School’s out! – Pilgrim’s Progress and Un ballo in maschera

On Thursday night, to the Opera Australia concert performance of Vaughan Williams’ opera/”morality” Pilgrim’s Progress.

Vaughan Williams spent years tinkering with this – rather an odd exercise, one might think, for an avowed “cheerful agnostic.”  His is probably the last generation which actually read this book, and his persistence with this project strikes me as the working out of a kind of cultural nostalgia.  I own a copy from the Harvard Classics, but I have never managed to finish it. I just know the odd purple passage and of course the song (popular as Gordon Kerry said in his program note, in private school chapels, though he really means boys’ protestant private school chapels) Who would true valour see.

The opera is a series of tableaux. It is not really dramatic because there is no real chance that the pilgrim (Bunyan’s Christian renamed) will not make it to the home stretch. The plot doesn’t really have any twists or turns: it’s all about keeping to the straight and narrow of the King’s Highway to the Celestial City. At the end of the first act, I didn’t think I had heard much that one couldn’t hear in shorter compass in RVW’s Five Mystical Songs, though there were a few nice modal biblical songs here and there, and perhaps a few bits which could have come out of Five Tudor Portraits.

Things looked up in the second act, when we came to Vanity Fair (Thackeray got his title from Bunyan). The devil does get the best tunes! And with the Opera Chorus joining forces with the visiting Bach Choir from London, there was a truly thrilling wall of choral, vocal (from the soloists) and orchestral sound. After that it was back to RVW’s picaresque pastoral, and even if there was a spot about 15 minutes before the end where it all seemed to be going on for rather a long time, it all came together pretty well.

One criticism I do have is that, given the fame of the text, we could have been given libretti in our programs or (better still) projected surtitles as the SSO have managed with recent concert performances of such works. The choral words were particularly hard to catch, even when I knew them, and some of the singers’ English vowels (especially the women, according to my old teacher, Ex) left something to be desired. I expect there wasn’t as much coaching given as would have been given for a run of an opera.

It was a pleasing novelty to see so many of the company’s singers out of costume and appearing as their natural selves. With the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra up out of the Opera Theatre pit and on the Concert Hall stage, an enormous cast of vocal soloists and the chorus as already mentioned, it all rather reminded me of a school concert or speech day, not least because this is the last week of the opera’s summer season in Sydney.

On Saturday night, D and I went to A Masked Ball.  I had heard mixed reports of this production, which has been around since 1985 and is showing signs of age.  The opera deals with the assassination in 1792 of King Gustav III of Sweden, and the first half sustains a conceit relating the action to the Drottningholm Theatre in Sweden.  So, in particular, when Gustav goes to visit a medium/prophetess, the action appears to be backstage, with racks of costumes and the king’s own regal attire (when he casts off his disguise as a sailor) pulled out of a trunk labelled Hamlet costumes (in Swedish), though they he looks more like the player king than Claudius.  In the second half, although the Drottningholm-style proscenium and footlights (including a pretend prompt box) remain, this seems largely to be abandoned until the last minute when, for some strange reason, the flats to the wings make a reappearance at the side of the stage.  I can’t really figure it all out.

The cast was:

Oscar – Lorina Gore

Amelia – Nicole Youl

Mademoiselle Arvidson – Bernadette Cullen

Judge – Geoffrey Harris

Gustavus – Dennis O’Neill

Anckarstroem – Michael Lewis

Horn – Richard Alexander

Ribbing – Richard Anderson

Conductor – Andrea Licata

Dennis O’Neill carried the greatest burden.  He is an excellent singer.  Unfortunately, he is, so far as D is concerned, too short, fat, old and ugly.  I try to tell D that that is perfect casting for a royal personage, and though his statue in the last act doesn’t look much like him, this is also not unusual. 

As is so often the case with operas, there are some implausibilities to do with disguises.  In Act III, we must suppose that Anckarstroem cannot recognize his (and Michael Lewis’s real-life, as it happens) wife, Amelia, behind a veil (but otherwise presumably wearing her usual attire).  In Act IV, at the eponymous masked ball, the would-be assassin asks Oscar, the king’s page, what disguise the king is wearing.  You want to yell out, pantomime style, “There he is!  It’s the short old fat ugly one!”  This wouldn’t be so wide of the mark for lots of tenors who are up to singing a role like this.  Funnily enough, the real-life Gustavus was easily spotted at the ball (at the opera house as a matter of fact) “mainly due to the breast star of the Order of the Seraphim which glowed in silver upon his cape” (Wikipedia there) and this also seemed to be the case in this production.  More funnily, Gustavus had already removed his mask before he was assassinated, so the question of his disguise appears to be totally irrelevant.  This must be another point in the production which I don’t understand (or possibly he is unmasked because he is telling his true heart to Amelia).

The other singers were fine (or better than that).

As ever, something about Richard Alexander’s acting rubs me up the wrong way. When he decides to Act with a capital “A” he has one particular action, involving putting his hand portentously to his brow or his face. I still can’t work out what this is supposed to mean, but obviously he thinks it is a very valuable movement because he deploys it at almost any moment of Significance.

At the end of the performance I thought I detected a certain end-of-term atmosphere on the stage and in the pit. On a completely different note, both flautists, unusually, were male. These days flute playing has become very much a feminine pursuit.  It’s something to do with the instrument’s pitch and the associations of sweetness and light with its semiotic field of play.

I have, in fact, seen this production before in 2002, and a little googling brought this piece of passing publicity, in an article entitled “Going through a busy stage: musical revival hits Sydney” published on 27 July of that year.

“Opera Australia’s latest production, Verdi’s A Masked Ball (Un ballo in maschera), opens at the Opera House tonight, starring Australian soprano Lisa Gasteen and Canadian tenor Richard Margison. Among subscribers, it’s the season’s hot ticket – not even the perennially popular La Boheme has stolen its thunder. “Un ballo in maschera has a stellar cast and great tunes,” says Collette.

A huge attraction is Gasteen, who triumphed at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden earlier this year in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, earning accolades. She has become one of OA’s great stars, championed by music director Simone Young, who conducts the first four performances. Gasteen and Margison are a vocally dynamic duo…”

But what really caught my eye was the immediately preceding part of this article, which after discussing a mini-boom in musical productions in Sydney went on:

‘However, it is not just the commercial players reaping rewards. Opera Australia is enjoying one of its best winter seasons to date. Ticket sales are up 16,000 compared to last year’s box-office figures.

OA’s chief executive, Adrian Collette, said subscribers and single ticket buyers had responded to the balanced repertoire and calibre of artists.

“Numbers can come back to bite you but it’s a significant development,” he said. “We’ve invested a lot in the quality of the music-making and people are getting more confident of seeing work of a high standard.”‘

In A Masked Ball Gustavus is told by a fortune teller that he will be assassinated by a friend.  In September 2002, Opera Australia announced that Simone Young’s contract wasn’t being renewed because, as Collette amongst others made clear, her grand plans were too expensive. Don’t ever say that opera isn’t true to life.

Opera Australia opens in Melbourne on 9 April, but there is only really a 5-week opera season there, because from 15 May to the end of the Melbourne season on 31 May it is just 15 straight performances of My Fair Lady.   Perturbingly, this then opens the Sydney winter season on 21 June.  Opera proper resumes from 5 July. 

3 Responses to “School’s out! – Pilgrim’s Progress and Un ballo in maschera

  1. Thom Says:

    «On a completely different note, both flautists, unusually, were male. These days flute playing has become very much a feminine pursuit. It’s something to do with the instrument’s pitch and the associations of sweetness and light with its semiotic field of play.»

    This reminds me of the music seminar some years ago in which a student went on at length about a piece of Anne Boyd’s that featured cello and flute. I don’t recall the piece, but the “analysis” seemed to hinge on the cello having a “womanly shape and masculine voice” while the flute…

  2. marcellous Says:

    @ Thom:

    Very witty, Wilde…

  3. Club Troppo » Missing Link Daily Says:

    […] reviews two nights at the opera in Sydney (Pilgrim’s Progress and Un ballo in maschera) and a SSO concert (Shostakovich and a […]

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