Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

NZ Opera’s “Eight Songs for a Mad King” a brilliant, Janus-faced experience

By , 02/03/2020

NZ Opera presents
EIGHT SONGS FOR A MAD KING

Music by Peter Maxwell Davies
Texts by Randolph Stow and George III

The King: Robert Tucker

The Musicians: Stroma New Music Ensemble
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Rachel Fuller (keyboard/s)
Luca Manghi (flute)
Mark Cookson/Patrick Barry (clarinets)
Yuka Eguchi (violin)
Heather Lewis/Robert Ibell (‘cellos)
Jeremy Fitzsimons (percussion)

Director – Thomas de Mallet Burgess
Production Designer – Robin Rawstorne
Assistant Conductor – Timothy Carpenter
Repetiteur – Rachel Fuller

RNZB Dance Centre, Wellington

Monday 2nd March 2020

Firstly, some background for the curious – the “King” of this concert’s title is King George III of England, who suffered from mental illness throughout his adult life, eventually being removed from his throne and kept under lock and key in Windsor Castle. Over his final decade he lost his eyesight and hearing, and fell prey to frequent manic episodes, by all accounts babbling endlessly as he slid into dementia, and eventually dying in 1820 at the age of eighty-one. The King owned a number of caged bullfinches, and during his confinement became obsessed with teaching his birds how to sing tunes played by a mechanical organ or music-box. This instrument, along with a note identifying its provenance as owned and used by the unfortunate Monarch, came to the notice, almost two hundred years afterwards, of Australian author and poet Randolph Stow, who was inspired to create a series of poems, parts of which were drawn from recollections of witnesses to the King’s outpourings, and directly illustrated his pitiable condition. British avant-garde composer Peter Maxwell Davies set these poems to music, writing with the vocal talents of one Roy Hart in mind, a virtuoso South African singer who had become interested in exploring the range and limits of the human voice.

At the time of the work’s premiere, in April 1969, Davies fully expected “Eight Songs” to remain a “one-off” for Hart, never imagining anybody else being able or even wanting to perform the piece. He was therefore surprised and delighted at how the work soon took on a life of its own, becoming a classic example of a new “music-theatre” genre, which redeployed (and often subverted) existing performance conventions. Davies himself recorded the work with his own virtuoso avant-garde music-group, “The Fires of London”, though sadly for posterity, not with Roy Hart, the creator of the  role – fortunately the soloist on the 1971 Unicorn recording, Julius Eastman, was a worthy successor.

In his notes accompanying the recording, the composer stated that his intention was “to leave open the question – is the persecuted protagonist “Mad George III” or someone who thinks he is George?”. Naturally the work will forever be associated with the monarch in question, given that the song texts contain numerous actual quotations of the King’s words – the novelist Frances (Fanny) Burney was Queen Charlotte’s lady-in-waiting for five years, and during that time she recorded both events and utterances in which the King was central (as an example, the whole of the text of the sixth song, “The Counterfeit” is transcribed by Randolph Stow from Burney’s diary). But the suggestion that the character of the King might also represent any such deluded individual straightaway lifts the work out of its singular and historical confines and into the realm of general human experience, of which mental illness seems in our time to be an increasingly common affliction. Davies reminded us in his notes that until relatively recent times, “madness” was something to ridicule, and in more severe cases isolate, often in the most inhumane and nightmarish conditions; and while treatments and care-environments are nowadays less primitive, the stresses and inbalances that, if ignored, can lead to mental illness are still very much with us.

New Zealand Opera’s innovative production of the work gives audiences not one but two separate and different views of the terrain in all senses of the word – the mindscape of an extremely disturbed individual, firstly (as happened in my particular case) from the “outside” 0f the performance space, visible from the outside through windows, and audible by means of headsets for each audience member. So, first time round, we were seated in the open air, cannily underneath a tarpaulin in a space next to the building in which the opera was being performed – and through the windows we could glimpse the singer performing his on-stage peregrinations, and via the excellent headphones we clearly heard his cocktail mix of song, sprechgesang and random, wide-ranging vocalisings, along with the constant instrumental collaborations from the ensemble – the whole thing was an “outsider’s view”, a process that was observed, but without direct involvement, something that one could easily distance oneself from at a moment’s notice if one felt so inclined.

What a difference after one was ushered inside for the second performance (each took about thirty minutes), to sit right next to the stage (which was a kind of “catwalk” extending the whole width of the audience-space, and with seating on both sides)! Here, we straightaway felt “drawn in” by the immediacies, the sometimes startling proximities , and the “sharing-the-space” phenomenon that can make great theatre (and music-making, of course!). Singer Robert Tucker, looking none the worse for wear after having already given one performance of the piece appeared in close-up somewhat disconcertingly (a) youthful, and (b) dapper, not quite in accordance with my preconceived “image” of a deranged George III, but nevertheless exuding a kind of “authority” from the outset, entering quietly but portentously, and sitting at one end of the catwalk activating a “Newton’s Cradle”, waiting for the first of the instrumental explosions whose force and violence punctuate the music-drama.

In some performances the instrumentalists are positioned in separate giant birdcages, each player representing one of the King’s bullfinches he attempted to teach to sing – here the players weren’t thus confined, but sat as an ensemble at one end of the platform, the singer alternating his attentions between them, his audience(s) and wherever his mind’s fancy took him. And the “double audience” added a dimension to the singer’s confusions, his awareness of interiors and exteriors pathetically expressed amidst his tirades by glances through the windows at an “outside world”. Despite the close physical proximities, the venue’s largely empty spaces behind where we sat and its ample acoustic seemed to me to underline the essential solitude of the King’s existence. His interactions with his musicians and the audience, despite their sometimes startlingly visceral nature seemed all fantasy. “I am weary of this fate – I am alone” sang the character at the conclusion of one of the songs.

The performance in every way was astonishing – Robert Tucker as the King “owned” his character in a way that explored a gamut of human emotion, engaging our sympathies at his “plight” as readily as activating our discomfiture with his volatility. The demands of the role pushed the concept of “singing” into realms of expression which transcended the idea of the voice as a musical instrument as we might generally accept it through what the composer aptly termed “terrifying virtuosity”. But in appearing not as any kind of caricatured asylum-bound lunatic, whose tirades were neither extreme, nor “onslaught-like” as were some of the performers in the role I’ve witnessed on film, Tucker’s delineation of the character always seemed intensely human, in places touchingly bringing out the tendernesses of some of his utterances (as observed by Fanny Burney in her diary), if at times squeamish-inducing (as throughout his “close-up-and-personal” interactions with a hapless flutist, during “The Lady-in-Waiting”, brilliantly carried off by both singer and player). His anger, too, spectacularly vented at one infamous moment in the piece, mirrored a kind of reality of frustration, an impulse in tragic accord with human behaviour gone awry. This “one-of-us” aspect suggested  by the production brought home , to my mind, the “for whom the bell tolls” aspect of our human existence, so that our “relief” at the King’s eventual departure was singed with spots of pity and sorrow and even horror at the finality of the concluding percussive juggernaut, which consigned his heart-rending cries to oblivion.

Conductor Hamish McKeich led the Stroma Ensemble unerringly through a veritable thicket of coruscations, appearing to never miss a beat, shirk an uproar, or delineate a disorder! – and in parallel to these subversions the players sounded the lyrical moments, the dance-tunes and the whimsical parodies (a gorgeous two-step take-off of Handel’s music at one point) with delicious elan, as well as bringing to bear their array of bird-song devices in a veritable “chaos of delight” (alas, Charles Darwin’s words, not mine!). The accordance of theatrical movement with the music was exemplary throughout, the jaunty introduction to “To be sung on the Water” followed by beautiful ‘cello solos evoking a boat-ride down the river, one of a number of enduring memories of the performance.

Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess would have been well-pleased with both the powerful overall impact and the finely-crafted detailed focus his musicians brought to this production. Its dual-performance aspect gives it a singular kind of appeal, no matter in what order one experiences the “outside/inside” presentation, be it a savouring of expectation beforehand, or food for thought afterwards! – It plays again tonight (Wednesday 4th March) at 8:30pm, and then at the same time on both the 5th and 7th later this week at the RNZB Dance Centre next to the MFC in Wakefield St., Wellington.

 

 

 

 

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