Stravinsky at the Festival: Distinguished performances of powerful works heard by too few

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Stravinsky:   Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus (Michael Vinten, chorus master), Joana Carneiro (conductor), Stuart Skelton (Oedipus, tenor), Margaret Medlyn (Jocasta, mezzo-soprano), Daniel Sumegi (Creon; Messenger, bass-baritone), Martin Snell (Tiresias, bass), Virgilio Marino (shepherd, tenor), Rawiri Paratene (narrator, speaker)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 24 February 2012, 8pm

As a Festival opener, this programme obviously did not have the appeal of the Mahler Symphony no.8 performed at the last Festival, when the hall was packed, and there were people sitting out in Civic Square watching the performance on a huge screen and hearing it relayed on loudspeakers.  Another draw-card on that occasion was the presence of the famous Vladimir Ashkenazy as conductor.

This time, by no means all the seats in the hall were filled, which was a pity, because these were fine and powerful performances.

My first reaction was pleasure at the appearance of the programmes.  The printed programmes in 2010 had a ghostly pallor, and the letters so skinny you could have driven a bus between them.  This time, the font was Times New Roman or similar, there was plenty of ink, no back-grounding of text, and they could be read even during the performance – most important when full libretti and translations into English were generously provided.

The other feature of the programmes were the copious and detailed notes provided.  There was far too much to read before or during the concert, but they make very interesting reading afterwards.  The New Zealand Opera Company has in the past sent programmes ahead of the season to those who book in advance; this practice could have been adopted here, with benefit to the audience’s understanding and appreciation.

The Chapman Tripp opera chorus was obviously augmented; some familiar faces that one doesn’t usually see in the chorus, graced it on this occasion.  My first impression at the opening of the Symphony of Psalms was that the choir was too far distant from the orchestra and the audience, making the sound likewise distant, and therefore the words did not have the clarity they should have.  We got volume at times, but seldom clarity.  This was the fault of the hall and the placement of the choir, not directly of inadequacy on the choir’s part.  If the performance had been in the Town Hall, the problem would not have existed; there would have been more impact.   The problem did not exist with the Mahler two years ago, because the choir was very much bigger, though so too was the orchestra.

Stravinsky’s unusual orchestration for this work provides plenty of wind players, and cellos and basses plus harp, two pianos, and percussion, but no violins or violas.  Therefore there was lots of rich, resonant low bass sound, while the incisiveness and wonderful colours of the winds were more apparent than usual, especially in the delicious melodies with cross-rhythms, played between Psalm 38 and Psalm 39.

Psalm 38 opened with spiky rhythms but they didn’t continue.  Instead, the effect was of long melismatic lines, like old Russian chants, though the work was sung in Latin.

The verses from Psalm 39 were given gentler treatment than the incisive previous psalm.  Sonorities built up; there were dense harmonies and clashes providing a rich sound – although some of the sopranos were a little too strident.  The final verse, ‘He put a new song in my mouth…’ was thunderous in its praise to God.

An Alleluia preceded Psalm 150.  These passages were quiet; the distance between choir and orchestra didn’t matter so much here, and there was some lovely singing. However, the choir, while good, and obviously very well rehearsed, sounded rather pedestrian in the psalm itself.   It again emphasised that a bigger choir would have coped better.

The psalm speaks of trumpets and other instruments; the NZSO instrumentalists fulfilled their parts radiantly, especially the ‘loud clashing cymbals’.  Despite their presence, this was a very lyrical verse, with the last section, ‘Let everything that breathes praise the Lord’ having an ethereal quality.

The pianists, Donald Nicolson and Rachel Thomson, had a very busy part in this last psalm. It ended with another Alleluia – quiet and exultant in tone. The growing woodwind tone against the choir’s soft intoning, along with piano and strings, was magical.  Stravinsky’s constantly shifting chords and soundscapes provided an experience unlike that to be had from any other composer; the result, satisfyingly unique.

Joana Carneiro is petite and very youthful in appearance, yet she conducts with energy and commitment.  In a radio interview prior to the performance, she remarked how good it was to have the narration in Oedipus Rex, since the music was so intense, complicated, yet direct, that time to breathe was needed.  She stressed that the music was not indulgent of the tragedies in the story; rather it was ‘about’ the story and characters.

One suspects that Festival Director Lissa Twomey (an Australian) programmed Oedipus Rex based on the success of this work at the Sydney Festival a couple of years ago, with the same conductor.  But with a much smaller population to draw on, and no full-time opera company here, its drawing power could not be relied on to be the same as in the much bigger city.  Maybe a semi-stage performance would have been more appealing – and it certainly would have conveyed the story in a more meaningful way.

Carneiro also said, and we experienced, that the choir was well-prepared.  The music of Oedipus Rex, she felt, was a pre-cursor of minimalism through its economy of means, but also employed leitmotif.  The latter helped to tie the story together musically, and gave something of a guide to the hearers.

Oedipus Rex, an opera-oratorio, was something completely different from the Symphony of Psalms, composed three years later.  Its similarity to the latter was probably confined to its reference back to polyphony, in the form of breaking up of the words, and the long lines.

Outstanding here, aside from the astonishing music, was the singing of tenor Stuart Skelton, as Oedipus.  This Australian singer has had great international success, and we were fortunate to hear him at the height of his powers.  His voice is  quite brilliant, and he has a wide range.  It cut through the textures without difficulty – strong, with great carrying quality, but never harsh or strident.  When he sang the words translated as ‘Your silence accuses you: you are the murderer! (to Tiresias), there was drama in every syllable.  His further accusation of Tiresias ‘Envy hates good fortune…’ featured high notes that were quite lovely, poignant and eloquent.

The other soloists could not measure up to Skelton, which is not to deny that they were good.  Their roles were all much smaller than that of Skelton.  Daniel Sumegi had the two roles of Creon and the Messenger, and his robust bass-baritone was effective and expressive, with wonderful low notes.  He had a very powerful passage in Act Two, singing ‘Jocasta the Queen is dead!’

Margaret Medlyn sang the mezzo role of the queen with perhaps less force at times than the part required, but nevertheless with appropriate levels of dramatic intensity.  Sometimes her music had echoes of the cabarets of Berlin.  The small part of the Shepherd was well sung by tenor Virgilio Marino.  (Was it really necessary to bring someone from Australia for a role with so little singing?).  He was particularly noteworthy for the duet with the Messenger, where they explain in Act Two that as a baby, Oedipus was found in the mountains.

Martin Snell’s smallish role as Tiresias was confidently and expressively sung, with lustrous resonance and deep, rich tones, but he did not always cut through the orchestra sufficiently.  However, his words were excellent.

An important role was that of the narrator, taken by well-known actor Rawiri Paratene.  He fulfilled it extremely well.  As Rachel Hyde said in her radio review, he was controlled and dignified.  His amplified words were very clear, his tone rich, and neither pompous nor intimate.  He struck the right note in giving the background commentary.

The male chorus sang for all they were worth in their demanding music, but occasionally were out of synch with the orchestra; more often the problem was that the words could not be sufficiently conveyed because the volume of the orchestra overwhelmed them.  At the distance the singers were, it was surprising that they kept together with the orchestra as much as they did; a tribute to their thorough preparation which meant they could keep eyes on the conductor much of the time.  Perhaps the conductor should have done more to tone down the dynamism of the orchestra.  However, it is really more a matter of the size and placement of the choir.  As Rachel Hyde said, the music in this work is really driven by the chorus, which has a large part, but too much in the background in this performance.

The orchestra was returned to its full glory with violins and violas, for this work.  The opening sound from choir and orchestra was tremendous.  Everywhere, we heard Stravinsky’s intriguing and innovative orchestrations brought out relentlessly; his invention knew no bounds.  The orchestra has a major role in Oedipus Rex, compared with its role in most operas or oratorios.

The chorus had its very effective moments, too: when they cry to Oedipus to solve the riddle of who murdered the king, Laius, their intoning of ‘Solve! Solve, Oedipus, solve!’ was startling.  It was strong again in the appeal to the goddesses that followed soon after; here, there was little accompaniment, allowing them to shine.  Soon incessant drumming was heard, adding to the doom-laden atmosphere, as they spoke of the many dead in Thebes, from the plague.

Again with incessant drumming, and with cymbal crashes, the chorus ‘Glory! Glory! Glory!’ sung in praise of the queen Jocasta (Margaret Medlyn) at the end of Act I was very fine, with tremendous unity in declamation.

In the second Act Margaret Medlyn had a long aria with piano – a most difficult part sung in very queenly fashion, and ending with swoops of agitation from the clarinet.  The chorus followed with a beautifully quiet entry, the singing continuing very smoothly over wonderful strumming on the strings.

One of Oedipus’s many notable moments came when he finally confessed to his crimes.  A fanfare followed this despairing utterance.  Skelton was a tremendous and very worthy Oedipus.

More good moments for the chorus: a very incisive short burst stating ‘The shepherd who knows all is here’, and strong, accurate and rhythmic singing of ‘He was not the true father of Oedipus’ (referring to Polybus).  Later, the difficult music for ‘The woman in the chamber…’ was rendered heartily and with precision.  The final chorus ‘Behold!  Oedipus the King!’ spilt out into immense noise from orchestra and chorus, but when full orchestra was employed, the chorus was overwhelmed.

Despite all, the chorus covered itself with glory, especially as amateurs amongst a stage full of professionals.

The performance of Oedipus Rex gave us a tremendous work, brought off with distinction.  It was powerful, shocking and complex, and a triumph (despite its flaws) for the performers and their unassuming young conductor, who held everything in suspense for an appreciable time at the end, so that the impact was not immediately lost in applause.