New Zealand String Quartet plays Britten along with kindred spirits

Bravo! Britten

Purcell: Fantasias nos. 8 and 11;
Schubert: Quartettsatz in C minor, D.703
Britten: String Quartet no.3 Op.94
Ravel: String Quartet in F

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Saturday, 14 September 2013, 7pm

In a recent review I commented on the effect of concerts starting at 7pm on those of us who live out of town.  While I can see a justification, if an early start on a weekday persuades patrons to stay in town after work and go to the concert, I can’t see that justification applying to a Saturday.

This concert was the second in a series of two, transferred from St. Mary of the Angels due to earthquake strengthening work going on there.  Certainly the Hunter Council Chamber is both a more comfortable and a more chamber-like venue, but
while well-filled, it was not full.  Was the hour anything to do with this?

While I’m on gripes, I have to comment on the printed programme.  The excellent programme notes by Joy Aberdein were almost impossible to read in the low lighting provided even before the concert and in the interval, let alone the pseudo-candlelight illumination during the playing.  I appreciate the atmosphere the quartet were trying to create; the blame is on the designer of the programme.  There seems to be an idea around that serifs on letters are old-fashioned, unnecessary decorations.  This is not the case.  Tests, and experienced desk-top publishers, have found that the serifs carry the eye forward to read whole words, whereas sans-serif tends to cut the words up into individual letters.  Here was a sans-serif typeface and very pale printing, which could not be read in the lighting provided.  It was interspersed with quotations from the players, in bold, which could be read. Designers need to bear in mind that the majority of the members of the audience for this type of concert are over 55, and simply need more light, and more ink, to read what someone has put time and thought into preparing.  Practicality before design, please!

Gripes done with, I have to say it was delightful to be again at a concert from our own string quartet.  Their intelligent, thoughtful spoken introductions are a fine way to preface each work (especially when you can’t read the programme notes!), and their playing is always sensitive, lively, and passionate as required.

The Purcell Fantasias reflected Britten’s love and admiration for the 17th century composer, and his feeling that the earlier composer was a kindred spirit. The instruments were played without vibrato, in the style of the period.  The music contained scrumptious dissonances and suspensions.

Schubert’s Quartettsatz represented another composer loved by Benjamin Britten.  In her introductory remarks Gillian Ansell pointed to the melancholy that lay behind the Viennese gaiety of this and many of Schubert’s compositions.

Its two movements (allegro assai and an incomplete andante) are full of melody, but there are also stormy passages.  This was delicious playing, with fine phrasing.  The music was performed sensitively, and was full of nuances; the lilting loveliness was exploited to the full, as were the ‘Moments of sudden rage, lightning strikes, resignation and bittersweet pathos’, to quote Gillian Ansell’s printed words.

Britten’s third string quartet was his last work in the genre, and he was ill when he wrote it.  He was in Venice when completing it, and had two years previously produced his last opera, based on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice; the quartet quotes from that work.  His feeling of kinship with Aschenbach, the hero of the novel, makes the work autobiographical.  The preface from Rolf Gjelsten gave us examples of the extraordinary textures the composer employed.

A Shostakovich-like opening of the first movement, Duets: with moderate movement, was melancholy and solemn, with discords, much rhythmic variety, and an inconclusive ending, while the Ostinato: very fast second was driving and angular, and made telling use of pizzicato.  The Solo: very calm – lively third movement incorporated contemplation and questioning, with slow phrases for the lower strings behind a sombre, even desolate high-pitched solo from Helene Pohl.

There were interesting technical effects from the other parts: glissandi, pizzicato, harmonics, playing across the bridge (on the viola) in the rapid, and perhaps ironic,  fourth movement: Burlesque: fast.  These effects were not gratuitous, but fitted
into the aesthetic of the movement perfectly, contrasting with grand chords.  The whole movement was delirious and robust, and included an excited fugue.

The final movement, the longest, was entitled Recitative and passacaglia [La serenissima]: slow.  It began with harmonics on the second violin and tremolo notes, with a melody from the cello.  The dirge-like passacaglia was set against an
feeling of continuing life, yet also of finality; here was sombre profundity.  The low repeated notes apparently represented the bells of Venice.

The whole movement was a slow, serene and at times mournful transformation compared with the movement that preceded it.  A difficult movement, it did expose a few notes out of place.  However, throughout the work there was great clarity of textures.  The work ended on a despondent note.  Britten said “I want the work to end with a question.”

Ravel’s only quartet is quite often played, but it was wonderful to hear it in this relatively intimate space, which provides clear yet rich sound (despite the carpet).  The Quartet committed this work to disk a number of years ago (Atoll ACD 399).  I have the recording and know it quite well, but this performance brought the music alive, literally and figuratively.

Its first movement (allegro moderato – très doux) opens with a beautiful tune, vaguely pastoral in character, the writing beautifully spare The second subject played in unison, octaves apart, gave an other-worldly feel.  The section before the later repeat of the theme during the development features a gorgeous viola passage.

The second movement, assez vif – très rhythmé, brings pizzicato to the fore, and over it, haunting melodies weave in and out. Pizzicato triumphs in the end, with a loud exclamation mark.

The third movement, très lent, has a spooky opening leading to calm, gentle and languid passages.  This movement also features haunting, even doleful phrases, and much of it is played using mutes.  Lyrical, with pastoral themes, it is full of
surprises, including echoes of themes from previous movements. The vif et agité finale is something completely different.  It begins in energetic, even angry mood, but repeats the theme from the opening movement, and plays with it lightly in new ways, until a robust, almost Shostakovian ending.

It was a thoroughly satisfying and accomplished performance, as indeed was the entire concert.


NZ Opera’s Dutchman redeemed by love and music

New Zealand Opera presents:
Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman”

Cast: Jason Howard (The Dutchman)
Paul Whelan (Daland, a Sea-Captain)
Orla Boylan (Senta, Daland’s daughter)
Peter Auty (Erik, a hunter)
Shaun Dixon (Steersman)
Wendy Doyle (Mary)

Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus
Chorusmaster: Michael Vinten

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Wyn Davies

Director: Matthew Lutton
Assistant Director: Andrew McKenzie
Designer: Zoë Atkinson
Lighting: Jon Buswell

St.James Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 14th September 2013

Aidan Lang, New Zealand Opera’s General Director, put it well in his welcoming foreword to the programme for this production – it’s been much longer than the mandatory seven years since the Flying Dutchman last “came ashore” here in New Zealand in search of redemption.

In fact, it’s been thrice that number of years since the 1992 Auckland Opera production which featured none other than Sir Donald McIntyre in the title role, and was conducted by a fellow-New Zealander with an international career in opera, John Matheson.

By all accounts that was a creditable production, an artistic, if not a financial success. New Zealand Opera would have been hoping to emulate that occasion’s artistic achievements, while having the advantage of working in partnership with Opera Queensland to assist the present undertaking’s considerable cost outlay.

Photographs of the 1992 production suggest that the conventionalities of the story – the sea, the ships, sailors, coastal townspeople – were pretty well in evidence. However, twenty-one years later, the Dutchman returned to an almost complete contrast of scenario –  and both the elements and the means of traversing them were here abstracted to the point of alienation. On the stage of the St.James Theatre, not a drop of seawater nor flurry of salt spray  actually registered – all of the oceanic turmoil was confined to the the orchestra pit from whence it welled up fiercely and splendidly.

The high-and-dry cell-like enclosure of the Norwegian sailors’ shelter at the very beginning suggested more a state-of-mind-siege than a ship, or even a touch of post-nuclear-strike refuge in appearance and human use. As for the Dutchman’s ghostly vessel, it hove to simply as an oncoming, imposing black wall from which mysteriously emerged the legendary figure, bearing more of a sinister Nosferatu-cum-Twilight-novels aspect than that of a tragic, romantic sea-faring character.

Underlining this was the figure’s use of what appeared to be a form of supernatural power over the sailors, to the point of causing one of them to cough up blood. Earlier, during the Steersman’s homesick love-song, just before the arrival of the Dutchman’s ship, an alluring naked woman eerily materialised among the Norwegian crew, disappearing as mysteriously as she appeared – a rather more “story-wise” event, I thought, than the gratuitously haemorrhaging sailor.

But the production’s application of these detailings throughout had a similar in-and-out-of-focus aspect, some telling touches rubbing shoulders with what seemed a “trying-too-hard” spirit born of wanting to be innovative for its own sake. I did like how the Norwegian sailors  sudden “found” treasures in their own pockets as part of the bounty promised by the Dutchman in return for some hospitality – it was a good way of dealing with what’s always seemed to me a rather gauche, tinsel-like “baubles, bangles and beads” transaction, here given a much more powerful, less pantomime character.

Act Two began with the famous “Spinning Chorus”, here sublimated into a kind of erotic wish-fulfilment ritual on the part of the women who assembled, polished and partly dressed a number of bare male mannekins – maybe psychologically apposite but visually incongruous, and somewhat at odds with the “spinning” music. Interestingly, the picture of the Dutchman was an ample piece of unframed canvas pop-art rather than an image presented to suggest any great antiquity. Although this was something Senta could literally “wrap herself up in” while singing the well-known “Ballad”, the image, in this medium, had an almost clip-art, “throw-away” quality, hardly designed to engender any sense of legend or mythology.

I thought the Ballad itself, by way of compensation, might have been theatrically framed by some kind of ambient intensification, lighting or staging depicting the storms and emotions described by Senta’s narrative. But no – music plus imagination triumphed, as there were no externals bringing about any kind of startling “picture come to life” metamorphosis when the Dutchman in person entered the room.

Blood figured yet again in the exchanges that followed – blood from the inside of the Dutchman’s coat which Senta had dreamily picked up and put on, then relinquished, leaving her bare arms almost sacrificially smeared – a tangible warning, perhaps, of the fate accorded to vow-breakers?

Whatever the case, singers, conductor and orchestra drove the music excitingly towards the Act’s conclusion, and straight on into Act Three without a break in the music, though the curtain allowed plenty of music-only space for a scene-change – here were the Norwegian crew’s homecoming revels, and the imminent marriage of the Steersman presumably to the girl whose charms he conjured up in his Act One night-watch song.

First the sailors and then their womenfolk attempted to rouse the sleeping crew of the Dutchman’s ship – their figures to one side, in full view, sitting asleep with bowed heads, as still as death, splendidly resembling pre-Raphaelite spirit-wraiths. I thought the moment of their awakening a gripping and effective piece of theatre, the figures instantly shedding their somewhat androgynous quality and generating real deadly menace, even if the singling-out of the Steersman for some extra “treatment” became a bit schoolboyish in effect.

However, such was the power generated by this scene and its music (off-stage voices sang the Dutch crew’s music while the on-stage wraiths choreographed its demonic character most threateningly), that the sudden unscheduled technical “glitch” which brought about a reassuring announcement of continuance after a down-curtain luftpause actually gave us all a breathing-space with which to prepare for the final scene.

Again it was left to the orchestra to conjure up the oceanic furies as Senta and the Dutchman drove towards their intertwined fates. Senta “summonsed” a chasm in the raked floor with a blow from a chair and ritualistically flung herself into oblivion, followed by the ecstatic Dutchman.  At this point the massive wall representing the ghost-vessel dramatically and spectacularly collapsed towards the audience, making for a wonderfully visceral effect of dissolution.

I’ve begun this review and discussed these points at some length, not because I think production the most important aspect of opera, but because these days a lot of people involved with opera do seem to give it over-riding importance, to the point where putting a new “update” upon any work seems to have become a priority. As comedian Michael Flanders prophetically said regarding a proposed musical setting of the sixteenth century play Ralph Roister Doister, in his and Donald Swann’s comedy revue At the Drop of a Hat all those years ago – “Anything to stop it being done straight!”

I’ve tried to fairly balance what I thought “worked” and what didn’t in this process, though I couldn’t help thinking some violence was done to the opera’s libretto and music by inconsistencies and contradictions between words and music and stage action. For example, removing from right at the beginning any visible trace of the ocean’s presence and direct influence  from the stage, however clever an idea on paper, sapped from the work, I thought, much of its inherent sense of elemental power and human interaction with such forces.

At the beginning of Act Two the chorus of “smart young misses” in the clothing factory called all the shots (and, despite the evocative music, not a spinning-wheel, or even a sewing machine, was within coo-ee!). But then, part-way through Senta’s Ballad a regressive thrall seemed to remarkably grip these bright, worldly-wise young things. I thought their sudden wide-eyed interest in and fascination with the legend at odds with their initial hard-bitten mode and deportment at the outset – perhaps it was more demonic trickery from the Dutchman?

If the stage action and design characteristics had their challenging aspects, far less equivocal was the quality of both individual and group performances. Incongruities of placement and manner apart, the choruses were wholly committed dramatically and superbly full-voiced musically right throughout, reaching a thrilling and incisive level of interaction throughout the opening sequences of Act Three, when the Norwegian sailors and their women attempt to rouse the ghostly, slumbering Dutch crew, to alarming effect.

Though perhaps a tad too youthful of appearance, Paul Whelan sang a rich and satisfying Daland, the Norwegian captain, his manner emphaisising the character’s goodness of heart alongside his eagerness for the chance of wealth in marrying his daughter to the Dutchman. I felt sorry for him having to sing the redundant line, near the beginning, to his Steersman “Am Bord bei euch, wie steht’s?” (How’s everything on board?) – when in this staging he had left his crew for what seemed less than a minute, simply going up a ladder and putting his head out the hatch for a look around!

His Steersman, Tokoroa-born and Auckland-trained Shaun Dixon, made the most of his lovely solo while on watch, his voice strong, focused and romantic,  floating his phrases heroically and mellifluously through the stillness – the singer is this year’s Mina Foley Scholar, and on this showing, a credit to the award. His tones sharply contrasted with those which broke the eerie quiet in the wake of the ghostly ship’s arrival – the tortured, and in places harshly-sounded voice of the Dutchman, Welsh baritone Jason Howard.

This was a Dutchman whose business was tragedy and grim desperation more than romantic heroism. His opening monologue set the tone, his voice accurate and incisive, though in places gravelly and uningratiating. Resembling in appearance more a silent movie villain than a seafaring sea-captain, his brief demonic-like gestures did less for me than his consistently haunted demeanour, and fiercely-focused vocal quality when duetting with Senta – not beautiful sounds but filled with an anguished mix of hope and despair that dramatically carried the day.

His rival for Senta’s love, the poor, infatuated hunter, Erik, was sung by English tenor Peter Auty (remembered for an intensely-portrayed Turridu in NZ Opera’s 2011 Pagliacci), here richly interacting with Senta and  conveying all the frustrated passion of doubt and uncertainty regarding his love for her, singing and acting with great conviction.

The role whose character I thought got little chance to make anything coherent and meaningful from was that of Mary. Normally Senta’s nurse, she was here relegated to the thankless position of superviser of the “smart-set” factory-girls, and whose contribution seemed to centre around an attitude of petulant disapproval of Senta’s obsession with the picture, and not much more. Wendy Doyle did what she could with the character, but she was placed rather too far back onstage for some of her contributions to make their real vocal”point” –  which could account for some of her gesturings towards Senta coming across as a shade over-emphatic.

Which brings me to the heroine, whose voice and demeanour both had a somewhat wild and undisciplined quality, but whose commitment to the role of Senta was never in doubt. Irish soprano Orla Boylan took a no-holds-barred approach, one which I thought gradually came into focus and sharpened as the Ballad ran its course. I thought at the scene’s beginning she was too much the odd-ball, dressed differently to the other women, and distracted in manner and movement to the point of serious disturbance, obviously feeling the oncoming presence of the “pale man” in the picture.

The famous Ballad generated considerable musical excitement, the singer working thrillingly with conductor and orchestra to evoke the Dutchman’s tragic scenario and her own involvement with the legend. The voice wasn’t consistently attractive, spreading when under pressure, but at all times conveying great immediacy and character.  I thought she was a “giver” on stage regarding whomever she interacted with, firstly the anxious and despairing Erik, and then with her ghostly wanderer – in fact her dealings with each would-be “lover” were both whole-heartedly and satisfyingly contrasted, the effect deeply-felt rather than contrived.

Though the impression given by Senta’s plunge into the newly-created abyss  seemed more of an abandonment to the “bowels of the earth” rather than to the depths of the sea, the singer’s unflinching physicality and emotional desperation made the gesture work at the end. Again, it was the orchestra whose efforts under the baton of conductor Wyn Davies created the elemental fury of oceanic context, as they had been doing throughout the evening – if (like Anton Bruckner was supposed to have done on his visit to Bayreuth to hear “Parsifal”) we had shut our eyes throughout the performance, the music alone would have here given us what we needed to become caught up in Wagner’s drama.

Whatever one’s reaction to the provocative stagings and the different, and thought-provoking emphases thus given to the presentation by director Matthew Lutton and designer Zoë Atkinson, one could feel unequivocally that justice was done on this occasion by singers, musicians and conductor to this thrilling work’s inspired composer.