Some peculiar properties of glass

On Friday night a couple of weeks back and with D the following Saturday to  Carriageworks to see Sydney Chamber Opera’s production of the new chamber opera, Oscar & Lucinda, based on Peter Carey’s novel. Tthe music is by Elliott Gyger and the libretto by Pierce Wilcox.  They collaborated a few years ago on an adaptation of David Malouf’s Fly away Peter, which I didn’t see.

That makes two new Australian operas seen within a fortnight of each other.  You certainly can’t say that happens often.

In comparison to Kats-Chernin’s, a member of the Dulwich Hill gang who’d been to Whiteley earlier that week described Gyger’s style as “academically approved.”

If so, not by Associate Professor Jeanell Carrigan of the Conservatorium, who didn’t think much of the music at all.

In an opera adaption surely the most important feature is the music and how well adapted to the story it is….[I]n the opinion of this reviewer, the music did not react to or reflect the action on stage or in the story.

Had one not had the visual aspect and the text ….displayed on surtitles, hearing the music would not have given the listener the effect of what was transpiring….

Gyger writes in the program notes:

The guiding metaphor for the music is one not found in the novel …In a kaleidoscope, small fragments of coloured glass fall into arbitrary relationships which are then mirrored geometrically to create the illusion of order. Different settings of the kaleidoscope generate particular harmonic colours

If this was the guiding principle behind the composition then Gyger was successful, as the music does sound like a kaleidoscope, pieces of coloured glass falling into space. However, it seemed to this listener that the music never changed to reflect the story presented.

In the love scene, the kaleidoscope of colours did not reflect a warmth normally associated with such a scene. In the death scene, which was rather protracted, the colours were again so much of the sameness of other parts of the action. What began as colourful and very exciting became uninteresting and no longer captivating.

…..

it was doubtful whether the music portrayed enough of the story line to warrant putting this story into an operatic medium.

That’s harsh.

On first listening, I had something like Carrigan’s reaction, though not as adverse.

A particular bugbear of mine with much contemporary music is that often intricate details, which can themselves be quite rhythmic (in this case, often coming from the words), are laid out against a basically time-measuring background seemingly devoid of  metre.  Where is the ritornello rhythmic pattern that we can (metaphorically) tap our feet to?  Where are the non-duple metres?

That’s probably also a stalking horse (switching metaphors in mid-stream) for regret at the absence of the straightforwardly lyrical.  Give us a song, not mere declamation!

Actually that’s an argument which goes back beyond antagonism to contemporary music.  People made that complaint about Wagner’s vocal writing, and I felt something a bit like that in relation to the constant (and ever so admired by critics as responsive to the text) recits and ariosos in The Return of Ulysses.

There is a bit of a lyricism deficit in Oscar and Lucinda – or at least there is lots of very angular and leapy music.

When I returned on Saturday – better rested than I had been on Friday and with the advantage of already having heard the music once – I found much more variety – even metrical variety – in the music than I had noticed first time around.

As for the two scenes Carrigan picked on: as to the first, her complaint should possibly be with the libretto rather than the music. It is an “in love” scene rather than a “love scene” – the whole point is that they are happy together without having declared their love to each other.  I thought the music captured this well, though perhaps you could have wished for something warmer.

The scene which Carrigan calls the “death scene” is more than that. The libretto ingeniously manages to wrap up the Miriam-Lucinda plot at the same time.  The scene is fittingly a culmination of the glass-themed style which has featured throughout the work.  True, it is a bit static (so a bit of that time-measuring that I am not so keen on) but a glass church on a barge is sinking into the river.  It’s too late to slip into a waltz.  in truth I expect Carrigan just didn’t like the style that much and by the end was sick of it.

Perhaps she should have gone again to gain a better impression.

There is more I could say about the the staging (minimalist, imaginative) and the performances (energetic, impressive, though some of the chorus-commentary harmony could have been better tempered)  and even about the music, but I’ve run out of energy for that right now.

I enjoyed both nights and they made me think about the novel afresh.  The audience was enthusiastic.  Carriageworks is a funky venue.

The ticket price of $35 was very accessible.  It was even more accessible to me because on the Friday, expecting to be too tired, I made a special trip to Carriageworks to book a ticket for the Saturday so as to be sure of one for the last night. Naively I also thought I might avoid the hated booking fee that way.  That was not to be, but there was a consolation: as I was concluding the bargain, a man returned a ticket to be given away for free.  “I’ll take it!” I cried, leaving no chance before any more tentative bystanders could put in a claim. If I flagged, I could always leave at half time secure in the knowledge I still had a ticket for the next night.  In fact, though impaired by a long day and a couple of post-work drinks I never felt the slightest bit tempted to leave.  It was totally engrossing.

Bonus!

PS: the title to this post is set by Gyger to a melodic fragment not entirely unreminiscent of “Peter Grimes I here advise.”

 

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One Response to “Some peculiar properties of glass”

  1. lamaliminalbeing Says:

    I’m a bit with Carrigan, but then I only went once, which for one of us (us as in we here, not you and me) was once too often. I found the vocal line impenetrable to the point of unpleasantness, and while the broken glass analogy makes some sense, kaleidoscopes make pretty coloured patterns, that you keep returning to, with a swivel here and a twist there, making endless variations on a theme. Which I don’t think you could accredit O&L with. (How bad is that grammar!)

    But, if nothing else, the penetrating line “Faith is a gamble” was worth enough, making sense of everything, all of a sudden, both in the opera, the book, and things happening all around us, right now, in general.

    I saw Fly Away Peter and remember little of it other than it was interesting, and a fair take on the book.

    All that said, I’m a big fan of SCO, and Jack Symonds. They never fail to entertain, as they do with O&L. Jane Sheldon is a phenomenon all on her own. Owen Wingrave for example was outstanding. Howling Girls was another. Et al.

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