I almost walked out

of tonight’s performance by the SSO of The Flying Dutchman.

I’m glad I didn’t, but somewhere in the second scene the combination of the video art and noise coming from (I think) the bank of lights above the stage maddened me.

It was mostly the noise. It wasn’t quite like being under a tin roof with rain, and it’s not as if the Concert Hall is ever devoid of white (or more like grey) noise, but this was intrusive. Quiet string tremulandos struggled to penetrate it, and woodwind details were clouded by it; theatrical moments of silence simply weren’t; and it had a pitch, or pitch-cluster.

The video art was a bit similar. You had to look up at the screen for the words, and then it drew you in. It was strangely but agonisingly compelling and boring at the same time, like the recent STC production of The Maids. The most effective part of it was the simplest: the changes of colour at pivotal moments. For much of the rest of the time its distraction detracted from any engagement with the actual live performance on stage.

It also meant that the orchestra was deprived of the benefit of the acoustic donuts, which were hoisted aloft way above the “topsail.”

I don’t walk out lightly: in fact I’ve only left the SSO at interval once (Nigel Kennedy, I couldn’t stand his mateyness and the fact that everyone else seemed to love it), the Rockdale Opera Company once (it was G&S; on another occasion I returned despite leaving the first half in fits of laughter: the soloists were worth it if the chorus and the be-euphoniumed orchestra would have tried the tolerance of a saint) and involuntarily in one performance of Cosi fan Tutte which had nothing to do with the performance and everything to do with prior fluid intakes (I returned after interval). I do not count Interview with a Vampire where I left the cinema and fainted on the stairs in the foyer (it was the blood).

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’ll back track.

I booked on a (relative) bargain offer about 10 days earlier. It is evident from the plethora of special offers I have seen that the SSO was having some difficulty shifting the stock. Probably the premium “gala” pricing for Saturday was a contributing factor, but it is also true that the Symphony’s audience is not an operatic one. (There have also been offers around for Monday.) Over the years as an SSO subscriber I have had neighbours who have stayed away when vocal programs have been scheduled and I know there are some who simply do not like the classically produced voice. It’s the wobble and the fat-lady-singing stuff they react against. (They are the people Lyndon Terracini thinks he is reaching out to. That’s as pathetic as Julia Gillard in 2010 saying the Government had lost its way. These are people you will never reach unless you put on musicals/send asylum seekers to PNG – but let that pass.) And it’s not as if Opera Australia finds Wagner (other than the Ring) an easy sell.

Long queues at the box office to collect tickets were further signs of a last minute push to put bums on seats, and there were still empty seats.

This performance was billed as a forerunner of what Robertson plans to bring us in the future (actually he’s already had a go at this sort of thing in the past). The video art was projected on two stylized sail-like screens above the stage, which also took the surtitles. The solo singers were on raised platforms in the middle of the stage rather than plonked in front of the orchestra as usually occurs. I’m not convinced about this: fronter is closer and hence louder and also enables a more lively engagement with the audience. Only Ain Anger, as Daland, really seemed relaxed in this space and able to engage with the audience, though John Tessier as the steersman managed it in the last act, when he was also able to interact with the men’s chorus. Orla Boylan as Senta, though not always making a particularly beautiful sound, did make a connection, mostly by virtue of singing pretty much without (evident to me) reference to the score (she has done the part in English at the ENO), but I felt the wrench of a concert performance when, at the moment of betrothal, she did not even give her hand to the Dutchman as the text demanded. For me, Eric Owens as the Dutchman, though obviously a high calibre singer, was a bit disappointing in this middle section.

I’m happy to say that after last week’s slightly awkward showing, John Daszak shone as Erik. I think he was simply miscast in the Verdi Requiem. His poignant final number with Senta was one of the highlights of the night. Wagner was such a shit: giving good tunes to actual or quasi cuckolds was, in a way, part of it.

The Philharmonia Chorus was stiffened on the male side by some of the Philharmonia’s higher grade singers from the smaller choir. In comparison, the ladies didn’t quite sound operatic enough.

The last act was the best; more was happening and the music was mostly loud, which meant that the noise and video both receded as irritants. That’s why I’m glad I didn’t walk out.

If the SSO really wanted to do a rarely-performed Wagner, they might have done Rienzi. Then again, tickets for that would probably have been really hard to flog.

The piece was done without interval. That creates its own kind of endurance hysteria, but I don’t think that was all that accounted for a pretty rousing reception at the end. By then, I had cheered up too. People stood. I don’t think they were all relatives of the choir.

4 Responses to “I almost walked out”

  1. wanderer Says:

    Goodness. I thought it was fabulous, all round. I could hear the overhead hum occasionally early on, but obviously less so than you. I loved the projections, one of the few times i have done so, and made an effort to speak with herself after and give due praise, and having endured endless projections in the Scala Ring, meaningless and intrusive, I found these subtle and quite moving in parts, and for me making the sum greater than the parts. Owens was relatively withdrawn but they were all very fine (agree about Daszak) especially Boylan, not always beautiful but thrilling. I stood. Perhaps you should have considered moving back, not out.

    • marcellous Says:

      I saw that you stood. On the strength of the last act I might have had I not been so irritated before. The urge to walk out was self-defensive in response to this: it’s a bit like turning off the TV when either Tony Abbott or the odious Scott Morrison comes on (funnily/oddly enough I can just laugh off Eric Abetz, Julie Bishop or George Brandis.)

      I suspect that the chief source of the hum was the larger bank of lights which was on my side and hence closer to me. It’s the sort of thing that once it impinges upon your attention is, as I said in this case, maddening beyond the point of a proportionate response.

      The hum was part of what robbed the Dutchman’s more reserved moments of the potency they should have had because they lacked silence to play against and were obscured by the rising water table of noise.

      In the last act, which didn’t depend on that kind of quietness and when the interaction between the singers and the parts of the chorus provided more action, I was no longer troubled by the hum and reconciled to the video as more of just a mood accessory and the whole thing was quite thrilling.

      You can’t really move back if there isn’t an interval, can you? I certainly wouldn’t have been bold enough.

      I am glad I stayed but it was a close call.

  2. wanderer Says:

    And, I thought the ladies choir sublime.
    Pity we didn’t meet after, or maybe just as well!
    Et, bon voyage.

    • marcellous Says:

      I’m not saying the ladies were bad: that was more a comment about them in comparison to the men. I thought they were better in the dancing scene than the spinning chorus, which suffered also because in the acoustic bath and hum almost none of the detail of the accompaniment came through to me, which may also have been because I was 5 rows lower than you and in a spot which might otherwise have benefited more from the donuts.

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