Fine Israel in Egypt from Tudor Consort in challenging acoustic

Handel’s Israel in Egypt

The Tudor Consort with The Chiesa Ensemble (comprising 25 members of the NZSO, with Douglas Mews  harpsichord), directed by Michael Stewart

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Saturday 6 September 2014

Israel in Egypt sets out to recount the Old Testament story of Israel’s final period in Egypt under a Pharaoh that withdrew all previous privileges and inflicted on the Israelites a physical bondage of the harshest kind. Handel set an entirely biblical libretto which dramatically depicts the Ten Plagues that Israel’s God visited on the Egyptians, the captives’ escape towards the Red Sea, the Egyptian pursuit with murderous intent, and the parting of the waters to provide safe passage for the Israelites. Unlike many other oratorios of the period, the chorus is here the central protagonist , with recitatives and arias sung by choristers, rather than by separate vocal soloists.

The opening orchestral prelude was beautifully balanced and sympathetic as were the first recitative and chorus, all of which set the brooding  background of Israel’s grief  and despair at their hopeless situation under the new Pharaoh. Michael Stewart judged the reverberant acoustic of St. Paul’s perfectly and used broad tempi that allowed the fugal entries and lines of both orchestra and chorus to be cleanly heard, and the story clearly heard.

As the narrative unfolds,  Handel uses the libretto to paint a succession of dramatic contrasts, offsetting the sombre elements of the tale against the more violent visitations  of  the plagues. Chorus and orchestra gave a wonderfully vigorous depiction of episodes such as the clouds of locusts, hailstorms mingled with fire, Jehovah’s ruthless elimination of  the Egyptian firstborn and the final fate of Israel’s pursuers as the waters of the Red Sea engulfed them.

Interspersed were evocative contrasts like the “thick darkness over the land, even darkness which might be felt”, and the lighthearted pastoral pipes and shepherds’ voices of  slaves released. Handel’s masterful orchestration and choral writing was given its fullest value by both singers and orchestra, with the impeccable technical and musical skill that one has come to expect from the Tudor Consort and NZSO players.

Yet I felt a deep sense of frustration with the performance because much of that talent and musicianship was, in the final analysis, defeated by the reverberant acoustic of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The broad tempo sections worked well, but the high speed intricacies and fugal lines of the fast tempi became an overwhelming blur of sound, where there was no chance of verbal clarity. For me, the magic
of Handel’s oratorios is his stunning realization of the story – where he lifts an already absorbing literary drama onto quite another plane with his astonishing musical paintbrush. The music is created specifically to tell the story, and if that story cannot be heard, the point of the work is lost.

It saddened me that the obvious talent and commitment of the musicians could not be properly appreciated in the enormous space. Given the size of the audience, I suspect they might have fitted into Old St. Paul’s, where I think there would have been a greater chance of acoustic success.

Unfortunately I was not able to stay for Part Two of the work, but the format is very similar to Part One, and I doubt my impressions would have been very different.


Source of innocent merriment – Wellington G&S Society’s “The Mikado”

Wellington G & S Light Opera presents:
Libretto by W.S.Gilbert / Music by Arthur Sullivan
Stage Director: Gillian Jerome
Musical Director: Hugh McMillan

Cast:  The Mikado, Emperor of Japan (Derek Miller)
Nanki-Poo, His Son (Jamie Young)
Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner (John Goddard)
Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else (Orene Tiai)
Pish-Tush, A Noble Lord (Kevin O’Kane)
Go-To, A Noble Lord (Lindsay Groves)
Yum-Yum, a Ward of Ko-Ko (Pasquale Orchard)
Pitti-Sing, a Ward of Ko-Ko (Michelle Harrison)
Peep-Bo, a Ward of Ko-Ko (Marion Wilson)
Katisha, an elderly Lady, betrothed to Nanki-Poo (Jody Orgias)

Chorus and Orchestra of the G & S Light Opera Company
Opera House, Wellington,

Saturday 6th September, 2014

Those of us who know and love the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas confidently expect that, despite the swings and roundabouts of popular taste and fashion, they will continue to delight, charm and entertain – in short, endure as classics. Though uniquely of their time they still express relevant commentaries regarding equivalents among individuals and circumstances in contemporary life. Perhaps first and foremost of them, and probably still the most popular, is “The Mikado”.

From the moment that the Japanese ornamental sword fell off the wall of W.S.Gilbert’s study, giving the author the idea for a libretto which would be set in Japan, but would mercilessly lampoon the British bureaucracy, “The Mikado” has commandeered a position of on-going success among the “Savoy” Operas, one which its fellows, even the well-known “HMS Pinafore” and “The Pirates of Penzance” haven’t quite emulated. No other G & S operetta casts its satirical net so widely, nor pulls in such a memorable catch. And as Jonathan Miller’s legendary, though disconcertingly not-so-recent, production update of the work at the English National Opera demonstrated, “The Mikado” lends itself readily to modernization, provided  that it’s done creatively and intelligently.

Wellington G & S Light Opera’s recent production of  the show (which Gilbert adroitly sub-titled “The Town of Titipu”) played its modest part in following the “updating” tradition via references to recent “Down Under” events. The opportunities for interpolation occur mostly in two songs, firstly Ko-Ko’s famous “Ive got a little list” in which the Lord High Executioner informs us of the most likely candidates for pending decapitation, and secondly, the Mikado”s equally well-known “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime”, also a list, detailing the fate of certain types of miscreants, each in a manner that befits the original offence. Standard performance practice, really, and hardly ground-breaking – but the updates always have the effect of to some extent revitalizing the performance/listening process, and so it proved here.

In fact I was expecting rather more “input” considering the plethora of politically poisonous goings-on of late in our normally po-faced little country – but I thought Ko-Ko’s song the more imaginatively “doctored” of the two efforts, the best contemporary reference being to Nicky Hager’s recent book, the line containing the “dirty politicist” phrase bringing the house down! By comparison, the Mikado’s best in situ reference in his song was the punishment for the window-pane scribbler in railway carriages, having to “ride on a buffer on Hutt and Johnsonville trains”, though there was also a side-swipe at list MPs which caused an amused rustle. Still, the important thing was that the updated interpolations were done and duly enjoyed.

At the opera’s beginning we noted the traditional cut of the Japanese costumes, elaborate enough without being cumbersome, and sufficient to suggest the orientalism of the operetta’s original inspiration. The chorus’s singing throughout was excellent, even if their stage movements sometimes lacked the rhythmic snap and verve suggested by the music – the opening “If you want to know who we are” looked marvellous in tableau, but I felt it still needed more theatrical energy and dynamism in both movement and attitude.

The gentler, very different character of the women’s choruses created their own worlds of expression, although I noticed a tendency to adopt tempi in some of the music that didn’t allow the melodies to bloom – no heeding of the plea “fleeting moment prithee stay!” when the women intoned “Comes a train of little ladies”, and even more disappointingly, “Braid the raven hair”, both of whose lovely tunes seemed to me subjected to something of a hustling, “come along, now!” treatment that I felt compromised their soaring, lyrical qualities. However, I did like the feistiness of tone with which the women sang throughout – not especially beautiful a sound, but very schoolgirlish and convincing!

So, the choruses gave a lot of pleasure both in appearance and in vocal terms. But where I thought some members could have been profitably deployed was in assisting both of the “imperial” entrances, both of which seemed too bare and exposed, wanting in theatricality and gravitas. Firstly, I expected there would have been a short, sharp whirlwind of a disturbance with the vengeful arrival in Titipu of Katisha, the Mikado’s daughter-in-law elect, to reclaim her fugitive fiancee, Nanki-Poo. As Katisha, Jodi Orgias seemed, at her entrance, strangely unattended as befitted her station, apart from two rather impassive imperial guards – could we not have had, for example, a quartet of attendants drawn from the onstage chorus (I’m certain there’d none of them be missed!) quickly running in and prostrating themselves in terror by way of announcing her arrival?

The Mikado’s entrance was similarly underwhelming – there was no sense of any imperial retinue indicating the character’s majesty and overweening importance – I would have thought it simply needed half-a-dozen or so of the chorus “redeployed” as attendants to the Monarch – in fact none of the men’s chorus was required on stage in Act Two up to that point, so a transformation from Titipu citizen to royal attendant would have been a relatively easy thing to achieve. Any number would have made a more ceremonial and worshipful impression than did just the same two guards as came with Katisha.

Both men’s and women’s choruses, as I’ve said, made splendid noises, as, by and large, did the principals, the singing discreetly aided by some amplification – I found it a shade aurally confusing at first, until I worked out just how it was being done (though one is opposed in principle, one can put up with it when, as here, it’s unobtrusively handled).

As Nanki-Poo, tenor Jamie Young fearlessly attacked his lines with enthusiastic, ringing tones, characterizing his delivery most adroitly in the different stanzas of “A Wand’ring Minstrel I” – and while the voice wasn’t entirely easeful and elegant in places, what he did always sounded wholehearted. Kevin O’Kane’s Pish-Tush was smartly and stylishly presented, able to put across “Our Great Mikado” with some relish, amid the appropriate stuffiness. And I liked the pompous cut of Orene Tiai’s Pooh-Bah, who seemed to savor his every utterance with a fine sense of his own puffed-up importance (including at one point a “Minister of Maori Affairs” reference – or words to that effect – to add to his list of portfolios!). And his little vocal cadenza at “Long life to you!” was an especially delicious moment.

Both Jody Orgias as Katisha and Derek Miller as the Mikado did their best to convey a sense of imperial gravitas. We also got Katisha’s vulnerable, soft-hearted side from Jody Orgias – I was moved by her “The hour of gladness”, and in the second act her distress at the tale of the fate of the “little tom-tit” who died for love gave an additional dimension to the ferocity of her duet with Ko-Ko, “There is beauty in the bellow of the Blast”, though neither her nor her duetting partner, John Goddard as Ko-Ko, managed at the conductor’s speeds to REALLY point and get across to us the deliciousness of those words: “……but to him who’s scientific there is nothing that’s terrific in the falling of a flight of thunderbolts!”.

I wanted some more interplay between the Mikado and Katisha just after their first entrance, with the “Daughter-in-law-elect” making it quite clear that she intended to rule the roost in the Royal Household! – oddly enough a publicity photo in the programme of this scene in rehearsal conveyed much more sense of this happening than I thought we actually got on stage! And, whether Derek Miller’s “A more humane Mikado” was deliberately cut or whether there was some kind of mishap I don’t rightly know – but having re-established the “running order” of the song, he gave a good account of the rest of it, even if the interpolations weren’t quite up to those in wit and sting written for and sung by Ko-Ko in his “little list” song.

The “Three Little Maids from School” invariably score a hit, and the winsome trio of Pasquale Orchard (Yum-Yum), MIchelle Harrison (Pitti-Sing) and Marion Wilson (Peep-Bo) brought off their “signature tune” with wit, gaiety and appealing freshness – though again I felt they were unnecessarily overtaxed by the tempi adopted for the following  “So Please you Sir, we must regret”, as was Pooh-Bah, in reply. While Pasquale Orchard’s appealing Yum-Yum properly dominated, with a performance that sparkled and glittered with ripples of surface delight upon oceans of character, Michelle Harrison’s grainer, more circumspect Pitti-Sing was the perfect foil, a kind of “Despina” to her sister’s “rolled-into-one-Fioridiligi/Dorabella”, making an all-too-convincing job of her description of the unfortunate Nanki-Poo’s bogus execution!

I’ve left John Goddard’s portrayal of Ko-Ko, the hapless Lord High Executioner, to the end because his was a pivotal performance – he “owned” the stage and consistently “placed” his character just where it should have been. His timing of the words in his songs, as with his dialogue, was exemplary, and he made the most of his set of topical interpolations. His character seemed alive to possibility at all times, rather like a musician who thinks about and fairly places every single note in the score – nothing gave the impression of being mechanical or by rote, but was instead lived and relished. Along with Michelle Harrison and Orene Tiai, he played his part in bringing into grisly focus “The Criminal cried”, one of the performance’s highlights.

Apart from a slightly uncertain beginning to the Overture, and a tendency in places to push the music a tad too hastily, music director Hugh McMillan kept the performance securely on the rails, drawing some lovely solos from his orchestral players, led by Orchestra Wellington’s Slava Fainitski, along with some deliciously deft ensemble sequences, as well as plenty of energy in appropriate places. As with other recent G&S Light Opera productions there was much to enjoy during the course of the evening, the splendour of the tried-and-true classic in places shining forth with enough warmth to stimulate and satisfy our pleasure.