“Collision”: Opera Scenes 2016
New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University
Musical director: Mark Dorrell; Director: Jon Hunter
Performance tutor: Maaike Christie-Beekman
Memorial Theatre, Victoria University
Sunday 11 September, 2:30 pm (earlier performances on 9 and 10 September)
The school of music’s once annual opera productions have in recent years fallen back to biennial events. In the between years, students create a series of scenes from opera, against a background of elementary sets and a few props that can, with a bit of imagination, be used in various settings.
This production employed around sixteen singers, though the photo gallery in the printed programme contained 23 faces which included first-year students and two guest singers who were not individually listed, but contributed to the chorus; many took part in two or three scenes.
The scenes from eleven works were divided between opera proper and various sub-categories that go by a variety of definitions like operetta, comic opera, musicals, musical theatre. The excerpts from heartland opera came first while the various kinds of musical theatre were in the second half.
As a generalized comment, the quality of singing, acting, energy level, and spirit of enthusiasm and enjoyment were very high, and at moments where musical or story quality limped, the dynamism that invested the whole show carried it.
The marvellous discovery scene from Act 3 of The Marriage of Figaro made a hilarious and fast-paced beginning: Marcellina and Bartolo are revealed as Figaro’s real parents, and their portrayals were vocally strong (Katrina Brougham and William King), as was the devil-may-care Figaro of Joseph Haddow.,with Alexandra Gandionco as Susanna.
Donizetti’s Tudor opera Anna Bolena handles the revelation to Henry VIII’s Queen, Anne Boleyn, of her unwilling rival, Jane Seymour. It exposed Shayna Tweed’s (the Queen’s) voice at the start, but it gained strength and individuality alongside Olivia Sheat’s vivid depiction of Seymour, as the latter’s uncomfortable role is exposed.
Britten’s comedy Albert Herring which may not have had a professional production in New Zealand since the 1960s, is not easy to bring comfortably to life; its humour can seem naïve. Before the opening scene, four singers set the spirit of the piece with a ball game, from later in the first act. A village meeting in the first scene decides to replace the annual Queen of the May contest (no girl is seen as virtuous enough) by a King of the May – and the chosen boy is the simple, but virtuous Albert Herring. Several earlier singers consolidated their talents here, plus the Lady Billows of Elyse Hemara, who assumed the role of patroness and village matriarch, in a spirited scene.
The card scene from Carmen and the mutual disclosure of Falstaff’s identical letters to Alice and Meg were further opera excerpts between operetta and musical in the second half. In the card scene, Frasquita and Mercedes (Olivia Sheat and Pasquale Orchard) study their fates in the cards before the light-hearted tone suddenly vanishes with Carmen’s arrival. There was a somewhat nervous vibrato in Sally Haywood’s voice which may coincidentally have matched the revelation of her fate.
Both Sheat and Haywood reappeared in the famous scene from Falstaff in which the two ladies discover Falstaff’s foolish ploy and decide to play along. Elizabeth Harré, who had sung the spoiler’s role of Florence in Albert Herring, took another strong character role as Mistress Quickly. (How I’d have loved it if the Nannetta, Alexandra Gandionco, had sung that magical ‘Sul fil d’un soffio etesio’ in the last scene – Angela Gheorghiu totally undid me with her recording).
The Broadway musicals included the 1975 satire on police corruption, Chicago, with the highlight scene, ‘Cell Block Tango’, for six prison inmates who celebrate their achievements in punishing errant husbands: a hilarious, if alarming scene that was splendidly carried off. All have been mentioned elsewhere, except for Nicole Davey: and all that needs be said is that there was no weakness among the six.
Then Sondheim’s Into the Woods, one of his most successful near-musicals, in which Garth Norman and William King vividly illuminated the two fairy-tale princes to Cinderella and to the Grimm tale, Rapunzel, in the scene, ‘Agony’.
Fiddler on the Roof originated as a Yiddish story from Russia, and its most famous number, ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’, again characterized in genuine Broadway style, though only subtly satirizing the practice of arranged marriages; the three daughters: Eleanor McGechie, Emma Cronshaw-Hunt and Karishma Thanawala.
Les Misérables was the only one of the musicals that did not originate in New York (Paris, though its real success came after its English adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London). It offered yet another kind of love dilemma, ‘In my life’ and ‘A heart full of love’, with Karishma Thanawala (after her Chava in ‘Matchmaker’), here sang Eponine, grief-stricken at giving up Marius (Julian Chu-Tan) to Pasquale Orchard’s Cosette.
Three scenes from The Pirates of Penzance brought the show to a close. They began with ‘When a felon’s not engaged in his employment’, which is near the end, led by the Sergeant (Haddow), and inserted ‘Dry the glistening tear’, from Mabel (Sheat) and the female chorus, which actually opens Act II.
I could understand the reason for departing from the order of the three numbers, to put the most rambunctious at the end: ‘When the foeman bares his steel’. (Though I have to confess my greater love of Offenbach, and in this context the Gendarmes Duet, or ‘Couplets des deux hommes d’armes’ from Geneviève de Brabant). The slightly problematic ‘baring of steel’ march number held no fears for the final ensemble of Mabel, Edith (Elyse Hemara), Sergeant, and choruses of policemen and daughters).
Throughout one admired the often virtuosic performance at the piano by Mark Dorrell, especially in the well-rehearsed table lamp episode, always carefully secondary to the singers, but the more admirable for that. And the production team, the movement tutor (is that short for ‘choreographer’?) Lyne Pringle; and most importantly vocal tutors Margaret Medlyn, Richard Greager, James Clayton, Jenny Wollerman and Lisa Harper-Brown.
One looks forward to a main-stage, full opera production in 2017.