Posts Tagged ‘Pinchgut’

Kanen Breen wears a dress – not again!

December 9, 2017

Last Thursday (well, maybe the Thursday before last by now)  to Angel Place for Pinchgut’s production of Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea.

I’d read the publicity/pre show journalism.  This was to be a “contemporary” production.  Call me cynical, but in my experience that mostly means a saving on costumes. “I got into baroque opera through updated productions when I was a teenager so I am really excited with this approach,” said artistic/musical director Erin Helyard.  The Australian Opera’s production of Handel’s Julius Caesar still casts a long shadow – not that they skimped on the costumes there.

At the start a transvestite prostitute cops a beating.- Not clear why – I suppose it was to set up the vicious dog-eat-dog world of Neronian Rome over which Virtu, Fortuna and Amor preside.

It was only later, when the transvestite, now a nurse (in the Romeo & Juliet sense of an older domestic and confidante of a young woman) started singing that I recognized her as Kanen Breen.  In a dressYet again. It’s always good to see him on stage (generally threatening to steal a scene) and his lullaby over Poppea later in the show was one of the best bits in the production.

“It was a stupid production.  Like a cartoon, really” said the female half of the elderly couple ahead of me on the way out afterwards – well not too elderly to be taking the fire escape from Level 3.  “But the music was good.”

There is something in that criticism.  Transplanting to something vaguely Gold Coast sparked things up in some ways but also ran a bit of a risk of trivialising them.  I loved it when Kanen Breen as one of his nurse roles got on the mobile to report the attempt on Poppea’s life.  I felt a bit more equivocal about David Greco’s Seneca as a kind of jokey phoney. That could have been making a virtue of necessity – David Greco is rather light-voiced for a world-historically famous philosopher stage and Top Stoic.  I think I startled my Act I neighbour, a violinist from the AOBO, by saying that when I first saw it done by AO Clifford Grant was Seneca – probably a mixup for Grant Dickson.   But the jokiness rather undercut the famous suicide in the bath scene – given a twist here (I can say this now the run is over) when Nero’s henchmen weren’t prepared to take any chances and suddenly forced Seneca’s head under.  It was a genuinely shocking moment.  “I need a drink after that,” I heard someone say as we streamed out.

One such theatrical coup is OK but the hand was overplayed when two other betrayed plotters – in the libretto permitted by Nero to go into exile – were abruptly chloroformed and borne away.

The scenery obscured it for me but judging by the mimed zipped up fly a cross-sex Poppea lookalike orally obliged Nero.  Gratuitous?  Well, actually it fitted right in with the words and music of Nero’s big aria at the beginning of the second half.

We had live video projection of the wedding at the end – very up-to-the-minute.  It’s all about fame, you see.  (Actually I thought this just a bit laboured and wondered if it was really worth the expense and clutter.)

The overall effect was enjoyable if a bit short on the sublime.  Musical exuberance stood up better in live performance than in the broadcast (available here for another 3 weeks or so) where some of it (not Kanen) sounded a bit vocally rough when I tuned into it the next  Sunday.

Pinchgut – winter festivities

June 20, 2017

Pigmalion curtain call

I went on Saturday afternoon to the second and on Tuesday night to the last performance of Pinchgut Opera’s triple bill:

Rameau Anacréon (libretto by Pierre-Joseph-Justin Bernard)
Vinci Erighetta e Don Chilone (libretto by Vinci)
Rameau Pigmalion (libretto by Ballot de Sauvot)

I had picked up at the last minute two restricted view seats  – on opposite sides for obvious reasons.

Erighetta e don Chilone was a genially amusing (if not quite side-splitting) two-hander for Taryn Fiebig and Richard Alexander.  It’s a Neapolitan piece from the 1720s so stylistically think Pergolesi, who apparently studied with Vinci.  I enjoyed it though the business with a book (apparently it was meant to be a play within a play and a read-through at that) didn’t really add much for me.

The two Rameau works are both Actes de ballet.  Dance is a big element of them.  That is always a bit tricky because our modern tastes for dance and, I venture to say, the significance we attach to it, are probably not the same as in the original context.  Or maybe not so different.  Pigmalion, where there was actual dancing, managed this more successfully;  Anacreon was a bit busy and the resort to rhythmic movement as a substitute for dancing always feels a bit lame.

It’s said in such texts as I found in fragments on the web (or at least some of them) that Pigmalion is Rameau’s most successful work in this genre.  On Saturday, Anacreon had the advantage with me because (as I later realised) I have repeatedly listened to a chunk of it as part of a very old Les Arts Florissant compilation set of CDs.  By Tuesday, Pigmalion prevailed. I also felt that stylistically it was the more successfully realised.

I’m not a critic, so no roll call and just nice remarks.

Lauren Zolezzi, L’Amour in both works (first a kind of feminine Cupid in something rather like Con High uniform and then more adult and in masculine attire a la Cherubino) was probably the newcomer of the night.

In the orchestra, the violins were in fine form – how standards have risen over the years in the early music biz here in Oz!  Leader Matthew Greco played up a storm, especially in a very striking solo in the Vinci. I only noticed one tiny suspect moment in the oboes, which also is a sign of progress in the reliability stakes over the years though perhaps the parts in these works were not the most demanding or exposed.  Both of the Rameau pieces reserved particular moments of poetry for the flutes, and these were delectable.

The fast section of the Pigmalion ouverture includes what I can only describe as a particularly mind-blowing double hemiola system .

I don’t find it so easy to get worked up for an afternoon performance. I’m sure that on Tuesday I was in a more receptive mood than on Saturday. But there is also much to be said for what you can get out of something the second time around, provided of course that it is something that bears repetition.

On Tuesday I enjoyed the program very much.

[Picture from Pinchgut Facebook: I’m in there somewhere.]

Temporary postscript: for the next 3 or so weeks the performance broadcast on Sunday night can be heard from the ABC “Classic” FM website here.




Fate worse than death!

December 3, 2016

Last night to the second night of Pinchgut’s production of Handel’s Theodora.

For the first time, as far as I can make out, Pinchgut are doing a run of 5 performances – up from the 4 in a week which has been the pattern for many years.  That’s got to be a milestone of sorts for which they deserve congratulation.  I see they propose to repeat that for their December performance next year.

I’ve always thought of “fate worse than death” as a bit of a joke phrase, probably because I was most familiar with it as a parodic usage in Have some Madeira M’dear.  The OED traces “fate worse than death” to 1810.  The libretto for Theodora anticipates that by about 60 years though without the collocation with “fate.”

Theodora is one of a bunch of Christians in Antioch who have refused to sacrifice to Jove.

Here is the context.  Septimius is a sympathetic soldier; Didymus a chaste admirer of Theodora and Valens is the governor who has ordered that Theodora be punished.  Septimius breaks the news to Theodora:

Death is not yet thy doom:
But worse than death to such a virtuous mind,
Which Didymus wants eloquence to praise.
Lady, these guards are order’d to convey you
To the vile place, a prostitute, to whom
Valens thinks proper to devote your charms.

23. Accompagnato

Oh, worse than death indeed! Lead me, ye guards,
Lead me, or to the rack, or to the flames,
I’ll thank your gracious mercy.

24. Air

Angels, ever bright and fair,
Take, oh take me to your care;
Speed to your own courts my flight,
Clad in robes of virgin white.
Angels. . . da capo

Exit Theodora with Septimius

This is a “well-known” air.  Together with the accompagnato (orchestrally accompanied recitative) which comes before, it is something of a triumph for Leo when he sings it (a triumph of course pregnant with impending disaster) in LP Hartley’s novel The G0-Between.  In the novel Leo sings AEBAF as a follow-up to The Minstrel Boy. In the film it is just the Handel.

In the novel, a staple year 11 text for teaching symbolism when I was an English teacher, Hartley makes rather a lot out of the fate worse than death (not strictly a phrase in the song or the recit).

That made a kind of double-whammy: original and serious “worse than death” usage, and the original context of Leo’s song.

Coincidentally or not, it was at around about this point that the story got moving (in both senses really) and the music became more emotionally engaging for me (actually that started a bit before).  The word which comes to mind is eloquent.  I was moved to tears at points.

I’m not sure if the staging is entirely successful (there was this big table on one side of the stage which dominated proceedings in a rather awkward way), and Andrew Collis had a rather thankless task as Valens.

The chorus was great – if anything the men were a bit strong, which is a welcome change from the usual. The orchestra also acquitted itself well – I thought the violins in particular carried off their ripieno obbligatos with great elan and, in an improvement from previous years, the oboes were up to scratch.  And then there was the monster contra-bassoon!  Just occasionally, in very quiet moments, I wondered if Erin Helyard could have made his continuo organ quieter.

In his review for the SMH et al, Peter McCallum concludes:

“Of all the Pinchgut productions to date, this was the most rewarding for its restrained, purposeful drama and seraphic musical refinement.”

I’m still not quite sure what this means – does he mean that Theodora was most rewarding provided you were measuring rewards of “restrained, purposeful drama and seraphic musical refinement” or does he mean most rewarding generally, by reason of those integers?   I suppose this sort of judicious statement is why PMcC is a music critic and I am not. I’ve seen 14 of Pinchgut’s 18 productions since 2002.  In the early years I might have been able to apprehend improvement and consolidation but I would be hard put by now to say of any one “it’s the best yet.”

I enjoyed it very much – more than I expected to, in fact.  Maybe it went on a bit, in terms of the narrative, towards the end – but who would want to stop the music?  (apart from Pinchgut itself which apparently imposed a few cuts.)  By then I was really into the groove.

I would love the chance to go again but expect to be away, so Sunday’s broadcast on ABC “Classic” FM will have to suffice.


June 27, 2016

On Sunday night to Pinchgut’s production of Haydn’s Armida.

I’m on a bit of a frugality spree at present. Unless I missed it Sunday’s was the only performance where they opened the third level with C reserve (but still $90) seats.  Better deals have been available in previous years.

The story is perhaps not on a theme calculated to excite modern sympathies: it treats the struggle, mostly within Rinaldo, between the call of martial duty (he is a crusader) and the snares of erotic temptation (he is bewitched by the Saracen sorceress, Armida). How exactly this is resolved, at least as a matter of detail, remained a bit of a mystery to me in this production. Basically, as Rinaldo extricated himself from the spell, Almida, always manipulative, became more and more nasty and ghoul like. Rachelle Durkin was Almida; Leif Aruhn-Solen was Rinaldo. Janet Todd impressed as Almida’s offsider.

In the first act, perched high up on the side, I was a bit too close to the mechanism to really be taken in by the plot: it ended with a big duet for the principal pair though rather a lot of it homophonic in thirds and sixths. Drama picked up in the second act in which the finale, oddly enough, included a portent of Beethoven’s Ninth. The music and the production aligned dramatically in the last Act, where Rinaldo confronted Almida’s magic and destroyed the myrtle tree which was its source.  The last act, for me, was where, musically (though there had been good bits before) Haydn really pulled everything together/out of the hat.

The orchestra was great, despite mishaps in the oboe section from time to time.

I really enjoyed it.  If I were feeling richer I would definitely rock up again on Tuesday for the final performance, but some restraint needs to be exercised.

On the opening of this production it was announced that Antony Walker is stepping down as co-artistic director of Pinchgut. The writing has been on the wall for a while about this in terms of the publicity and the pattern of who does what and what works are chosen.   Usual things are said about Walker concentrating on his other commitments in Pittsburgh and Washington, but I can’t help thinking that Walker may have been elbowed aside just a bit by co-AD Erin Helyard, who now takes the helm on his own.

At a nearby Justin Hemmes establishment, Opera Australia was holding its 300-person 60th anniversary bash.  Minions encountered in Angel Place recounted that Taryn Fiebig was to sing “Mack the knife” as the assembled benefactors and bigwigs tucked into their dinners.  Heaven forfend that they should be put off their food by anything more typically operatic.



Singing up a storm

July 6, 2015

Last night to Pinchgut opera’s production of Bajazet.

The title character is Bayezid I, a Sultan of the Ottoman empire, who was defeated at the battle of Ankara in 1402 by Timur, aka Tambourlaine the Great. Bajazet wants his (fictional) daughter, Asteria, to marry a (fictional) Greek prince, Andronicus. Conveniently they are in love after catching each other’s eyes when Andronicus spared her in the fray (I think: I wasn’t always following the surtitles closely enough). Tamerlano also has fallen for Asteria, although he was previously due to marry another princess, Irene. The solution he proposes is to marry Irene off to Andronicus, whom he will make king of Bajazet’s former domains, and to spare Bajazet’s life provided Asteria marries him (that is, marries Tamerlano). Tamerlano sends Andronicus to Asteria to propose to her on his behalf.

Bajazet isn’t happy. Andronicus isn’t happy but seems to go along with it at first – what choice does he have? Asteria isn’t happy, especially with Andronicus. Irene turns up and she isn’t happy. There are lots of twists and turns and even Tamerlano isn’t too happy about some of them.

This is a “pasticcio” put together by Vivaldi from his own and other composer’s works. What that means is that apart from the recitatives it is a medley of his own and other people’s hits. Ironically, the most well-known aria from the opera is by one of the other people.

Given that Tambourlaine was a bit of a byword as a mighty and brutal conqueror and given the tempestuousness of the emotions expounded by the plot, it is probably not surprising that rather a lot of the arias were of the rage and lots of notes type. Loud and fast was obviously a crowd pleaser. We got some relief from this after interval, including my own favourite, invoking a timid little deer, with violin solo and plucked accompaniment.

Some of the rather unrelieved vigour seemed to be matter of the style adopted by Erin Helyard as conductor/harpsichordist. You sometimes get the impression (though it is rather dated) that there is a school of thought in some “authentic” bands that you show how authentic you are by throwing yourself into it. I would have appreciated a bit more refinement at times and rhythmic spring even when the dial turned to tempest/rage.

I enjoyed it, if more in particular parts than the whole.

There is a pretty comprehensive review by Clive Paget in Limelight which I mostly agree with. (Warning: plot spoiler spoiler alert!)  That’s my lazy way of getting around commenting on individual singers.  I can do that because I am not a critic.  But they did, collectively, sing up a storm.

Leaflets around the place announced that next year’s Pinchgut season is to comprise Haydn’s Armida and Handel’s Theodora. It seems that Antony Walker will be back to conduct one of them though unless I missed it they did not say which.

Iphigénie en Tauride

December 4, 2014


Last night to the first night of Pinchgut’s production of Gluck’s opera.

It was always my intention to go but as I missed the initial booking rush in July (I was in China) I then wavered in the face of a lack of desirable seats and financial retrenchment. At the last moment I summoned up resolve and just after 2pm on the day picked up a seat in the first side balcony.

In fact there were plenty of seats unsold in the rear balcony and on the third level – perhaps the cheaper seats needed to be cheaper, at least at the last minute. The stalls, in comparison, were well-filled, though sponsors friends and the free list must may have accounted for a fair portion of that. [Edit in response to comment below from Liz Nielsen.]

From where I sat, the ends of the lines of the text, projected in translation to the back of the stage, were obscured by the set. “Will there be an end to our tea?” someone asked at one point (or something like that). Context or leaning forward usually supplied the missing portions.

It was “tears” (of course).

There is cause for plenty given the unhappy family history in question. Iphigenia is in Tauris, whence she was spirited many years ago by Diana/Artemis when her father, Agamemnon, prepared to sacrifice her to ensure a fair wind to Troy. (That was Gluck’s earlier Iphigenia in Aulis). Meanwhile, there’s been the Trojan war, Agamemnon has been murdered on his return by Clytemnestra, his wife, and then Orestes, his son, has killed him in revenge. (That’s Elektra.)  Orestes comes to Tauris (not sure if this is in the libretto or you are just expected to know this) in response to an omen which he has interpreted as urging him to retrieve an image of Diana: he doesn’t know that the prophecy really refers to Iphigenia, whom he believes dead.

Gluck’s watchword, once he embarked upon his operatic “reforms,” is said to have been “beautiful simplicity.” Musically, that meant a move away from coloratura and the floridity of the da capo aria, as well as the banishment of the secco recitative (there is still some arioso recitative accompanied by the full orchestra). Along the way, instrumental obbligato solos mostly fell away and he generally uses the wind instruments chorally or doubling the strings for texture.

Critics at the time said that the simplicity was required by Gluck’s own technical limitations (Handel said Gluck had no more idea of counterpoint than Handel’s cook) but even if so, that still leaves the “beautiful” as well as the dramatic integration which was Gluck’s other professed aim – even if someone else actually wrote his most famous pamphlet advocating all of this.

“Beautiful simplicity” is also a necessary virtue of Pinchgut’s approach to staging. It keeps the costs down and also meets the limitations of Angel Place’s stage. This production was effective in that regard, especially the chorus of priestesses of Diana (was it the design or did we have a pregnant priestess in their midst?), who together with Caitlin Hulcup in the title role also had the best of the music and the action.

I wasn’t so convinced by the semi-automatic-wielding Taurideans, who were given faintly ISIS-ish headgear (in which case, why not swords?). Given their intention to kill any stranger arriving on their shores, they could more tellingly have been got up as Australian border security guards, and their king, Thoas, instead of looking like Russell Brand, could have been Scott Morrison. (That’s Thoas in the foreground of the picture above, via Limelight – the pictures, probably taken at the dress rehearsal, don’t quite live up to the reality and the suspended microphones are less intrusive in the flesh.) Something like that might happen in a state-subsidised German opera house: I doubt Pinchgut is in a position to upset the horses or sponsors in that way. (cf Opera Australia’s timid steps in that direction in its last production of Nabucco.)

At the end, when half the male chorus had to become Greek this was done by a simple and effective device. This was one scene which became a bit of a scramble.

Coming to the work new, it took me a while to realise that the chorus in what looked like a nightmare sequence with Orestes were intended to be the Eumenides.

Even before I checked the cast list, it was easy to guess who was the costume designer amongst the production staff when they took their bows: not only did he have the best outfit but it looked as though he’d whipped it up from offcuts from the men’s chorus costumes.

I enjoyed it and in many ways it was a revelation. As it wasn’t a comedy, I’m glad to say that even though he sat close to the stage, harpsichordist Erin Helyard’s bald/shaven dome remained unmolested.

I’m not a critic. Clive Paget’s review in Limelight is generally spot-on. If I had to single out anyone for particular praise it would be Hulcup (a triumph), the women’s chorus, the orchestra and conductor Antony Walker. It is always good to have him back.  That’s probably taking Lindy Hume, the director, for granted but it is harder for me to estimate her contribution.

Pinchgut do four performances within a week. Sunday’s is booked out. That starts at 5pm and looking at audiences these days it is clear that early starts hold an attraction for many not to mention that for others coming into town at 5pm on a Sunday will be much easier than for 7pm on a weekday. It will also be broadcast on ABC Classic FM on Sunday night and I certainly intend to listen then.

End of year

December 18, 2012

is almost upon us.  So I thought I’d mention a few things which I’ve been to which are so far unnoticed here.

I went to the Pinchgut Opera’s production of Rameau’s Castor and Pollux.

I’m sorry to say that I found the acting of visiting American Jeffrey Thompson as Castor almost insufferable, even if it be accepted that some of it was his own musical necessity. At one point, for no perceivable reason, he sat on the edge of the stage just behind Erin Helyard (the harpsichordist) and ran his hands over EH’s bald/shaven cranium. Something like this was done last year (or maybe the year before) as well but then at least it was funny and had a reason. I wouldn’t like it to become a running gag and for that matter I don’t think it is fair on EH, whether he minded it or not.

I sometimes wondered what the director, Kate Gaul, was thinking of, albeit that she had to operate within some constraints.

The realisation of the balletic element was problematic.   There were two rather fetching topless male dancers, and I’m not complaining about that. The women in the chorus, wearing vaguely Grecian drapery gym-slippy outfits, had to do rather a lot of stuff which maked them look like one of those early twentieth century photos of Druidic or Theosophic-ish groups doing something in the open air early in the morning.  Sometimes the urge came to just shut one’s eyes and listen to the music.

I found the second half, which seemed to prefigure Gluck and Haydn in its account of other worlds, more interesting than the first.

The orchestra was good. I went twice. This was something I had planned long before.

I wish I could say I enjoyed it more. Maybe the novelty to me of the French baroque has lessened, thanks in large part to Pinchgut’s own productions, which have also set a pretty high act for Pinchgut itself to follow.

I also went to two SSO concerts. The first of these featured Scott Davie playing the original version of Rhachmaninov’s fourth piano concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred.  The first was obviously a labour of love on SD’s part.  I enjoyed but was not really electrified by it.  Sometimes the verdict of history is right, and of course there are at least three better-known concertante works for piano by this composer.  Manfred excited me more when Caetani conducted it a few years ago.  This time it seemed a bit scrappy.

The second was billed as “Totally Tchaikovsky” (to distinguish it from Pique Dame as also being by Pushkin?) and paired the second piano concerto (also in its original version) with the fourth symphony.  I heard Garrick Ohlsson on the radio admit that the second concerto is an inferior work to the first, but all things considering that is not as big a put down as it might at first seem.  I enjoyed it and again on the live broadcast which I also listened to the next afternoon.  There were differences in approach between Ohlsson and Stephen Hough, who played this concerto here not so long ago.  I like to think that these match differences in their personality.

I have yet to see a publicity shot of Garrick Ohlsson that looks less than ten years old. The standard one looks as though it was taken more like twenty years ago, if not more.

One feature of the original version of the concerto is a kind of trio between the concertmaster, principal cello and piano in the middle movement.  I should concede (because sometimes I rail against her place in the orchestra’s publicity limelight that seems to only be rivalled by that enjoyed or hogged for the WASO by their grinning percussionist) that I enjoyed Catherine Hewgill’s solo in this very much.

The Tchaikovsky was on the mellow and warm side. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t have big moments, but it wasn’t as directly ominous as I have sometimes heard it, nor as angular.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard the second theme of the first movement edged into quite so gently. It was a distinctive approach.

Longer ago I went to the last of the Australia Ensemble concerts for the year.  The highlight of this for me (and I can’t say I was expecting this) was Ian Munro’s arrangement of Debussy’s Six epigraphes antiques

At the end of the concert, the retiring Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) announced next year’s program. When he anglicized the “ř” in “Dvořák” a kind of electric frisson mixed with comfort of knowing better rippled round the hall. As is customary, rather splendid chocolates and slightly less splendid but alcoholic-if-you-wished drinks were given out in the foyer afterwards.

I’ll be back for more.

On Sunday night I went to a concert by Orchestra Romantique at Paddington Town Hall. I first heard of this in November from Wanderer. Now that I look I see that it was announced on facebook on June 16. I think I had by then given up on checking to see if anything was happening with this group. You couldn’t say this concert was over-publicized. Handbills were distributed outside Castor & Pollux but to little evident effect. By the time the concert was held, it had been announced as the orchestra’s final concert in its present form. Something smaller may or may not emerge.

The first half of the program was the Brahms double concerto. This was the draw-card for me. Kristian Winther (who also directed) was the violinist and Timo-Veiko Valve the cellist. Without a dedicated conductor (Kirsty Hilton also waved her bow from the leader’s desk in one particularly hairy bit) it was all rather strict-tempo, but I still enjoyed it. The early-music push of the previous concerts did not seem to be a particular issue. Maybe with the size of the band we were meant to imagine ourselves at Meiningen.

The second half was in honour of Beethoven’s birthday and featured a kind of running address by [“Lord”] Geoffrey Robertson on liberty and the enlightenment. It also featured rather a lot of namedropping on GR’s part, though some may feel he is entitled to it. Overall it seemed a rather long bow to draw from the “Turkish March” from Beethoven’s music written in 1811 for von Kotzebue’s play, “The Ruin of Athens” to GR’s proposed appearance before the European Court of Human Rights to argue for the return of the “Elgin Marbles” to Greece.

When GR ascribed the push to end slavery as one originating in “High Anglicanism” he had gone too far. Last time I looked (then, and since) the Clapham Sect and Wilberforce were evangelicals, which is usually thought of as being quite the opposite. Call me a pedant, but that’s the sort of historical howler that can cast a bit of a shadow.

This sort of talking is not really a drawcard for me. It just seems a waste of an orchestra to have it sit by idle. I realise that is an error because the orchestra’s time is not to be measured simply by its time on stage on the night – there also has to be rehearsal time. So maybe the talking was a way of padding the program out. Others enjoyed it.

It’s sad to see the orchestra fold (or even restructure into something smaller) but not really surprising. It was good to hear them while they lasted.


December 1, 2011

Last night to the opening of Pinchgut’s Griselda.

For some reason, their publicity has been less forthcoming than in earlier years – little of the old internet chattiness and, as far as I can make out, not replaced by twitter or whatever else is newer.

It’s based on an adaptation of the final story of Bocaccio’s Decameron. This involves Griselda’s husband putting her through all sorts of trials before finally accepting her back as his wife. In the operatic version, he is the duke of Thessaly and is driven to this by the popular rejection of the low-borne Griselda as his queen (should that be duchess?). The popular discontent was depicted in part by placard-waving citizens in the aisles. One placard [plot spoiler of a sort] read “Ditch the Bitch.” This got laughs.

That was one odd thing about the production. I don’t think of this as a funny story at all, but it was certainly played for laughs at times. I suppose they had to do something because quite frankly, apart from the possibilities of various twists and turns which provide the occasion for the various arias, for most of the time things got simply worse and worse for Griselda. It’s not a story of any particular attraction and it all seems too contrived to be really moving. Despite that, within the premise of the rather ridiculous plot, there is one scene which moved me, when Griselda, disturbed in her sleep, possibly by the arrival of Costanza, calls out and reaches up as if to her long-dead daughter. Unknown to her, Costanza really is her (not dead after all) daughter. It was a tender and uncanny moment (well prepared by a short piece of “sleep” music), but its effect was lost soon afterwards with a reversion to the comic.

The rearrangement from 3 acts to 2 acts also robbed the trio at the end of the second act (not long after the scene I have mentioned) of some of its effect and detracted from what little dramatic shape the opera has. I think I can see why they did it: it gave them a transformation and a moment with a bit of splendour on a little budget (who would have believed that so much effect could be got from an electric roll-a-door?) and it got everyone home earlier – especially when the evening managed to buck the 7pm-start Angel Place trend.

David Hansen scored something of a triumph in the startlingly high role of Ottone (normally still sung by a woman), a ‘tached baddie who seizes the opportunity of Griselda’s banishment to pay his own entirely unwelcome suit – pressed with threats to murder her son if she will not yield to him.

I think there were some cuts, at least compared to the version I had borrowed on CD from the Con Library. I’ll listen on Sunday night when it is being broadcast on ABC “Classic” FM.

I’m going again on Monday to the last night.

Pinchgut – L’anima del filosofo: Orpheus & Eurydice

December 20, 2010

Earlier in the month (it was “Tonight” when I first wrote this sentence) to Pinchgut’s annual production: this year, as per the title, straying the furthest forward in time yet (or possibly equal with Idomeneo – depends how you measure time, really) with Haydn’s final, unperformed, possible incomplete, opera. Wikipedia presently deals with it rather tersely:

L’anima del filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice (The Soul of the Philosopher, or Orpheus and Euridice), Hob. 28/13, is an opera in Italian in four acts by Joseph Haydn, the last he ever wrote. The libretto, by Carlo Francesco Badini, is based on the myth of Orpheus and Euridice as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Composed in 1791, the opera was never performed during Haydn’s lifetime.

After his patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy had died in 1790, Haydn travelled to London where he received a commission to write several symphonies. The impresario John Gallini also offered him a contract to write an opera for the King’s Theatre but due to a dispute between King George III and the Prince of Wales he was refused permission to stage it. As a result, the score was never completed and some music appears to be missing.

The last opera Haydn wrote for Esterhazy was Armide, which was put on in 1783, so you can see that there is a fair argument for L’anima del filosofo having been obsolete even before it was not performed. It’s a bit of a stylistic hybrid – I don’t think Haydn had quite found his Creation mojo yet but he had abandoned some of his earlier more picturesque operatic style.

Of course that last remark comes with the enormous condescension of hindsight. It’s still quite a lot of music by Haydn – Viennese music written for the London market by a master. The quality is high. The one thing I would say is that extroverted moments succeed more than the relatively few ventures into pathos or the picturesque. There seemed to be rather a lot of Andantino or at least moderato in the first half, though I think that was partly a call for a “cool” enlightened style by Anthony Walker, the conductor.

It’s easy to take for granted by now the high standard of Pinchgut performances, particularly of the orchestra (though maybe not entirely consistently: I’m still not really satisfied with the oboes, and as a matter of realisation some of the harp/fortepiano continuo combinations seemed a bit like a chip buttie – too much of the same good thing), and this production was no exception. Probably in anticiptation of the English taste for oratorio, and perhaps with knowledge of the quality of choristers available in a big city, Haydn gave a lot of work to the chorus and Cantillation lived up to this. I’m afraid Andrew Goodwin is the sort of Mozartean tenor I find it difficult to warm to, even though I understand admirers of that type consider him to be a gook example of his kind. Elena Xanthoudakis was a wilder and more vivid presence as Euridice in the first half and a sybil in the second. Derek Welton as Euridice’s father, Creonte, sang well though he didn’t really seem old enough. The stage production was adequate, though it isn’t really the point of Pinchgut performances for me, so long as it does not detract. I quite liked the sexy young actors who did physical theatre as a kind of commentary on the action, though at the point where they actually seemed to start speaking to each other I felt coarse acting was just around the corner.

Look, I enjoyed it. I was exceedingly diverted by it and at times exhilarated by it, but I’m not sure if I was ever really moved in a substantive sense. I’m not in a position to say how much that is a reaction to the work and how much to the performance, though I am inclined to put any qualifications down to the former rather than the latter. I went twice (to the first and second nights) and had to stay my hand not to reach out at least for the advertised $30 restricted view seats for a third time on the last night, assuming such tickets had still been available. I’m rather regretting my moderation in that regard.

It follows that I can’t quite match some other commentators’ panegyrics, including this one by Carolyn McDowell. However, she is right about the quite distinctive and loyal audience which Pinchgut has attracted:

a seemingly very savvy musical audience that makes up the Pinchgut Opera’s growing data base.

They come from all walks of life and backgrounds too. They are not posh, but rather without pretension. They are people who admire and applaud quality when they see and experience it. As well they continue to turn up year after year.

I don’t mean to bask in any portion of such praise which is mine, because the audience is above all a credit to Pinchgut’s founders and promoters.

Some of that promotion is by means of web- and email- narration of the build-up to each year’s performances. It is salutary to realise just how much goes into them, the talents gathered (even if I was surprised to read, looking back, that the final ensemble was not settled until about October) and the pains taken. And that is just for one opera. Think of what Opera Australia must be doing every year for 12 or 14 between two cities.

In the recent scrapping over government arts funding, Richard Mills was derided in the Westbury/Eltham camp as a reactionary and elitist harrumpher, but for their part I think they are underestimating the level of execution required for opera and which Mills, for one, took to be self-evident. This is just one thing which makes their nostra for, eg, the casualisation of orchestras and defunding of opera as a means of spreading the government arts dollar in the direction of their preferred forms so wide of the mark.

Kanen Breen wears a dress

December 2, 2009


in Pinchgut‘s latest production of Cavalli’s L’Ormindo, which I went to tonight.

The style of the opera takes a little getting used to. At first, the twists and turns of the plot limit the opportunities for building up any particularly sustained affect or mood, other than a tendency to rather cheerful triple time. It’s a comedy, after all.

In the third act, as the various plot lines reach their respective resolutions, there is more of an opportunity for some longer musical paragraphs, which comes as a bit of a relief. And of course denouements are the more affecting moments. Or maybe I was just getting used to the style by then.

The house didn’t seem to me to be as full as Pinchgut might have hoped: they sold most of the good seats but should probably have lowered the price on the cheap ones, at least for the first night on a Wednesday.

Every year when I hear the orchestra at Pinchgut I remind myself of what early music bands in Sydney used to sound like. There’s a generation and more of tuition and development of skills now and you can really feel it.

This is really just a provisional comment: were I a twitterer I would probably tweet. As hinted above, Kanen is a tremendous scene stealer. I was a bit surprised to read that Trevor Pichanek (Amida) has been in the AO chorus since 2007 because he didn’t really seem comfortable on stage. It was something to do with not wanting to let his elbows leave the side of the body, so that we had arm gestures from the elbows only. He’s meant to be a military hero but I can’t say he came across as one. Amongst the support characters, Anna Fraser made a particularly strong impression.

Someone tweeted earlier that those baroque plots are often easier to follow on the stage than they are on the page, and I certainly found that to be the case.

There are performances on Saturday, Sunday (early evening/late afternoon) and Monday. I’ll probably say more after I see it again on the last night.