Things were fair enough in this latest subscription series concert from Frank Pam and his string chamber orchestra, as long as the body kept within its means, as the Federal Treasurer is currently encouraging us to do. The afternoon opened with an arrangement of Begli occhi, merce, the most (only?) popular aria by Antonio Tenaglia. Pretty well known in arrangement form, this F minor slow-mover gave the Musicians no troubles, but then it is the sort of thing a competent player could handle at sight, included here as a warm-up to prepare the ground for harder matter.
Molly Kadarauch gave a driving account of the solo in C.P.E. Bach’s first Cello Concerto in A minor, the only one of the composer’s three that seems to get much ventilation. The Musicians began with plenty of punch, although the tempo could have been quickened with benefit, notably to relieve the impression of stolidity rather than mobility. Kadarauch was on the same wave-length, however, and urged her line with high intensity, using the busily Romantic double-stopped and chord-packed cadenzas of Friedrich Grutzmacher to transfer us momentarily into the world of Dvorak’s cello. Even the central Andante sounded stormy and stressed rather than a C Major haven. Some of the orchestral detail went walkabout, particularly a tendency to read the finale’s dotted-quaver-semiquaver patterns as triplet-based. Still, the reading held interest through its bravado and lack of affectation.
I wasn’t sure that much was gained by an encore, in this case Bloch’s Prayer, the first section of the popular From Jewish Life suite. It gave Kadarauch a chance to orate a slow-moving melody line full of melting melismata and a line-up of the composer’s expected tropes reminiscent of the Schelomo Hebraic Rhapsody, but it sat oddly alongside the discipline of the concerto’s framework.
After interval, another guest appeared: Justin Kenealy, leading the Glazunov Saxophone Concerto of 1934. All in one movement, the work has no trace of jazz suggestions or the seedy world of Weill and the contemporarily composed Berg’s Lulu; indeed, the composer treats his soloist like any other woodwind, although one with a dominant voice. What strikes you, in fact, is that the soloist has so few moments of rest, as though Glazunov wants the interpreter kept busily at work in such a short-framed construct, and so the saxophone makes all the running, apart from some obvious interpolations during the last movement’s progress when the soloist takes a few bars break while the strings articulate the themes’ basic elements.
This solo-domination was just as well as the ensemble laboured in the faster-moving tuttis, some of the violins not quite getting on top of their notes and the texture liable to thin out as things got tricky. However, Kenealy made a fine exponent of this rarity – well, rare in local exposure terms although it features large in the instrument’s repertoire – with a cogent outline of the central cadenza and a pretty jaunty approach to the outer sections of this free-flowing last flower of the composer’s solidly Tory talent.
To finish, conductor Pam attempted to flesh out the Russian side of this program with the Shostakovich Sinfonia, a string orchestration of the composer’s String Quartet No. 8 Op. 110 organised by the American double-bass expert Lucas Drew, rather than the traditional version transcribed by Rudolf Barshai.. An ambitious undertaking, this score was often beyond the players’ competence. Even during the opening Largo, the uniformity of articulation was suspect, the upper strings’ overall attack tentative.
Matters improved in the following harsh Allegro molto where the slashing accents and driving thematic insistence came close to acceptable. But the last Largo was a mess; I don’t know where but someone jumped the gun – hard to do in this slow-moving elegy – and, to finish the afternoon with some coherence, Pam had his players repeat it. Rather than an emotionally wrenching experience, I think many of us were relieved to get to the Sinfonia‘s end and then look forward to the next program from this band on Sunday July 17 at MLC: those tried-and-true familiar entities the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 provide the main elements.
It’s not really a hard sell, Luisa Miller; with a sharply-defined set of principals, some stirring, sometimes thrilling pages and a simple plot (albeit one with a few odd twists), the work could be an attractive proposition, especially welcome to finish the national company’s Melbourne autumn mini-season which otherwise walked through two repertoire staples. For most of us simply a text-book name, one of the 15 or 16 early works by Verdi that largely remain unknown (with the exceptions of Nabucco and Macbeth), this opera represents a turning-point, the commentators say, where the composer’s fully-formed voice breaks into maturity and a buoyant originality that marks everything that follows.
This is a co-production with the Opera de Lausanne, in which house it was first staged over two years ago, and follows on from its appearance during the Sydney spring season in February this year. From the northern capital’s staging, only the female singers have been transplanted to Melbourne – Nicole Car a sterling heroine, Eva Kong as the lightly-sketched confidante/villager Laura, and Sian Pendry taking the role of the other woman, Duchess Federica. Tenor Riccardo Massi, who has sung in Sydney at least twice before, makes his Melbourne debut (I believe) as Luisa’s high-born lover, Rodolfo. The remaining male soloists are all familiar home-grown faces: Michael Honeyman worked through the part of Luisa’s father; Steven Gallop added to his catalogue of villains with Wurm complementing his Nourabad from the company’s The Pearl Fishers; Operatunity Oz winner David Parkin (was it really a decade ago?!) gave his best to the unsympathetic role of Count Walter.
So, a reliable cast at work. Why, then, was the effect so tedious? Verdi took a gamble giving so much work to a baritone and two basses, especially in the work’s conniving centre. But he gave them all some fine solos and concerted numbers. Parkin came to life when Count Walter’s secret (he killed his cousin to get the title) becomes an issue but his self-justifications for stuffing up his son’s life failed to convince and, if you don’t believe that the Count is sincere – in this, at least – the whole tragedy crumbles. Honeyman found a specific mode of delivery at Sacra la scelta e d’un consorte and stayed there, the shape of his line consistent but unchanging, so that his injunctions to Luisa and his wounded pride objurgations at the end of Act 1 sounded identical. Gallop brought a menace to his characterization, his production packed with theatrical points that suggest the moustache-twirling villain, at his most impressive in the Act 2 duet with his master, L’alto retaggio non ho bramato, where both acknowledge their criminal past.
Pendry gave a cogent, dramatic account of the duchess, showing a fine balance between optimism and doubt in the opera’s central scene where Luisa is forced to lie that she feels no love for Rodolfo. Yet you might reasonably have expected a more ample sound from the singer, particularly when her hopes increase that her wedding will take place. Possibly it was director Matthew Barclay‘s vision that Federica has something of the tightly-laced and snippy about her; I can’t find that in the music or in the actual dialogue that she conducts with Rodolfo on her first appearance.
Car sang with excellent point and clarity, giving an appropriate excitement to her opening L’o vidi e ‘l primo palpito, then making her over-wrought Tu puniscimi, O Signore the closest thing this production got to a show-stopper (it didn’t, but that’s more a comment on us than on Car and her fine clarinet support), and easing the weight of a lengthy double-death scene through an unerring command of her upper range and a clear awareness of her dramatic situation in duet with Massi for Ah piangi; il tuo dolore and in the concluding trio. Luisa is cursed from the start, pulled from pillar to post by practically everybody with whom she interacts, a pitiable if conscious victim; Car’s gift was to draw a credible personality, one who gives in to Wurm, to the Count, to her father, to Rodolfo, but still has enough spirit to wave a rebellious flag – one that fails but you believe that her attempts are real, not just token efforts.
Massi’s Rodolfo proved to be the production’s most unsettling element – apart from the staging which stretched tolerance to an unnecessary degree. His power stayed vigorous from the T’amo d’amor ch’esprimere duet where the lovers are at their short-lived happiest, through the argument with his father and consequent entreaties to Federica, continuing through the popular regretful aria Quando le sere al placido that experienced a rousing rendition, and into the final emotional chain that brings Rodolfo from disdain and anger to a revived, if fainting ardour at the work’s end. Through this sequence, Massi sang with confidence and a resonant clangour, his tenor at full-stretch more often than not and his line full of points where he hoisted himself onto the note rather than attacking it cleanly; a powerful personification, yet in some ways not appropriate for this particular drama.
Conductor Andrea Licata gave Orchestra Victoria every encouragement, rousing a splendid ferment for moments like the conclusion to Act 1 where the drama’s personnel come into open conflict. In later principal ensembles, the brass sounded over-energetic, although that’s an easy thing to accomplish in this space. But the stand-out pit element for the duration of this opera’s run is the first clarinet. Without a program, I can’t say for sure who the player is; the orchestra’s website lists Paul Champion as first desk, Andrew Mitchell as principal bass clarinet. In any case, Verdi gave the San Carlo player plenty of exposure and his OV successor produced a sensible, present but not obtrusive account of the line.
As able as ever in this season, the Opera Australia Chorus gave good service in their few appearances, including a soft, somehow menacing reading of the Ti desta, Luisa opening serenade. Not that the chorus is stretched at any point; Verdi kept his fireworks for the ill-fated lovers. But the choral mix proved amiable and appropriately stentorian in support at climactic points.
The original director, Giancarlo del Monaco, moved the opera’s temporal situation from the early 17th century to relatively modern times, possibly about 1930. The locale could still be the Tyrol; if so, it’s populated by villagers in perpetual evening dress, all set for a sombre gala. Luisa wears white throughout; the male principals affect tails, except for Miller who presents as a refugee from a Downton Abbey shooting party. As the drama moves forward, the chorus remains outside the main acting space, processing slowly around it during the overture while carrying candles in what appeared to be plastic tubes. Preparing for the corpse-rich final curtain? It’s hard to say. Whatever the underpinning rationale, this group stays away from any involvement of a physical nature.
William Orlandi‘s set consists of two sculpture groups, one of a bourgeois domestic scene of nuclear family togetherness, the other of a gentleman bent over inspecting what could be a fountain or a civic monument. Both are white, highly polished and suggestive of nothing so much as Lladro ceramics. During the opera’s opening sections, these gradually roll upwards until they hang suspended over the stage – which could suggest an inversion of the natural order, if only we were sure what that was. On the bare stage, Orlandi then employs chairs which the principals sit on (but not for long), or kick aside, or throw around in fits of rage or pique. At the end, of course, the suspended statuary comes back down to stage level, right-side up. It all makes for clear lines, a welter of black and white contrasts, minimal visual stimulation which focuses your attention on the music.
But, rather than offering a new locus from which to view the drama, the setting saps at its vitality in this specific staging. Any concentration on Verdi’s score is laudable, certainly, but in bringing about this focus, the director and his team raise the bar for everyone – and only Car is equal to the challenge. Too often, you have the impression that the male singers have little ability to shape their lines, that the differences between scenes, between individual lines, have been left unexplored, that getting the notes on pitch and on time is sufficient. This might explain the interpretative pall that falls over the production early on and which rarely lifts.
With regard to a final puzzle that caused mild perturbation during the drive home, I’m assuming that the melodramatic climax – where Rodolfo, with his last gasp, shoots Wurm – misfired because the tenor’s gun, so active in the ludicrously handled duel scene, failed to work, leaving Gallop to strike a pose reminiscent of the central character in Goya’s The Third of May. The effect of this tableau was to make a mystery of the opera’s final lines, where Rodolfo in extremis says to Wurm, A te sia pena, empio, la morte – and on this occasion did nothing.
The production has three further performances, ending on Friday May 27.
Many commentators – not I, though the temptation is great – find this Bizet opera a piece of dubiously-coloured tripe: its plot illogical or, if you’re feeling kind, clumsy; the music’s quality unworthy and variable, apart from the soaring glory of the Act 1 tenor/baritone duet; the vocal writing itself, for both soloists and chorus, undistinguished in comparison with the brilliance blazing out of the score for Carmen 12 years later. Most of these complaints can be debated, if not completely justified, but what can’t be gainsaid is the popularity of The Pearl Fishers over recent decades in this city. For a time, hardly a year went by, it seemed, when either the Victorian Opera Company or the Australian Opera did not produce this work with the same fervour as both organizations showed some time later for The Magic Flute.
An awful lot depends on the three main principal singers. Each gets plenty of ensemble work but also a splendid, character-establishing aria. Nadir enjoys the finely-spun arches of Je crois entendre encore, a gift for any tenor who can produce a soft upper register. On this premiere night, Dmitry Korchak missed out on conveying the inbuilt languor and ecstasy-in-remembrance that fills these pages.
The priestess Leila opens with coloratura, singing to protect the fishers at their work, but her main extended aria, Comme autrefois, has a full-bodied lyricism and an interesting pattern of phrase-lengths. Emma Matthews performed this with restraint, probably too much so; still, like everybody else, she was constrained by the slow tempi exerted by conductor Guillaume Tourniaire, a method of approach which meant that it was only half the time that singer and orchestra hit their cues simultaneously. Jose Carbo sang a solid Zurga, making a dramatic meal of his late cavatina Nadir! . . . ami de mon jeune age which had the advantage of travelling securely across the footlights, as had all his singing since his early Act 1 appearance.
But the production’s most enjoyable singing came from the Opera Australia Chorus, in good shape vocally from the opening scene and consistently firm in articulation, whether en masse or divided by gender. In Michael Gow‘s direction, the group stood about in a block, filling up the rear of the acting area or geometrically aligned across temple steps; not much imagination shown in such dispositions but they ensured that mutual support was continuous and the concept of a body acting with one mind came across persuasively at moments like the election of Zurga to the population’s leadership or the death-threats hurled at the exposed lovers, Leila and Nadir, in the final scene of Act 2.
For those of us with a sneaking affection for this opera, certain moments are anticipated, usually with expectations that are rarely realized. Most of these are duets, like the substantial love-duet in the third scene of Act 2 that has an irresistible sweeping power, not particularly original in its layout yet compelling and vehement\; just the thing for two lovers who have discovered each other at last. Both Matthews and Korchak gave this section some much-needed animation, as also came across near the work’s end in the Zurga/Leila confrontation which brought out some fire in the soprano and a matching energy from Carbo, particularly at the point where he admits to his jealousy.
Michael Gow has reblocked the drama, turning both the male principals into middle-men of some kind, their dress that of the colonial administration rather than the original’s Sinhalese native-grown. Right from the start, you’re led to question even the simplest matters, like why the fishers would elect Zurga their headman. Nadir is always an outsider, a hermit-hunter by his own account, although in this personification he could have come fresh from the 19th century fleshpots of Western civilization in Kandy. Why either would have at one time been hanging around Leila’s temple is a niggling question of behavioural probability. Turning the priest Nourabad, sung at full throttle by Steven Gallop, into a sort of broker makes some sense, although why he also is dressed in a suit and at the same time can rouse the fishers to fury with menaces of divine vengeance adds to the plot’s oddities, rather than removing them.
But this production is short on subtleties, not least visually as the sets by Robert Kemp emphasize the poverty of this community and, if anything, its lack of prosperity as the temples are overgrown with weeds. Further inexplicabilities applied to the set mounted for Zurga’s bout of self-realization, suggestive of a white hunter’s bungalow in 19th century British Africa, complete with many hunting trophies (what has this pearl fisher-cum-entrepreneur been doing in his obviously copious free time?).
Still, as with all attempts to give a new vision to a work set in its time and place, the viewer has to exercise generosity. In this case, I’m not sure that much has been gained by taking all three male principals out of the population; the social commentary suggested appears pretty ordinary, giving a fresh socio-economic layer to a work that profits both musically and dramatically by its own simplicity. Maybe it would be more persuasive in this regard with a central quartet that displayed more comfort in their work.
The production has seven further performances, ending in a 1 pm matinee on Saturday, May 28.
Not a new production, this offering from director Gale Edwards, revival director Andy Morton, set designer Brian Thomson and costume designer Julie Lynch – but of a piece with the company’s Autumn season pattern in that it updates and transposes the work’s action, as the following The Pearl Fishers and Luisa Miller will also do. For all the distractions that these peripheral changes involve, this current version of Puccini’s touching score has a significant benefit where it counts: the voices of those involved onstage. After some underwhelming principal line-ups in previous years, it came as a pleasant shock to hear an Act 1 that succeeded in engaging the inner musician in each member of the opening night audience. Well, perhaps that’s being over-optimistic but, for those of us who were listening for quality, a good deal was there to be enjoyed.
Gianluca Terranova is a new voice to me but a welcome one. His work as Rodolfo proved exceptional, not so much for insights into the character himself (are there any, apart from the furious confession of Act 3?) but simply for the fierce temper of his tenor which invested the line with vigour and a continual ardour. Like most of his tribe, Terranova is no respecter of bar-lines when in full uninterrupted flight, so that Che gelida manina enjoyed a fluidity that a conductor more prickly than Andrea Molino would have brought into line, yet the travelling power of his top notes and their almost-total security swept aside a good deal of trivial nit-picking . . . like gripes about keeping in time.
A match for the tenor, Lianna Haroutourian sang a dedicated Mimi with a splendid carrying power not held back by the character’s racking consumption. Her Si, mi chianamo Mimi matched Terranova’s opening aria with a soaring ma quando ven lo sgelo sequence and her following collaboration in O soave fanciulla demonstrated a responsiveness that front-lined the composer’s melodic and spacious lyric arcs as well as giving weight to the lightly-sprung dialogue to which this rhapsody momentarily descends. Haroutourian even put up with her partner’s brashness in seconding the Act-ending high C that, for once, stayed on pitch, although this magic moment’s effectiveness was squashed, as usual, by over-anxious patrons drowning out the delicacy of Puccini’s orchestration across the last bars, harp harmonics and all.
The lovers’ confrontation in Act 3 proved less persuasive dramatically but you would be hard pressed to fault the desperation of Terranova’s Marcello. Finalmente! duet with Andrew Jones. Later, after Haroutourian set up an excellent framework with Donde lieta usci, the tenor found it hard to convey Rodolfo’s grief through the Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina! quartet, compensating for it with a determined O Mimi, tu piu non torni duet to open the last act, then wringing the death scene for as much tragedy as a jaundiced audience would find credible; that final curtain came down in silence.
Jane Ede‘s Musetta carried out her responsibilities with moderate brio, the Quando m’en vo’ showpiece carefully delineated. But you were rarely convinced of Musetta’s humour and brightness of personality; not even in the name-calling fight with Marcello at Act 3’s end, although Ede made a concerned, condoling figure at Mimi’s deathbed. Jones, her counterpart, made a much more interesting fist of the jealous painter, working with professional ease through the romping that starts the outer acts and contributing a strong vocal presence in his duet with Mimi at the Barriere d’Enfer toll-gate.
Richard Anderson relished his one chance to shine, Colline’s Vecchia zimarra aria, taken at a lugubrious pace, emphasizing the philosopher’s gravity rather than the ludicrous charity that he is exercising. Graeme Macfarlane‘s landlord Benoit and Adrian Tamburini‘s Alcindoro fulfilled their obligations without striking any notes of originality. But the children’s chorus for the Cafe Momus scene sounded as confrontational a pack of ragamuffins as you’d want to avoid on a dark night while the adult chorus gave a vocally colourful backdrop to the principal sextet in the same act.
The setting has been moved to 1930s Berlin. You can tell this by a few black uniforms, a customs official dressed like the Fuhrer himself, some cross-dressing attendants on Shane Lowrencev‘s Schaunard, and the Momus establishment turning into a quasi-brothel/cabaret scene with a plethora of loges, at least one pair of bare breasts for ornamentation, an outbreak of garter belts, a band of ersatz Hitlerjugend coming on for the act’s final military blaze. The changes in time and locale make no difference to the outer acts in the artists’ garret, the opera’s core action arenas. Further to this puzzlement, at night’s end, you are left wondering exactly what correspondances are intended to exist between this Baz Luhrmann-redolent refreshment essay and the original’s Parisian Latin Quarter of a century before.
Orchestra Victoria responded well to Molino across the night, with a particularly keen briskness through Act 2, the body’s strings unexpectedly rich in the State Theatre’s close acoustic, some small passages of woodwind/string doubling whistle-clean, while the brass corps also surprised by its quick rate of response; no chain-dragging on this night.
In fine, this Boheme is worth visiting for its main players, both excellent calibre singers – which makes it hard to understand the premiere patrons’ lukewarm curtain-call reaction to Haroutourian. Admittedly, she was dressed in an oddly dowdy costume for much of the night but that should have provided no impediment for a worthy response to her impressive vocal powers. Among the locals, Jones shone with a secure and confident baritone. As always, if the production’s look strikes you every so often as ineffective, if not over-affected, you can ignore the stage work and simply revel in some of the more transporting Italian operatic lyricism this theatre has sponsored for quite a while.
There will be a further eight performances of La Boheme, the last on Saturday May 28.