, Claire Lyon  contrived to be both agile and soulful, maintaining momentum and clarity of production (apart from an over-exerted top B flat) for Sorry her lot and later that dramatic spoof The hours creep on apace, resisting the temptation to overdraw the aria’s word-pictures.  On top of this, she has that admirable talent of knowing her responsibilities in an ensemble – duet, trio, riding above a chorus – and  exerting control over her dynamic superiority.   An irrelevance, but perhaps the most amusing part of the performance came when a young boy’s voice sang out ‘Hello, Mummy’ between Lyon’s Act 2 scena and the rollicking trio; I assume the lad was intimately connected to the cast.

Ralph Rackstraw, the opera’s working-class hero with an unknown silver spoon waiting for him in the wings, is often played for laughs, the tendency being to assume the manner of Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk.  Paul Biencourt did it straight, albeit with a pronounced lower-deck accent that dropped – as it should – for the singing and his verbose proposal to Josephine.   Despite living up to his name in physique, the tenor generated a ringing and secure colour for his opening madrigal: dreamy if not soppy by nature but treated here with a sensible discipline.  Andrea Creighton played a fine Buttercup, a character who has to hit melodramatic heights at every turn.  As with the rest of this cast, she managed to err on the side of the angels when faced with her character’s plethora of asides and gave excellent value in the Things are seldom what they seem with Rogers-Smith, following the set moves of advance and retreat but projecting the catchphrases with fittingly amusing enigmatic force.

Jodie Debono made a personable Hebe, managing not to turn into an instant termagant when she eventually got Sir Joseph’s hand; Finn Gilheany matched Rogers-Smith in assertive projection and Peter Hanway worked through the light responsibilities of the Carpenter with a matching heartiness.  Rounding out the crew was the Dick Deadeye of Roger Howell, who seems to have been singing for as long as I’ve been alive and has lost nothing along the way in energy, characterization skills and accurate delivery.  He kept up a fine line in angularity and curmudgeonliness but still has a splendidly rich texture, as in his Kind Captain duet with Rogers-Smith.

Ray had also added Rule Britannia to the final scene, an interpolation by Sullivan for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897.   It probably made more of an impression at the time but these days, by the time you’ve heard A British tar and various reprises of He is an Englishman!, the nationalistic paint is reeking pretty thickly.

Nevertheless, this reading of Pinafore is thoroughly enjoyable for any spectator, indoctrinated Savoyard or someone fresh to the field.  Sullivan’s music maintains its elevating high spirits across the years (nearly 140) and Gilbert’s acerbic take on Victorian England’s pretensions and foibles cuts even more sharply with the benefit of our hindsight.   No wonder the old crone of Balmoral detested him.

 

 

 

An earthbound magic

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

March 11, 14, 15, 17 at 7:30 pm and March 18 at 1 pm

 

Sleeping Beauty

                                                                          The King

 

Much has been made of the costumes and puppets in this new production from our state company; much effort has been liberally expended on this area, each of the central characters having a ‘front’ figure manipulated by puppeteers as well as a singer in modern-day mufti to sing Respighi’s notes.  This conceit is sustained right up to the end when the figures of Beauty and her Prince appear for the final hurdles, each pretty much en clair apart from some masks that disappear post-kiss.

Joe Blanck’s designs for these manipulated figures are a random collection, the best of them that for the King.   Some of the others are depressing to look at, reminiscent of the trolls in Peter Jackson’s first The Hobbit film; among these I’d include the Ambassador and his Trumpeter, and the Old Lady who holds the fatal spindle that brings on the story’s central disaster.   Having noted this unsettling quality to some figures, and the disturbing Japanese ghost shape allotted to the benevolent Blue Fairy, I’ll allow that others have a Saturday-arvo-pantomime appeal, like the sprightly chorus of frogs at the opera’s start, the spry Jester-in-the-form-of-a-cat, and the plot-recapping Woodcutter who takes the shape of a lumbering, stage-dominating tree.

It all makes for a mobile scene sequence;’ for the most part, the story unfolds visually quite well, apart from the lengthy action for birds on flexible poles during the first pages and the following florid duet for Nightingale and Cuckoo, as well as the unavoidable longueur as the castle goes to sleep for four centuries.

Of more importance, the company’s musical work maintains a high level throughout the work, with only a few bumps along the way.   Conductor Phoebe Briggs and director Nancy Black have elected to run the three acts into a single sitting; not that such a move is a disadvantage to anyone as the cast exposure shifts all the time and any orchestra tutti sticks out obviously in this voice-focused composition.

I think that the company has opted for the original 1922 scoring which calls for a celesta and harpsichord.   But Tom Griffiths could also be heard on piano, which instrument comes from the 1934 revision.   Whichever it is, the band – made up largely of guest musicians – played this lyrically attractive neo-Romantic music with lashings of sentiment at the right spots, the body gifted with a clean brass trio and a small group of well-attuned strings.

As for the singers, their position was quite favourable.  Uncluttered by costumes and heavy make-up, leaving all the physical work to the puppeteers, they could concentrate on vocalising and remain assured that most people were not watching them.  The Nightingale/Cuckoo duet that begins the opera in a lush field of impressionism found Zoe Drummond and Shakira Tsindos sharing the labour – and the pages are not easy; although not asking for dynamic projection, they do hold an amount of fioriture that is high and exposed.  Timothy Newton made a clear and definite Ambassador, although he couldn’t avoid being handed a pretty bland characterization to deal with.  Elizabeth Barrow’s Blue Fairy enjoyed a fair amount of exposure – responding to the Ambassador’s request, presiding over the gift-granting to the Princess, then ameliorating the curse.- keeping a calm control over another high line, albeit one that tended to legato delivery.

The first familiar voice I heard was Timothy Reynolds singing the Jester, then later appearing as the cameo American, Mister Dollar, in Act 3.   A secure technique and vocal personality made his appearances welcome, especially as both were amusingly carried off in a production that occasionally tried too hard.   As the maleficent Green Fairy, Juel Riggall did a great line in irrational rage, her part not actually musical but full-bore declamation.   Singing the King, baritone Raphael Wong managed to match his bluff vocal colour with the benign if gruff-looking puppet figure – another escapee (one of the dwarves?) from The Hobbitt.  Sally Wilson sang two roles, the Queen and the Cat, but the first proved vocally uninteresting, notably in the Act 2 crisis, while the feline impersonation sounded over-loud and overdrawn.  Another two-role singer, the experienced mezzo Liane Keegan gave fine service as the Old Lady with the spindle, and had much less to do in the (normally soprano) part of the Duchess whom the Prince discards once he gets a whiff of the sleeping Princess.

Another familiar voice emerged in Act 2 with Jacqueline Porter lighting up the stage with a sparkling salute to spring as the Princess, bounding wilfully into the spinning process, sinking into a coma with suitably failing vocal strength, then rounding out her night in a shapely love duet.  Becoming a regular in the Victorian Opera lists, Carlos E. Barcenas sang a charming, ardent Prince, holding his own against a very active puppeteer (Vincent Crowley?) whose Douglas Fairbanks athleticism was well-matched by the tenor’s vehement but controlled power.  Finally, Stephen Marsh blazed out the Woodcutter’s solo with a beefiness that suited the physical proportions of his arboreal manifestation, a broad passage of play that succeeded mainly through Marsh’s ability to make the already known assume an unexpected interest – although a good deal is owed to Gian Bistolfi’s lines at this point.

At the end, the work was greeted with general acclaim even if it was difficult to categorize what we’d experienced – if you wanted to.  It’s definitely an opera, full to the brim with splendid vocal writing and some superb moments for orchestra, notably at hiatus points in the action and least of all when Respighi satirises the dance music of his own age.   But then, it’s an opera and also a mime-show.  Blanck’s puppets are the stage’s focus and, with that in mind, the production might have gained by having the singers do their work from the pit, as I think was done in the original presentations by the Teatro del Piccoli ; in this space, not much would have been lost.  As things turned out, the schizoid depiction of most characters left you a touch bewildered at points where the verbal action ratcheted up a notch or three.

And what of the vision behind the presentation?  The set remained pretty staid, with some tapered drums and circular platforms providing the framework for activity.   Philip Lethlean’s lighting plan veered to the gloomy until Act 3.  Yet the guiding spirit was certainly to amuse; no secret messages emerged – no ironic hints at subtle meanings or underlying depths to the characters.  What you see here is all there is – a relief when you consider what Helden-direktoren inflict on us under the slimmest of pretexts.   Sung in Italian, with translations projected on side walls, the performance makes clear efforts to cater for all audience members.

Yet the work remains earthbound; the magic isn’t calculated to generate wonder and the stage-pictures show few signs of adventurousness. However, this is an enterprise well worth visiting, if only because you’ll never see this Sleeping Beauty performed live again, I should imagine, and the musical values on show in this presentation are solid.