Archive for the ‘opera’ Category

In the cheap seats

August 22, 2019

My friend UB emailed me at about 2pm yesterday:

Dear [Marcellous], let me know what operas you are going to this year and dates so I can try and get tickets on the same night.

Opera Australia’s online calendar for 2020 was still mostly blank, but I soon confirmed that UB (and I too, at home) had received the brochure. It was time to move quickly. UB sent me pictures of the brochure calendar from her phone.

Artistic Director (a more apt title would be “chief buyer”) Lyndon Terracini has given the Opera Review of a few years ago which recommended 11 operas be performed the finger.  Next year OA is spruiking not one, not two but four musicals. It’s not that a case cannot be made for any of these, but the two at the SOH are displacing operas.

I used to joke about WA Opera in Perth that it wasn’t the case that you couldn’t see plenty of opera, you just had to see the same operas multiple times.  That’s where I now am with OA’s Sydney offering.

A couple of years ago I gave up my long held centre-front row seats in a set series. That’s partly out of frugality, and partly because of OA’s constricted operatic repertoire.  Well-exposed popular works come around all too soon.  I’m a “mature market” and am more interested in things I haven’t seen yet.

My approach now is to see a new work multiple times, saving the best (still cheap) seats, when I also take D, till last.  If I see something 3 times, I will take restricted view from each side.  If an unfamiliar work, first time also needs surtitle view.

This requires a bit of wrangling and is best done over the counter at the OA box office – the earlier the better for the best choice of cheap seats.  The staff are very helpful.  By c.o.b. I had done it. I took a snapshot of my list of performances and SMS’d it to UB.

I’m seeing La Juive, Roberto Devereaux and Attila, all rarities I’m looking forward to, as well as a couple of others I’ve seen before.  D is coming to 4.

This morning UB sent me an email with the four nights she and her husband have chosen once the tickets became available online.

Back home last night, I perused the brochure at more leisure.

The title page touts OA’s NYE Gala offering. You can have dinner, see a show (La Bohème or an Opera Gala in the Concert Hall – in my opinion the latter is definitely the short straw) and then watch the fireworks from an exclusive after party (there must be two parallel parties) in the Northen Foyers. All for a mere $1,422.  Each.

That’s not for the likes of us. UB’s, her husband’s, D’s and my tickets for the whole year came in at less.

Academically approved

August 21, 2019

On Friday with D to the Conservatorium to see/hear a “dress rehearsal” of Psyche, billed as an opera by Meta Overman.

What is she? I hear you ask (not) – assuming you’d even determined the gender.

MO was born in Rotterdam in about 1907. She emigrated to Australia not long after WWII with her young son and pianist husband.  The impetus seems to have been to escape post-war privations in the Netherlands – relatives had accommodation on offer in Perth.  To escape the Perth heat, they moved to Albany.

Albany!  I have spent time there on account of my late aunt.  In the early 50s it must have been a remote spot indeed.

Overman wrote Psyche for the first Perth Festival, in 1953.  It is based on a novella/fairtytale by the Dutch writer, Louis Couperus.  A 1908 translation is available online.

The Perth Festival was and remains a venture of the University of Western Australia.  Psyche was conceived to be performed at the sunken garden there which was used as an outdoor theatre (my mother related to me more than once seeing Jacqui Kott there in Midsummer Night’s Dream).  It’s a special place amidst the sandy wastes of the West.  Meta Overman’s ashes were scattered there and, as it happens, I scattered (unauthorised by the University but at her written request in a document found amidst her effects) some of my Albany aunt’s there when the time came.

Psyche eventually had 10 performances there in the 1955 festival.  It was poorly attended and a financial disaster and this amongst other things apparently led to the end of Overman’s marriage.  She decamped to Melbourne with her son and  (I infer: he is  apparently still living and was active as a jazz pianist as recently as 2012) a rather younger man (not that there is anything wrong with that).

It is easy to imagine why Psyche was not a success with the 1955 Perth public. Aside from the obscurity of its fin-de-siecle source, it  was a novel work – scarcely an opera in conventional terms.  Only two characters – Eros and Psyche’s elder sister, Emeralda, are portrayed by singers.  Psyche herself was represented by a dancer, a male (I assume) dancer represented the Chimera and a Satyr who interact with her – with the Satyr (shades of Debussy) also shadowed by an obbligato flute soloist.  Psyche’s younger sister was represented by a harp solo.  The balance of the instrumental music was provided by Overman’s husband on the piano.  Two other characters were spoken by actors.

For this revival, Jeanell Carrigan semi-orchestrated the piano part for a small ensemble whose makeup seems to have been determined by the availability of the SSO fellows – a string quartet, double bass, flute, oboe and bassoon.  The solo harp and flute parts  were retained and JC herself played a still-extensive piano part.

The music was accessible and dramatically apt without stretching many boundaries and to that extent can be excused criticism of the sort that Dr Carrigan (in my opinion unduly dismissively) levelled against Elliott Gyger’s music in her review of Oscar and Lucinda .

In the scene involving the Satyr the music launched slightly incongrously into treatments of O du lieber Augustin and another song which I recognized but still cannot name.  There may have been other songs referred to here.  The best I can do by way of explanation for this is that in the novel as translated the Satyr is dismissive of “classical music” and these songs therefore represent something more popular. he Wikipedia entry on O..Augustin, which should be updated in the section on “Use in other musical works” to include reference to Psyche, mentions that “The melody is also used in “Daar wordt aan de deur geklopt”, a Dutch children’s song for the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day

I felt the instrumentation was a little cautious and could profitably have expanded, even with the available forces, more beyond the still very evident backbone of the piano part.

The actors both had microphones, which was in my opinion a misstep even if necessary for them.  Singers and actors had books (not always consulted) and it didn’t look to me as if this was just for the dress rehearsal.  The dancers (who were excellent) gave the most fully realised performances.

I enjoyed my encounter with a slightly clunky oddity.

Some peculiar properties of glass

August 13, 2019

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.”

 

Mad scenes

July 30, 2019

I’ve already posted about my attendance at the concert performance of Peter Grimes last Thursday and Saturday.

It was a big week – other than for work.  On Wednesday I went to Whiteley and on Friday, as previously foreshadowed, I went with D to the last night of Anna Bolena.

I enjoyed Anna Bolena more the second time around.  In part this was because I was ready to go with the flow of the production and probably more importantly, with its conventions.  At the accusation scene at the end of Act I, is Anna in a tight spot?  Yes, of course she is, but that isn’t going to stop her turning round at the back of the stage and advancing with a reprise of her big tune.

I was able to shut out some of the more distracting projections and annoying business.  I still don’t think AB should raise her hand to King Henry, or nobly forgive Jane Seymour whilst basically squatting, legs wide apart, on a step. I didn’t let such coarsenesses worry me too much.

Going a second time around you know the tunes better and can enjoy them even more.

There was a full house and the work was warmly received.

Seeing Peter Grimes the night before and after means that I’d managed to see within a week the bookends of the operatic mad scene.  Sure, there are earlier mad characters, but Anna Bolena is basically the first of the core genre.  The flute, invoked by Britten in Peter Grimes, is the tell.

 

Whiteley

July 28, 2019

On Wednesday to Opera Australia’s Whiteley.

This was a new opera about the Australian artist, with music by Elena Kats-Chernin and libretto by Justin Fleming.

I’m not really a big fan of Elena Kats-Chernin’s cross-overish style, but obviously it has a following.  The music was effective and there was some striking orchestration. There were a few rather awful bits (cf the fight music in Lohengrin – plenty of composers can write banal music for a dramatic purpose) and quite a lot of what Harriett Alexander has called K-C’s chugging basslines where the basses render an orchestral translation of the bass guitar.  The opening of Act II channelled John Adams for a while.

When you have an opera about an artist, the visuals have to be a big thing.  Here they were mostly deployed on the new video screens.  The most exuberant bits involved Whiteley’s youthful trip to Europe (I loved the train) and his ecstatic encounters with canonical works of Western art – especially Giotto’s St Francis Feeding the Birds.  The depiction of Christie’s murder victims (not on the video screens) via Whiteleys works on this topic was haunting. Whiteley’s more “mature” art (did he ever “mature”?) in the second half was dealt with in a relatively more restrained way. Perhaps it was not to be tampered with.

The problem with a biographical opera is how to arrange the material into a dramatically satisfactory form.  Probably it cannot really be done without a greater sacrifice of truth than Justin Fleming managed in this case. He just had too many facts from Ashleigh Wilson’s authorized (by Wendy) biography to pack in.

Apart from the art, for which Fleming managed a fair conspectus, the other two themes jostled for attention.  These were, on the one hand, Whiteley’s various drug addictions, and on the other hand (the opera downplayed the intersection), Wendy, his love and muse.

Summarised like this, neither is really so extraordinary.  Artists have addictions and they have muses and often both.

Though it might be thought of as commonplace, I personally would have rather had more of the addiction thing and less of Wendy.  That probably wasn’t possible given Wendy’s role as the surviving custodian of brand Whiteley.  As it was, there was lots of Wendy but still she didn’t have all that much to do other than to be beeyoutiful (as Whiteley, Leigh Melrose, who was terrific,  made particular sport of the Australian oooo vowel) and endure BW’s waywardness.  Wendy’s own heroin phase passed with little mention.

By the end I was rather sick of the Whiteley family.

Whiteley’s post-Wendy partner (merely billed as “Janice”) got very short shrift. That’s what happens when you lose a court case and are now dead.

If the opera were to be revived/revised I would cut down the Fiji sequence.  Yes, I know it was meant to be a set-up to the Whiteleys’ (rather underwhelmingly realised) expulsion, but it just went on and it felt a bit too saccharine.

Apparently, K-C already did a major rewrite of the score because as it first came out it was too much like a musical.  The musical language she found was eclectic and hit a credible easy-listenish operatic spot.  It is not music that would drive the public that Lyndon Terracini craves away. The problem for me is that I am out of kilter with that public, which apparently (as Lyndon T will readily tell you) isn’t even interested in Benjamin Britten, let alone the post-expressionism of Brett Dean, whose Bliss was OA’s last mainstage new work.  K-C’s music may not frighten the horses as that did but I can’t really say it draws me in either.

The bums on seats thing is the curse of modern classical music and modern opera.

The uncomfortable truth is that, from an economical point of view, opera is probably a dead form.  That’s not to say it isn’t still alive in terms of performance and interpretation, but when it comes to writing new works, the numbers are all wrong.  My own view is that its death probably goes right back to WWI, which is as good a point as any to pinpoint the shakeup between the economic position of the audience and the performers.  New and popular operas continued to be written and mounted into the 20s (eg, Jonny spielt auf, and Puccini’s later works) but they were living on borrowed time.  Meanwhile, spectacle and music could by the 30s be found at the movies (mass produced) or in blockbuster musical theatre (more popular music and more cost-effective to mount, especially once amplification entered the picture).

Alternately, you could say rather than a “dead form” that opera is a “mature market.”  New entrants have to compete against an enormous back catalogue.  We tend to forget that the operas in the established repertoire which we see to day are but a tiny proportion of the many operas which emerged – especially say in the period 1820 to 1920 – and have since disappeared without much of a trace.

It’s a big ask to predict that any new work will ever join the “pantheon” of established works, or even to hope it will be staged more than once or twice.

Richard Anderson, as Whiteley’s friend, Joel Elenberg, was totally unrecognizable without his beard. I suppose it was covered with the chin equivalent of a bald wig. The alternative possibility, that all his beards have been fake, is just too mind-blowing to contemplate.

 

 

 

 

Schlock, horror

March 15, 2019

I’ve been to Opera Australia’s revival of Salome three times.

As an opera it is said to be Strauss’s breakthrough work, and together with Elektra, one that took opera up a modernist (more like: Jugendstil) step before Strauss himself stepped back. Yet what impressed me most this time was, especially up to the point where Herod comes onto the stage, how much of the musical material came from Strauss’sprior tone-poems, especially the quasi-Valhalla-ish John the Baptist music and the lower brass of death.  The orientalist exoticism is not particularly outlandish and the meteorologicalism (the wind of the wings of the angel of death) is more a matter of instrumentation.   The most outrageous bit – what I think of as the double-neopolitan, an A7 chord as a meta-dominant in D flat major – is very near the end, though you can’t assume he wrote the work from start to finish.

Strauss writes for an enormous orchestra and because the wind and brass parts can’t easily be reduced (though I saw some substitute pages brought out in the winds near the end), the string complement takes the main hit in order to squeeze into the SOH opera theatre pit.

The limitations of the small stage are met in this case with a single set which doesn’t seem to leave all that much acting area.

There have been criticisms of the production.  They most repeated ones are:

    1. the suicide of Narraboth lacks impact;
    2. Salome gets too physical with John the Baptist;
    3. the “chthonic cistern” (thanks to Peter McCallum for “chthonic”) emits light when the libretto stipulates it is dark.

Other ones are:

4.  Herod says his glass is empty when he hasn’t even got a glass;
5.  The five Jews are instead  a mixture of religions.

At the end Herod orders Salome to be killed.  The executioner brings a knife to her throat. Squeamishly, I was about to shut my eyes but the executioner stayed his hand until the blackout.  Zoltan Szabo confirms my recollection that things went further last time.

For Artshub, David Barmby, described in his bio as former practically everything (though he doesn’t include “chorister at St Andrew’s Cathedral”) , gives the most critical review – all 5 of the above points plus.  He also:

6.  doesn’t like Lindy Hume’s “feminist flip” of Oscar Wilde’s “misogynistic” opera; and
7. Wonders how come Herod et al are feasting in full view of the released Jokanaan when that is against Herod’s strict command? and adds
8. “I could go on.”

As to the  enumerated objections above, my own view is:

  1. Agreed; it’s a bit pathetic; not even a credible dagger;
  2. I don’t mind Salome’s physicality; in fact I like the suggestion that Jochanaan is tempted even a bit.  Incidentally, I love Jochanaan’s make-up six pack! (It’s done with some dark shading on the sides to slim him and some horizontal white bars to synthesise the muscle lines.   He’s quite sexy for a singer, which takes up the libretto statement that he is a young man (as he should be: only a bit older than JC, at this stage not far from Jerusalem).
  3. I take the light emitted from the chth.c. as symbolic of Jochanaan’s  prophecy.  It’s not always on.
  4. Minor: and in this production the suggestion is perhaps that Herod is dazed/deluded after Herodias has slipped the death ring off his finger.
  5. I expect Barmby is right that the expansion of the range of guyed religions is partly an attempt to dodge the Beckmesserish/Alberich-ish anti-semitism of their musical depiction – see, it’s not just Jews.  I too, in 2012, pointed out that the Nazarenes shouldn’t be crossing themselves when we haven’t had a crucifixion yet, so we can all take these points if we must.  I quite liked the attention to individual detail in each of the religious figures – for example in their reactions to the dances.
  6. This time round, I found it worked quite well – and it’s not as if there aren’t hints from the start with Salome complaining about Herod looking at her “like that.”  I was less impressed by it back in 2012.
  7. Too literal.  We can see them, but it’s night and they’re behind a kind of window and show no sign of being able to see out (though later the spectators for the dance take up the same spot)
  8. No comment.

All are agreed that  Lisa Lindstrom is terrific as Salome.  The one spot where something seems to be missing is the lower/mid-register demands for “Gib mir den Kopf des Jochanaan“, but a richer sound might sound less petulant/adolescent and too middle-aged.  Lindstrom gives it a vicious growl the last time before things move into the upper register and back to capital S singing.

The dances are a set of male fantasies of womanhood.  Lindstrom does 1, 4 and 7.  7 is a bit tame (but really is a segue into her easy-wash head-cradling black slip); 1(moppet with teddy bear)  is a great start; using the grill above the cistern as a substitute for the grill above the ventilation shaft for No 4, when she appears as Marilyn Monroe, is a brilliant touch.  The others, shared between 2 real dancers, are (3)- dominatrix pole dancer and (6) Acrobatic scarf dancer who might have wandered in from Shen Yun; and (2) Naughty Maid and (5) Virgin Mary who turns into a go-go dancer with sacred hearts for breast and crotch pieces – which is the best of the lot.

I guess that’s a plot spoiler but too bad.

On the first night my friend MK told me he was in the pit [see comments: actually in the Concert Hall so no pit] as an extra horn player back in 197-something.  He claimed that Marilyn Richardson, as Salome, went “all the way.”  Not that he could see that himself but others in the brass section could.  That might be a bit of an urban myth.  Another friend recalled on the way home that when he went as a youngster (with his mother, natch) she (Marilyn, not his mother) had a body stocking.  That was probably a different occasion.

The issue about the source of Jochanaan’s singing seems to have been solved since 2012 and it plausibly sounded as though it comes from the cistern.

I still find the bit where Herod attempts to dissuade Salome from asking for Jochanaan’s head the weakest point.  It’s hard for the tenor to carry the drama here so I don’t blame Andreas Conrad, who was also pretty good, for that.

I’m not a critic, so I won’t pick out anyone else except for Gennadi Dubinsky.  Because he mostly sings “character bass” parts no-one ever says much about him in reviews.  I always enjoy his vignettes – not only is his singing at a high level in OA terms for often a small part, but there is something really solid about his stage presence.

But back to Barmby.  He accurately diagnoses the problem with the reduced orchestra – but what else does he propose?  I’d rather have an orchestrally reduced Salome than none at all. 

More generally, Barmby complains about a lack of grandeur and spaciousness.  Some of that is the stage for which similar factors apply as to the pit, but I don’t think that’s all he takes exception to.  Barmby writes “Opera Australia’s production team could have done a lot better had they been less focussed on sensational effects.”  That’s a kind of counter-factual isn’t it?  We’ll never know.  How unsensational should a woman kissing the lips of a severed head be?  You could say that it should be able to speak for itself, but  I was happy with the schlock. 

 

 

Wozzeck

March 9, 2019

This is a belated post.

Opera Australia has just mounted Alban Berg’s c 1920 opera, Wozzeck.  The big selling point has been the direction and characteristic projected animated visuals by superstar artist William Kentridge.  (Actually there is a whole design team involved  but their names can’t really squeeze into the headline.)

I went three times.

I

First night.  I sat upstairs on the left.  I could see the surtitles and all but the back left and left top corner of the stage.

I was distracted throughout by the noise from the projector mounted not so far from me on the front of the circle which was the source of most of the projections.  From where I sat it was almost as loud as quieter orchestral details which were consequently lost to me.

I struggled to take in action, words, the orchestral commentary in the music and Kentridge’s constantly changing visual commentary.

Kentridge’s visuals are based on an apocalyptic vision of the Western Front in WWI, with dirigibles, aircraft, maps of Bullecourt and frequent invocations of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s up-pointed moustache.

Various reviewers who ought to know better nod seriously and draw a link to Alban Berg’s experience of war horrors in the trenches.

As far as I can tell, Berg’s only military service was training in Hungary in 1915 before he was invalided out.  He was then consigned to a desk job in Vienna.  It was the humiliations of military life in the ranks rather than the horrors of war that he complained about and found a resonance of in Wozzeck.

And what’s all this about the Western Front and the Kaiser?  That’s a bit like reaching for the Hitler toothbrush or the swastika for WWII.  What about Franz Joseph?

II

On the second night I sat upstairs at the right front corner.  This gave relief from the projector fan and a good sound from the pit at the price of missing out on the surtitles and an overall view of the stage.

Leaving the second performance I overheard a North-American –accented woman saying:

“The one thing I remember about the production I saw which was realistic is the boy at the end.”

In this production, there is no actual child on stage.  Instead, a gas-masked puppet.  Kentridge has justified this with  something not unlike the usual complaints about appearing on stage with animals and children.  But surely Berg put the kiddie in for a reason?  Kentridge doesn’t trust this and wants to run his own concept.  OK, that’s his prerogative but something has been thrown away with the bathwater.

III

I wanted to give the whole thing another chance where I could be exposed roughly equally to all the elements of the production.  A seat in the middle of the front row for the third night was marked down from B to C reserve.  D has gone to China which meant I could snap it up by exchanging his ticket for Werther.

I couldn’t see the surtitles but I knew the libretto reasonably well, falling back on the gist for some of the more wordy parts such as the Doctor’s lists of medical symptoms or the drunken speechifying/sermons in the tavern scene.  After listening to a recording numerous times and following bits of it in the score, I can’t say I had unravelled all of the mysteries of the various musical forms employed or worked out all the things the commentators find exquisite, but I’d assimilated enough of the musical language and material to be able to respond to more of the threads than when I started.

Ironically, sitting up the front meant that I could focus much more on the singers.  The relative impact of the projections was much less and no longer overweening.  For me they worked much better that way.

The whole thing was utterly compelling.

My favourite scene is the Tavern/Inn/Wirtshaus scene.  Berg writes for the main orchestra, a chamber orchestra (within the main orchestra) and an onstage band  (banda) of  clarinet, fiddles, accordion, guitar and bombardon –which is basically a marching-band version of the tuba. Berg says a tuba may be used provided it can be muted. Part-way through the scene the player is directed to insert the mute.

We had a tuba.  I loved the moment when, instead of an ordinary mute, a pillow was tossed into the bell of the tuba by a fellow inngoer from his would-be-sleeping spot just above.  Turn that music down!

Internet resources:

There is a great little selfie-video of the tuba part here.  (If a mute went in it must be out of shot.)

At the Berlin 1925 premiere, the part of Marie’s son was performed by Ruth-Iris Witting.  Her father, Gerhard Witting, was Andres, Wozzeck’s fellow soldier.  You can hear Ruth-Iris, I’d guess about 8-10  years older and in quite different repertoire, here .

 

Werther 2019

March 5, 2019

Last night for the third time to Opera Australia’s revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Massenet’s Werther.

There was a time when French opera was more prevalent – I guess because of the cultural prestige of Belle Epoque Paris at the height of opera’s boom years.  My grandfathers’ generation went off to WWI singing funny words to the soldier’s chorus from Faust,  then the most-performed opera at the Met.

Tastes have changed, in the Anglosphere at least.  Apart from Carmen and Australia’s idiosyncratic obsession with The Pearl Fishers, Opra Straya has difficulty enticing audiences to the French repertoire.  So it was that I was able to secure at D reserve prices a spot in the middle of the front row for my third performance.

I’ve seen this production in at least two previous stagings – in 1999 and 2009.  I have a memory of feeling in 1999 that it was familiar, which would mean I also saw it in 1989 or 1990.

At the beginning there is one of the longest-fuse setups ever as for no other apparent reason there is a kind of Christmas-in-July as Charlotte’s father teaches her younger siblings a Christmas carol.  We will hear this again offstage for ironic pathos at the end when Werther returns at Christmas and kills himself.  Act I also sets up the domestic idyll which on the one hand so attracts Werther to Charlotte and the conformity to which by Act II he is a doomed outsider.

At the second interval on the first night I found myself between 2 older (than I) women. Each fumed – B, to my left, at the choice of work and the other worthier works therefore overlooked, but also at the production (“wasting my time”); the other at the “stilted acting.”

I tried not to let it dampen my own enjoyment.  Massenet’s music is so agreeable.  I think of him as being a later equivalent of Schubert or Rossini (and lesser lights of that period) composers who have at their disposal a kind of settled musical language which is immediately accessible.  It’s kind of middle-brow but it is very fluent narrative music.

Act III opens with Charlotte rereading letters from Werther.   She reads three, and each has its own orchestral sound world – my favourite is the wintry first – set off against her impassioned outbursts after reading each.  Even B was mollified by this, proclaiming of Elena Maximovaat the end “she’s the star.”

That’s a bit rough on Michael Fabiano.  The problem is that in the opera (as opposed to the novel where you get to know him through his letters) Werther is a hard character to warm to because he comes across as a bit of a gloomy creepy stalker. He has such a lot of big singing to do (which MF was absolutely well up to) that his vulnerability is overshadowed by his desperation.

My a golden rule about revivals is things always get a bit coarser.  Luke Gabbedy’s Albert was a bit in this territory.  I don’t recall Albert being quite so boorish in earlier iterations and I don’t see why he should be.

Charlotte’s younger sister, Sophie, has to carry the most of the burden for light relief with some fairly cliched coloratura-soubrettish stuff..  That, and their father’s drinking chums, are the low point (for me) of Massenet’s musical invention.

There are some other oddities in this production.  Why does Charlotte’s father, Le Bailli, so fall out with those chums between Act I (when he goes off to join them at the Golden Grape) and Act II, when with a disapproving look he hurries his children past them on the way to the service to celebrate the pastor’s 50th wedding anniversary?  Could it possibly be because they are Catholics?  One of them makes a mock sign of the cross, which seems odd for a little village near Frankfurt where the pastor is married.

Then there’s the newspapers:  in Act I Le Bailli was reading Pravda.  In Act II one of the drinkers took La Stampa, from which he looked up, seemingly surprised but also informed, to announce “C’est Dimanche.” – I suppose the director thought that was the best that could be done with some pretty clunkily expository libretto.

It’s a great night for a big orchestra.  There were lots of exchanged smiles: they obviously enjoy playing this stuff.  Principal cello Teije Hylkema had many eloquent moments. A quartet of French horns did more than invoke lusty drinkingness.  At the third performance I realised Robert Johnson was in the pit.

Between first night and second night,  Michael Fabiano’s acting improved (I’d say he just relaxed a bit into it) and Stacey Alleaume toned down the perkiness, which was a relief.

I enjoyed the second night the most.  I’m glad I went for a third time but I’ll probably stop at that.

 

Wrapping up

December 13, 2018

Christmas is coming.  I don’t think I am going to any more live performances this year, so this is a post to wrap things up for the year.

26 10 SSO, de Waart – Beethoven 9

This was a hot ticket:  the orchestra sent out an email requesting any who weren’t going  to return their tickets and receive a credit in exchange.

I expect it was the Beethoven 9 that brought them in.  Once it would have been the return of “Edo” but maybe that aspect is weakening as memory of his tenure as chief conductor fades.

For me, the Haydn Symphony No 104 (also his last; one of the “London” symphonies) was more intriguing.

In the Beethoven, the Chinese bass (or bass-baritone), Shenyang, was phenomenal.  And everyone sang from memory!

De Waart is now 77.  He doesn’t look much older to me than when I first saw him though that is in part a trick because my perception of others’ age has been moving forward (or back) with my own.  The one giveaway is that he has developed a little mannerism of steadying himself on the handrail when he steps down from the podium.

17 11 SSO – Robertson, Capucon, Dvorak, Korngold & Mahler (5)

This was billed (and priced) as a gala concert on the eve of the SSO’s European tour.  We got to hear a kind of fantasy orchestra, with a few choice guests, soon-to-be principal flute Joshua Batty, and I’m guessing soon to go principal trumpet, David Elton, who was appointed principal trumpet at the London Symphony Orchestra this time last year and has been a purely paper presence until this recent return.

4 12 Pinchgut Ataserse

An extreme rarity, performance of the 1740 version of this work by Hasse for the first time since it was performed in Dresden.

At first wasn’t sure whether I would go to this. I was persuaded by the second half caught on the radio on Sunday night (it’s fun these days to follow the score, courtesy of IMSLP) and the availability of reasonably-priced restricted-view seats.

Pinchgut fans seem always to be saying to each other “I think it’s their best yet!” I expect there is a bit of confirmation bias in this or maybe a trick of perspective, but this was probably the most consistently well-sung Pinchgut performance across the 6 principals in recent memory.  Vivica Genaux, though very much promoted as the star of the show, did not stand out incongrously above the rest of the cast.

Orchestrally, the first half was all a bit the same, with long sweeping lush string lines, flutes introduced for moments of pathos, horns for martiality.  There was more variety in the second half.  I most enjoyed Artabano’s aria Pallido il sole (here at 2:39:20 while the link lasts; cf Carlo Vistoli singing a bit slower in 2014 here), not least because the strings managed a sound a bit like muted strings.  In the gloom I couldn’t make out any actual mutes and didn’t see the players removing them.   I remain, as ever, a sucker for muted strings – even if simulated.

7 12 Ensemble Apex

This is a group of young musicians either at or recently from the Sydney Conservatorium.  It’s been going since 2016.  I’m guessing it owes its existence to the conducting ambitions of its director, Sam Weller and the willingness of his fellow-students to assist those (and have some playing opportunities themselves).

Earlier this year, the ensemble gave a  rare performance with dancers of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin.  I missed that, but in the aftermath  there was an opportunity to sign up for their last concert of the year, to include a performance of Rhapsody in Blue.

I signed up to go, then forgot about it.  So it’s just as well that a reminder email popped into my inbox on Wednesday.

Simon Tedeschi was the the piano soloist.  As well as the Gershwin, he played the Brubeck Blue Rondo as an encore.

The concert was held in the “Music Workshop” at the Con.  This is probably a bit small for an orchestra in full cry.  When they play loud you got that kind of sonic constriction of too much music in a confined space that to me says “Band Practice.”  T.hey could do with a set of risers

The other works were:

Adams- Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Koehne- Powerhouse
Marquez- Danzon No.2

Maybe the Adams and the Koehne one after another were a bit too much of the same sort of thing – even though they are really quite different.

Oliver Schermacher played a truly wild clarinet solo at the start of the Gershwin.

I hope the Ensemble comes back next year.

 

8 12 Sydney Youth Orchestra, Briger, Barker et al, Strauss

I got a tip-off on Friday from someone who goes to many more concerts than I do.  The attraction was that Cheryl Barker would be singing the Four Last Songs and the Marschallin’s part in excerpts from the end of Rosenkavalier. Strauss’s Don Juan rounded out the program, and for completeness I should add that Peter Coleman-Wright had a walk-on moment as the police officer to whom the M replies with the famous “ja ja.”  Alexander Briger conducted.

Cheryl was definitely the highlight of the concert.  She had no difficulty being heard above the orchestra.  Her vibrato is a bit more pronounced than when I last heard her.  In September I felt the orchestra perpetually lagged in a way which must surely have tested her nerve.  Otherwise they made a good fist of things.  The horns were in particularly fine form.  Everyone else could have quietened down a bit more for the woodwind twitters near the end of Im Abendrot.

Getting there

October 30, 2018

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More brief notes in my attempt (1, 2) to bring to account live performances I have attended.

10.  22 9 SSO Ashkenazy Romeo and Juliet

This was a very neat program mounted by the SSO: Arabella Steinbacher playing the Bruch violin concerto, bookended by Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture and Ashkenazy’s own selection from the two Prokofiev suites. It was also very enjoyable.

We have had a number of guest concertmasters this year. Sometimes, although they themselves play well, you get the sense that their approach doesn’t “fit” the approach of the rest of a section, so that they end up sticking out a bit at the front as the section as a whole stolidly ploughs on as usual. That wasn’t the case with Adam Chalabi, guest concertmaster for this concert: I thought the violins sounded very well with them.

11.  26 9 Belvoir Calamity Jane 6.30

D and I sat on the stage for this pocket-musical version of what was originally a Doris Day movie.

The first act was set in a bar and we were able to order drinks onstage before it started. Members of the cast were milling around and improvising business including the kind of chat-up that a barmaid at such a saloon might use to soften up a customer. I noticed that a non-cast member, tending the bar, was the only one actually able to dispense the liquor. “Is that because you don’t have an RSA certificate?” I asked the (in character) proprietor’s “niece.” “I have an RSA,” she smartly replied. “A Really Sassy Attitude.” OK, maybe you had to be there, but it was fun, as was the show as a whole. Exhilarating.

The instrumental accompaniment was provided by the MD on a little Collard & Collard upright which sounded surprisingly good considering the treatment it must have received over the years.

Virgina Gay in the title role was terrific. We are lucky that she did not suffer the same fate of her fellow assailees on Illawara Road a few years ago, one of whom was much less lucky.

12.   13 10 AE

With P (and on this occasion her husband) to the final concert of the year for the Australia Ensemble at the John Clancy Auditorium, entitled “Forces of Nature.” This gathered together:

Maria GRENFELL | Ten Suns Ablaze (2012)

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN | ‘Szene am Bach’ from Symphony no. 6 arr. Fischer (1810)

Nigel WESTLAKE | Rare Sugar (2007)

Pēteris VASKS | Landscape with birds (1980)

Aaron COPLAND | Appalachian Spring ballet suite (1944)

The Grenfell and the Westlake were return performances of works first commissioned by the Australia Ensemble. I remembered them both favourably from their first outings and enjoyed them again, but by interval the Westlake, which is a kind of clarinet concertino, given a high-voltage performance by David Griffiths, had made such a powerful impression that the Grenfell was quite overshadowed in retrospect.

Opinions amongst my companions were divided about the bird pictures which were projected on the lecture-theatre drop screen while Geoffrey Collins played the Vasks. I enjoyed them and was prepared to go with the flow.

The Szene am Bach was an arrangement for string quintet. It started a little faster than I expected it to go based on orchestral reminiscences.

The Ensemble have used Appalachian Spring as a series closer before – it’s an opportunity to coax the subscribers back for next year with about as large an ensemble (13 players) as the AE ever puts on stage. And despite (for me) some longeurs on the way through, it is a piece that really delivers by the end.

Straight after interval we got a little spiel from Paul Stanhope about next year’s season. This meant there was no delay after the Copland as we adjourned for the traditional drinks and fancy chocolates.

13.   16 10 Cosi at the Con?

This had a question mark in my concert diary because I wasn’t sure when or whether I would go.  My interest was piqued by a reference to an upcoming role on the website of Gavin Brown, who had a star turn in Poulenc’s The Breast of Tiresias which I saw earlier this year.

In the end I went to the Thursday Matinee on the 18th and it was Don Giovanni.

There’s a stronger argument for seeing a student production of a rarity such as the Poulenc than for seeing a more mainstream work, but I’m still definitely glad I went.

I was more impressed by the orchestra in the Poulenc than in the Mozart.  That’s probably because the Mozart is harder.  You pick up any rhythmic sloppiness (which is endemic in student ensembles compared to professional ones) and mishaps stick out more.  The horns were a couple of bars out for what seemed like ages but probably wasn’t really (I admired conductor Stephen Mould’s composure) and there were a few other hair-raising moments. The principal cello could have afforded to play out a bit more in Batti, batti.

But these are quibbles. It really is great that the students get to perform the opera with a credible orchestra.

There is a detailed review of the first night (I heard the same cast) here with which I mostly concur, save that I would be more commendatory of Esther Song, who grew on me in the course of the performance as Donna Anna. Haotian Qi’s performance of the Don’s serenade to Donna Elvira’s maid (here ironically oblivious to it as she was listening to something else through headphones whilst getting on with her life) was particularly fine.

The production was set in a “celebrity” world somewhere between Hollywood and the Conservatorium itself (when Masetto and his chums beat up Leporello they did so with one of those sticks that cellists use to moor their spikes. DonG was a #metoo celebrity narcissist and abuser. Hell, at the end (solving the problem that the stage lacks a trap-door) was exposure and denunciation. It all worked quite well though perhaps there was just a bit too much business with cameras and phones at times. There were a few cuts which together with the updating made things just a bit confusing at times.

14.   20 10 SSO Thibaudet Egyptian

Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducted. As well as the Saint-Saens piano concerto no 5 (surprisingly last and first played with the SSO by Thibaudet himself in 2010) the concert featured the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Sibelius 7.

The SSO seems to have given up selling choir and organ stall tickets.  Only a few people were sitting there. Too cheap, or too mean?  Could be both but it is shameful for subsidized tickets to go unsold if it is because of a desire to maintain a floor price.

Francisco Lopez was the latest in a series this year of guest principal flutes, and he shone in both the Debussy and the Sibelius.

I thought Saraste could have kept the orchestra a little more in check in the Saint-Saens, for which Thibaudet set a cracking pace in the outer movements. On the other hand, conducting without music (as I am sure any Finn worth his salt can do) he hypnotised the orchestra into the most dramatic Sibelius 7 I have ever heard.

Saraste last conducted the SSO in 1986. I think I probably was at that concert because I remember hearing the Schumann Konzertstucke for 4 horns played by the Canberra Horn Consort (led by Hector McDonald) and probably went out of my way to hear it. At interval I overheard Emma Dunch, the Orchestra’s CEO, loudly declaring “We must have him back sooner than another 32 years.”

In the early evening leading up to the concert a stupendous thunderstorm rolled across the city.  In the forecourt of the Opera House the Invictus Games were being launched.  Before playing his encore, Thibaudet thanked us for braving the weather and the security.

Thibaudet’s regular visits to our shores seem to have started at about the turn of the millenium.  This is what he looked like then and the picture or something very similar still featured in the publicity for this concert:

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Inside the program booklet was a more up-to-date shot:

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Philip Scott in Limelight referred to an earlier visit when Thibaudet played the complete piano music of Ravel; Thibaudet also performed with the ACO in 1992.

J-YT’s first visit is probably less well-known:

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That’s from the program for the 1981 Sydney International Piano Competition.  Soulful eh?  If I’d found this before the concert I would have taken it up for an autograph and, surely, a laugh.