The stage of the imagination – NZ Opera’s Macbeth

New Zealand Opera presents:
VERDI – Macbeth

Cast:  Macbeth – Phillip Rhodes
Lady  Macbeth – Amanda Echalaz
Banquo – Wade Kermot
Macduff – Jarred Holt
Malcolm – Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono
Lady-in-Waiting – Morag Atchison

With Orchestra Wellington
Conductor: Brad Cohen

Director: Netia Jones /Lightmap
Assistant Director: Jacqueline Coats
Lighting Designer: Matthew Marshall
Chorus Director: Michael Vinten

St James Theatre, Wellington

7th.October 2022 (also 9th October 2:30pm,)

The dark stage is raked up to the left. Not steeply, but enough to throw all the lines and angles off plumb. It is bare and black, with a gauze at the front creating spatial ambiguities.

Long before the last audience member has taken their seat, we are in the dark, crooked world of Macbeth, in which fair is foul and foul is worse than you imagined.

This is a reimagined Macbeth. There is nothing historic and Scottish about it. These are not – despite what the programme says – the brutish leaders of brawling clans, dashing from one pele tower siege to the next. Nor has it been updated to the unstable present. No one carries blue and yellow flags as Birnam Wood retakes Dunsinane.

Instead, the drama is set on the stage of the imagination.

What happens when someone conceives of a wicked act to advance themselves, and then carries it out?  Shakespeare imagines that they become unhinged.  Lacking a moral compass, there is no guide for where to go next. Verdi agrees, though he points to the political and human consequences (the refugees in Act 4). And the director of this production thinks that the desire to kill may be accompanied by other beastly proclivities. In this Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is ravenous for power and sex. She is powerful and controlling. He is weak and often uncertain.

The stage in the opening scene reminded me of a black-and-white television set.  Lots of black, with ambiguous straight lines. Then a woman enters, dressed in black and white, reading a piece of paper – followed by another and another. Finally there are about 20 of them, lined up along the wall on the left-hand side of the stage. They are the witches; in Verdi’s version not three women but ‘three groups of witches’. This is an unfortunate decision on the part of Verdi or his librettist. If they had asked me, I would have argued against it. It sacrifices the particular drama of the three weird sisters, each individualized, for a mass effect – and in this scene the witches look like a group of schoolgirls diligently studying their homework.

Indeed, in his essay on Macbeth the play in the programme, literary scholar Tom Bishop says that the witches ‘were a strong selling point’ in Shakespeare’s productions and the many subsequent revivals. (Samuel Pepys saw it nine times, calling it ‘one of the best plays for a stage … that I ever saw’.)

When Macbeth (Philip Rhodes) enters, he is wearing a stylish dark overcoat that he is careful to show us has a scarlet satin lining. The colour symbolism of the production design is straightforward: lots of black and dark grey, some white (but it doesn’t indicate purity), splashes of scarlet standing for death and lust, sometimes relieved by an intense turquoise. And that’s it.

The lighting design is simple. The stage is mostly shadowed with one or two points of light. Sometimes there is a kind of inhospitable grey light – the blank grey of a black and white television screen with the power off. But creative energy has been poured into the projections. Branches indicate a wood; an enormous closeup of Macbeth’s face with touches of red and turquoise indicates his power as king; giant hands covered in blood or washing themselves indicate guilt. Almost everything is in monochrome, maintaining the moral murk of the action.

With the visual language so simplified, the focus is thrown on the singers. Again, Verdi’s choice of voices is interesting. Macbeth is a baritone, as are Banquo (sung by Wade Kernot), the singing Assassin (Stuart Coats), the Doctor (Matthew Landreth), and the male Apparition (William McElwee). There are no tenors on stage until Act 4, when Macduff (Jared Holt) and Malcolm (Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono) arrive to defeat Macbeth’s army at Dunsinane and take back the throne of Scotland. It is a relief.

The baritone rumble throws the soprano of Lady Macbeth (Amanda Echalaz) into the spotlight. She is the most animated character, with a full emotional palette from ambitious to exultant, lascivious, frustrated (by Macbeth’s weakness), and finally remorseful and unhinged. Accordingly she is given terrific clothes as well as great arias. My favourite outfit was the black and red dress in the Act 2 banquet scene. She vamps around the stage in what seems to be a scarlet skirt with black leggings underneath, throwing herself at her husband with all the propriety of a pole dancer, eventually throwing off the scarlet skirt to show her true self in trousers, taking action.

This being NZ Opera, the production is musically stunning. An essential Orchestra Wellington played well under Brad Cohen, with some great brass playing at portentous moments, and some lovely clarinet and bassoon solos. The chorus sang well, and the soloists were fantastic. I have always been a fan of Philip Rhodes, and he and Wade Kernot (Banquo) carried much of the opera on their shoulders.  South African soprano Amanda Echalaz was excellent. She has a lovely voice with all the brilliance required, and acted well. Readers of my review of Opera Wellington’s recent La Traviata will recall my excited rave about newcomer Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono. He did not disappoint here as Malcolm, mastering the right amount of youthful nobility and strength of purpose, and singing beautifully alongside the experienced Jared Holt (an audience favourite, to judge by the applause).

My favourite moments concerned the apparitions. After the interval, the raked stage is revealed to have a huge fissure in it.  I thought at first it was symbolic of a rift in something – the body politic? – and was painted on. But in Act 3, summoned by the witches, the apparitions rise up from it, singing their fateful prophecies, and eventually a series of nine little child kings emerge, all dressed in red, with small iron crowns on their heads, like Macbeth’s own. They are Malcolm’s children, who will inherit the throne despite Macbeth having murdered their ancestor Duncan.

This is a theatrical device that Shakespeare would have approved of, having used the trapdoor in the stage of the Globe Theatre to have the witches suddenly appear and disappear.  In fact, I think he would have enjoyed the whole production. Verdi’s libretto is more economic than the text of the play – which is itself concise. But this production carried the same diabolical power as the original, and the same ghastly depiction of evil and its effect on the human mind.

 

 

La Traviata – postscript from the last night of the run

VERDI – La Traviata

Violetta  –  Emma Pearson
Alfredo  –  Oliver Sewell
Germont  – Philip Rhodes
Flora  – Hannah Catrin Jones
Baron  –  Brent Allcock
Gastone  –  Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono
Doctor  –  Wade Kernot

Orchestra Wellington
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Michael Vinten (chorus director)
Sara Brodie (director)

St James Theatre, Wellington

16th July  2022

It was good to get back to La Traviata for the last night to see how things had progressed after the Covid-induced drama of opening night.

Things had settled down. Oliver Sewell sang Alfredo as advertised, and Hannah Catrin Jones had recovered and sang Flora. That meant that the glorious Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono was back singing Gastone, and his cover had melted back into the chorus.

But Samuel Downes was down with Covid, so the part of the Baron was taken by the versatile and experienced Brent Allcock. To be frank, this was a big improvement. Allcock made his Barone the sleazy older man envisaged by the librettist.

Finally the drama made sense. Violetta is no innocent but is surrounded by predatory men. The inexperienced and rather inept Alfredo makes a pleasant change – an opportunity to leave all the silliness of high society behind, and live a simple life in the country. Hannah Catrin Jones’s Flora was perfect, and the second party scene went much better as a consequence.

The difficulty with the characterisations is that Oliver Sewell was too smooth by half as Alfredo. He fitted right into the salon scene, but his Alfredo was a man of the world, not a naïf – and none of his ’acting’ made me believe in his naïve sincerity. Still, with a reptilian Barone on stage, the card-playing scene made sense at last.

Germont senior is, in my view (a view not shared by my esteemed co-author of the main review) a conniving fellow who wants to get rid of the sexually experienced Violetta for many reasons, some of which he mentions. He uses every trick in the book to get her to agree. According to this reading of the text, Philip Rhodes’ Germont was too nice.

Poor Violetta is judged by the double standard (after all, no one blames Alfredo for seducing Violetta). Her crime is to be independently minded (‘sempre libera’), to have her own income, and to follow her desires. Wedged between the predatory Baron and the manipulative Germont, she is treated shabbily. She was kind-hearted enough to be duped by Germont’s sob story, and had the moral backbone to agree to give up her adored Alfredo, but as a sexual being she must be made to suffer.

This is the story Verdi wanted to tell us.

The direction was less wobbly on the last night than on the first, but I still didn’t care for some of it. There was quite a bit of the bent knee style of expressing great emotion – even Oliver Sewell went in for some. Worse, he didn’t seem especially fond of Violetta. He certainly told us he was, but he just didn’t convince – not the way Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono had done on the opening night. I am not complaining about Sewell’s voice, which is a bright lyric tenor, with a great top B flat, but about his ability to communicate emotion. His duets with Emma Pearson were nicely done, but he was not in love. (Emmanuel was head over heels – ardent and sincere, scarcely believing his luck.)

On the plus side, thanks to the splendid view from my seat in the dress circle (so much better than from our seats in the stalls on opening night) I could now see exactly what was going on in the dumb show during the overture. The doctor (Wade Kernot) drew up a syringe of something therapeutic, tapped it like an expert, and then stuck it into the resigned Violetta’s thigh. The lighting was again terrific (gorgeous brilliant washes on the back wall, looming shadows for certain entries, starting with the Doctor).

Orchestra Wellington played well, but sometimes lacked momentum. Merran Cook’s oboe solos were lovely and so were Andrew Thomson’s violin solos. I remain convinced, though, that the best thing about opening night was our discovery of the great new talent that is Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono. What a voice! What a future!

I am not the only person who thinks this. As I write, the semi-finals of the Lexus have just been judged. Adjudicator Teddy Tahu Rhodes decided that the only singer to go through to the final from the second semi is Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono. (That is, the other four singers in the final are all from the first semi-final.) We shall see in a week’s time whether he wins. My money is on Emmanuel (as it was, thirty years ago, on Ted himself). And if he does, you heard it here first.

Opera in the time of Covid

Wellington Opera presents:
VERDI – La Traviata

Cast –
Violetta – Emma Pearson
Alfredo –  Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono
Germont – Philip Rhodes

Orchestra Wellington
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Michael Vinten (chorus director)
Sara Brodie (director)

St James Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 9 July (and until 16 July)

(Review by Steven Sedley and Anne French)

Opening night of La Traviata, in the refurbished St James. The house was full and there was an excited buzz when Artistic Director Matthew Ross came out in front of the curtain to make an announcement. His message, that three players had fallen ill with Covid-19, was not amplified and consequently very hard to hear. Tenor Oliver Sewell, who was to sing Alfredo, was to be replaced by the cover, Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono (who was  himself to have sung Gastone). His place on stage would be taken by Nino Raphael, the Assistant Director. The knock-on was that Gastone would be sung by Xavier Krause (the cover from the chorus), and he would be represented on stage by Sara Brodie, the Director. Hannah Catrin Jones was also ill with Covid, so Flora would be sung by Hannah Ashford-Beck, also from the chorus.

‘We have a show and the show must go on,’ said Matthew Ross. It sounded brave. How exactly would it work?

Next, the words La Traviata were projected on the curtain, followed by a translation: ‘The Fallen Woman’, and then ‘Amore e morte’, ‘Love and death’. I’m not sure who this was for. Most of the audience seemed to be regular opera-goers, who hardly need the reminder. Perhaps it was intended to make the opera accessible for the young people in the audience who don’t know the story and can’t read Italian. In that case, you would first need to explain to them the term ‘fallen woman’ and the moral universe of the nineteenth century.

This is a matter of historical record. Verdi wrote the opera in 1853. It was based on La Dame aux Camellias, an enormously popular novel published in 1848 by Alexandre Dumas fils, as well as events from Verdi’s own life – he put something of his current girlfriend into the character of Violetta. Verdi conceived the opera as a contemporary (i.e. 1850s) story about the lives of ordinary people (a sophisticated lady, an immature and irresponsible young man, his concerned and caring father), unlike the heroes, kings, dukes, and princes in the operas of the previous generation.

But the authorities at Teatro La Fenice in Venice where it was premièred were outraged by the edgy libretto. They forced Verdi to set his opera at least 100 years in the past – about 1700.  It wasn’t until the 1880s that it received a modern setting.

The curtain rose for the overture showing a cold, grey, empty stage dominated by four large free-standing wall panels, complete with deep skirtings and traditional architraves, meant to suggest Dior. The artistic team had decided to set the opera in a semi-modern style! A huge round mirror is set in one of wall panels. A woman wearing a full-skirted red dress is seated against the wall; a man in a dark business suit arrives. The woman lifts her skirt and matter-of-factly rolls down her stocking. Why? To pose for him? He appears to take a photograph on his phone, hands her something, and leaves. She resumes her pose. The chirpy second theme of the overture chirrups on.

The beautiful woman in the red dress was of course Violetta (sung by the ineffable Emma Pearson). She held the very first few moments together as Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono got his bearings, singing from a music stand set up in the box closest to the stage on the right-hand side (stage left), with his eyes fixed on conductor Hamish McKeich. But almost immediately Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono was in complete control and singing gloriously. Meanwhile, on stage and wearing a black Covid mask was Nino Raphael, miming the most unconvincing Alfredo you could imagine. Sara Brodie, the Director, was also busy on stage during the party scene, miming Gastone. Hannah Ashford-Beck did a great job as Flora. She had benefited from a week’s production rehearsals because Hannah Catrin Jones went down with Covid-19 earlier than Oliver Sewell.

Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono is only 24. He grew up in Flaxmere, sang at home and at church, and developed his chops with Project Prima Volta. He has already won some prizes. This year he is supported by the Dame Malvina Major Foundation and the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation. Those dames know what they are doing! He has a gorgeous voice and on this challenging opening night he sang Alfredo superbly. If only he had been allowed on stage. His singing was musically and dramatically convincing. Alfredo is young, impulsive, and a bit of an idiot, but utterly sincere in his love of the glamorous, older, generous Violetta.

The original Alfredo, Oliver Sewell, has a large, bright tenor voice. But Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono is another kind of tenor entirely. His voice is warm and lyrical, with that beautiful Polynesian bloom – a bit like the young Pati brothers before they went to Wales. His sincerity shone out from his music stand in the box. He deftly managed all the rapid emotional shifts that Verdi required. Whether he was singing of his love for Violetta or his regret about his foolish actions, he was completely believable. His duets with Emma Pearson were sublime. To pick up Alfredo at the last minute and sing it flawlessly makes me think he has a great career ahead of him.

Emma Pearson was outstanding as Violetta. She held the show together. She has a versatile and agile voice, with a huge colour palette, equally capable of convincing coloratura and gorgeous pianissimos. Violetta is a big role – she is on stage almost all the time – and it requires excellent acting. Pearson was as lovely to watch as to listen to, and her acting was as credible as the production would allow, shifting from confidence to compassion and vivacity to vulnerability as Verdi demanded. It helped in Act 3 that she looked convincingly frail and feverish. So many Violettas look altogether too bonny to be credible. (Why did she have to sleep on the floor to die?)

Phillip Rhodes also has a very fine voice and is a superb actor, but one of us felt the part needed more gravitas. Germont Senior is an older man, very kind, understanding, but concerned for his children – his feckless son, his daughter whose future will be ruined if Alfredo continues to live in sin with Violetta. His dignified character was insufficiently projected, perhaps because the direction limited his ability to project it. Sam McKeevor as the Marchese was excellent and convincing. Sam Downes (Barone) has a big voice but was merely stolid.

The Wellington Opera Chorus looked to be mostly opera students, so their sound had the freshness of youth. They were confident within the limits of the production. Properly they should have reflected the well-heeled, spoiled young men who were Alfredo’s circle of friends. Fortunately neither the grey suits nor the ridiculously skimpy costumes in Flora’s ‘exclusive club’ in Act 2 (more like a scene from Cabaret) affected their singing, which had the characteristically warm, full-blooded operatic sound that Verdi requires and that Chorus Director Michael Vinten is known for.

Orchestra Wellington were in the pit under the experienced orchestral conductor Hamish McKeich. Their playing was very sensitive, full of gorgeous textures, with a sublime oboe solo and some great horn playing.

When I asked afterwards what the dumb show during the overture was supposed to signify, I learned that the opera has been set in the 1950s (which explains Violetta’s full-skirted, knee-length dress, though not the grey suits). The perfunctory man in the dark suit but no doctor’s bag was the doctor, administering a therapeutic injection, rather than the punter I had taken him for.

What is the problem? It’s simple. By the 1950s, tuberculosis could be completely cured by antibiotics. If Violetta doesn’t have to die of TB in Act 3, there is no plot. Likewise the concept of the ‘fallen woman’. It is intrinsic to the story but makes absolutely no sense in Paris in the 1950s. The moral universe that the opera inhabits is clearly that of the mid-nineteenth century. Setting it in the 1950s makes no dramatic sense.

Musically the performance deserves very high praise, with fine singing and excellent orchestral playing. (One of us thought the design and lighting were great, but objected to the direction. The other disliked the costumes and staging.) Someone who doesn’t know the opera or is unfamiliar with the social mores of the nineteenth century probably wouldn’t have noticed. Book now, before it’s gone!

 

The Queen’s Closet’s 2022 “Judgement of Paris” a winner

The Queen’s Closet presents:
Opera – THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS  (words by William Congreve)
with music by John Eccles, Daniel Purcell, John Weldon and Godfrey Finger
(a new edition by The Queen’s Closet)

CAST:  Paris, a humble shepherd – Toby Gee
Mercury/Hermes, messenger of Jove – David Morriss
Juno/Saturnia, Goddess of Power – Barbara Paterson
Pallas Athena, Goddess of Victory in War – Rowena Simpson
Venus/Aphrodite, Goddess of Love – Anna Sedcole

MUSICIANS: Leader – Gregory Squire: Violins – Gregory Squire, CJ Macfarlane, Sarah Marten, Emma Brewerton: Violas – Lyndsay Mountfort, Gordon Lehany: ‘Cellos – Jane Young, Robert Ibell:  Hoboys –
Sharon Lehany, Rebecca Grimwood: Recorders – Sharon Lehany, Gordon Lehany: Guitar – Peter Maunder: Harpsichord – Kristina Zuelicke: Trumpets – Gordon Lehany, Peter Reid, Chris Woolley, Peter Maunder: Timpani/Percussion – Larry Reese:

The Queen’s Closet Artistic Director: Gordon Lehany

Foxglove Ballroom, 57 Customhouse Quay, Wellington

Sunday 20th February, 2022

It was all as promised! – “…..With our sense of style and fun we will bring this 300 year-old music to life for Wellingtonians today” ran the Queen’s Closet’s online advertising blurb……..at the conclusion of all the fun and gaiety a roomful of Wellingtonians at the Foxglove Ballroom venue on the city’s waterfront readily testified to the success of this venture with sustained applause and subsequent babblings of excitement and satisfaction at the entertainment’s end. What might have appeared on paper to be a somewhat dusty-and-fusty, quasi-restoration of a musical event that happened a world away in London several centuries ago was here brought to life with confidence, elan and style, an operatic production refreshingly without the myriad theatrical trappings of a conventional staging – sets, lights, and  elaborate costumes – and in terms of cheek-by-jowl accessibility all the better for it!

Originally, “The Judgement of Paris” was the subject of an event set up in 1700 by a group of “patrons of the arts” in London wanting to promote interest in “through-sung” opera in English, a form which, up to that time mostly consisted of works combining song with spoken drama. A “Musicke Prize” was offered to composers for the most effective setting of a libretto of the same name by William Congreve, already an established dramatist of the day. Four composers, John Weldon (1676-1736), John Eccles (1668-1735), Daniel Purcell (1664-1717) – a nephew (?) of the famous Henry Purcell – and Godfrey Finger (ca.1655/6-1730) entered the lists, their works being first performed individually during 1701, then staged in a kind of “grand final” in June 1703. By all accounts the result, an audience choice, caused some acrimony, with the supposed favourite, Eccles, beaten into second place by the least-favoured Weldon, with Purcell third, and an extremely disgruntled Finger placed last!

Only three of the four finished versions survive in score today, Finger’s having been lost, though other music of his is still extant – however, this didn’t deter the BBC Proms in 1989 from restaging what they could of the competition’s “Grand Final” in the Royal Albert Hall with the three extant operas (Anthony Rooley conducted the Consorte Of Musicke and Concerto Koln). Once again the audience was invited to choose the winner – and on this later occasion it was Eccles!

This production enterprisingly reconstructs a single performance of the work made up of selected excerpts from the three different complete scores, and compensates  for the “missing composer” with an excerpt from one of Finger’s extant theatrical works, his 1701 suite for “Alexander the Great”, in this instance an aria “Morpheus, gentle God”. In this way we’re given a resounding “overview” of the achievement of the original enterprise and the individual composers concerned – alas, at that time the currents of the tides of fashion were set against the objectives of the promoters of “English opera”, with the new craze for Italian opera dominating the London scene, and setting in train a dearth of “true” English opera until the early twentieth century.

One of the most helpful features of the Queen’s Closet’s presentation was the accompanying written programme, which contained a good deal of the background information to the work summarised above, and a detailed synopsis of the opera’s plot complete with the individual musical numbers named and paired with their composer. We in the audience thus knew “where we were” at every step of the proceedings, adding enormously to our relish of the story, the characters and their interactions!

Interestingly, if one counts the numbers assigned to each composer in this realisation, Daniel Purcell wins the “musicians vote” by fourteen numbers to John Eccles’ twelve, with John Weldon scoring a discreet five. The unfortunate Godfrey Finger is represented by a single but important number, the first-half closer “Morpheus, gentle God”, no less!

It would take far too long to go through the entire work, commenting on each of the numbers, so a precis of the action will suffice for this review’s purposes – Paris, a humble shepherd, is visited by the celestial messenger Mercury/Hermes, who tells the amazed mortal that the gods wish him to award a golden apple to the most deserving of three important goddesses, Juno, Pallas Athena, and Venus. Paris is overwhelmed at the prospect and fearful for his survival in the face of the goddesses’ attentions, but Mercury assures him of his protection during the process. The goddesses arrive on the scene and each tries to persuade the shepherd to award her the prize. Paris’s response is to faint into a sleep during which Morpheus, God of Dreams is evoked to guide the shepherd in his choice.

The second half begins with Paris’s reawakening and interacting with the three Goddesses, each of whom he asks what she would offer him in return for the apple. Juno tempts Paris with power to rule over men, while Pallas Athena offers the shepherd victory in war. Lastly Venus reminds Paris of the true joy of love, which she promises will be his. As much through exhaustion as reason, Paris chooses Venus as the victor and gives her the apple, to the relief and satisfaction of the gods.

I was charmed by how well the semi-staged aspect of the presentation worked – everybody, musicians and audience, shared the same floorspace in the Foxglove Ballroom, with the singers moving through and around the musicians, spread in a semi-circle, to a rostrum at the left of the acting area immediately in front of the audience. The immediacy of it all made everything come alive, both the formal and more improvisatory aspects of what everybody did, the magic of stage transformation as strong as if in a more conventional theatre, perhaps by dint of the performers inviting its audience to participate creatively by “imagining for ourselves” each character’s fuller ramifications instead of having it all already “done” for us.

Each of the singers conveyed her or his character’s essence easily and naturally, Toby Gee’s “Paris” properly simple, rustic and unpretentious, set at first against the easy suavity and insouciance of David Morriss’s Mercury, the latter’s black-and-white garb a touch Mephistophelean, I first thought, if complete with a “sacred rod” (an umbrella, used with a “Singin’ in the Rain” kind of flair in places to great effect! The three Goddesses  made the most of their respectively singular qualities, Barbara Paterson’s suave, worldly Juno by turns kittenish and commanding as required, making the perfect foil for both Rowena Simpson’s no-nonsense, forthright and ‘spot-on” Pallas Athena, and Anna Sedcole’s softer, sweeter, wide-eyed and winning Venus/Aphrodite. The stage business had a certain homespun quality which I found endearing, in the sense that nothing seemed overlaid, but instead “grew out of” both the music and the dramatic situations in an unforced way.

The singing, too, shared these qualities, in each case the vocal qualities managing to fit the characterisation splendidly – Toby Gee’s Paris sounded consistently and believably overawed in the situation he inadvertedly found himself, making the most of his bewilderment in “Distracted I turn, but cannot decide”, and aided by John Eccles’ engagingly “swinging” rhythms.  I’ve never heard David Morriss sing with greater beauty, agility and tonal variety as here, with his Mercury – and his promised protection to Paris, “Fear not Mortal, none shall harm thee!” was suitably bolstered by some wry “umbrella-semaphoring”, to hilarious effect.

Each of the goddesses shone whilst vocally plying their respective virtues and powers – Barbara Paterson’s Juno was at her most imperious with Eccles’ “Let Ambition fire thy Mind”, the voice ringing out, bolstered by the other characters in the music’s reprise, to a most exciting and invigorating string accompaniment. Equally authoritative was Rowena Simpson’s Pallas Athena, with bright, pinging notes supported by stirring work from trumpets and drums as she sang “Hark, hark, the glorious voice of war!”, with the following Handelian “O how glorious ‘tis to see!” further underlining the warlike sentiments.

After such entreaties it was a relief for the finer sensibilities to encounter Anna Sedcole’s Venus imploring Paris to listen to her very different message with, firstly Eccles’  “Stay, lovely Youth” (accompanied winningly by recorders, ‘cello and harpsichord), and then Weldon’s “One only joy mankind can know”, the latter becoming a kind of “Ode to Joy”-like chorale with the other singers joining in – heart-warming! – and if that wasn’t sufficiently disarming, then Sedcole’s singing of  Purcell’s “Gentle Shepherd”, with a delicate guitar accompaniment, was the “piece de resistance” which disarmed Paris (and the rest of us!) completely – the rest, as they say, is – um, history! – with the shepherd completely undone and gladly bestowing upon Venus the golden apple –  Paris’s “I yield” made a particularly moving and solemn impression, the voice alternating phrases with a hoboy, while  guitar, ‘cello and harpsichord murmured in attendance.

There remains to extol the virtues of the band – most authoritatively led by Gregory Squire, the players delivered in spadefuls what seemed to me the essential character of each Symphony, Sonata movement and vocal accompaniment, be it grand or intimate, energetic or graceful. Perhaps the “shared space” venue had something to do with a ready quality of infectious enjoyment, evident in the relish with which each number’s singular quality was delivered by the players – the strings en masse stirred the blood in so many and different places (from stern grandeur to energetic abandonment throughout Eccles’s “Let Ambition fire thy Mind”, for example) as did the thrills and occasional spills of the trumpets, all adding to the excitement and stirringly supported by Larry Reese’s timpani (in the same composer’s music for Pallas Athena – ‘Awake! Awake! Thy spirits arise!” and “Hark, hark! – the glorious voice of war!”). Contrasting most beguilingly with all this were the gentler, softer accents of the recorders, the hoboys, the guitar and ‘cello, invariably partnered by Kris Zuelicke’s eloquent harpsichord continuo, in much of the music for Paris (Finger’s “Morpheus, Gentle God”, where the singers’ voices are echoed by the recorders; and Venus’s appearance to Paris, coloured beautifully by recorders and the continuo instruments).

I, for one, would hope to hear more along these lines from the Queen’s Consort, whose efforts brought to life a world of musical and dramatic expression we don’t often get to experience in such a vivid and well-rounded way – very great honour to all concerned!

Mozart’s Don Giovanni from the new Wellington Opera Company – a promising beginning

Wellington Opera presents
MOZART – DON GIOVANNI (dramma giocoso)
(libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte)

Cast:   Christian Thurston  (Don Giovanni)
James Ioelu  (Leoporello)
Amelia Berry  (Donna Anna)
Paul Whelan  (The Commendatore)
Oliver Sewell  (Don Ottavio)
Amanda Atlas (Donna Elvira)
Natasha Wilson  (Zerlina)
Joel Amosa  (Masetto)

Wellington Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Music Director –  Matthew Ross
Director – Sara Brodie
Assistant Director – Matthew Kereama
Production Designer – Meg Rollandi
Lighting Designer – Jo Kilgour

Wellington Opera House
Tuesday 20th April, 2021

(to Saturday 24th April 2021 7:30pm)

How refreshing to read in the programme accompanying Wellington Opera’s “Don Giovanni” an appreciation of Mozart’s and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s opera from the Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy, thus: “Quite apart from the exquisite pleasures of Mozart’s score, it (the opera) offers a timeless plot line that will resonate with audiences in the “Me Too” era.” For me, that sums up in a nutshell the potential for a classic work born in this case of what historians have termed “The Enlightenment” to express a viewpoint relating to sexual mores in society whose judgement is unequivocally delivered – the condemnation and downfall of a sexual predator.

After I’d read the original “Stuff” article that appeared, one purporting to be a review of the Company’s opening night’s performance, but morphing into a “woke-rant” condemning any age-old artistic portrayals of what’s seen as interaction of male dominance and female submission, my first reaction was along the disturbed lines of “Look out, Classics! – THEY’RE coming for you!” One doesn’t wish to demonise any feminist viewpoint thus – but to gratuitously offload coals of fire upon the heads of the world’s classics holus-bolus is to beg the question of why things are portrayed the way they are in the first place in these works, and how “workings-out” of what people do in human interactive terms can counter and triumph over many such exploitative attitudes. Mozart and da Ponte obviously understood human nature and its resultant behaviours, and in this case responded to the excesses of the opera’s eponymous miscreant in delivering an archetypal “come-uppance” to him at the end.

I once saw a production of “The Don” where the ghostly avenging “Statue” of the man Giovanni had earlier killed in a duel turned out actually to be the peasant lad Masetto in disguise, wanting revenge for Giovanni’s attempted seduction of his girlfriend. After reducing Giovanni to submission, the “stone” figure threw off his disguise and summarily despatched him. It all became something in the manner of a “shabby little shocker” involving nothing more than rough justice, with no overtones of the archetypal or supernatural or any kind of higher moral force at work.  I felt suitably cheated on that occasion, the “rustic revenge” conclusion having nothing uplifting or awe-inspiring about it, no “outward sign of inner expiation”, change or cleansing. Interestingly, Mozart’s “epilogue”, in which the characters whose lives were so intertwined with the Don’s tell one another their plans and deliver a vocal “coup de grace” to the departed libertine, was performed at the premiere in Prague, but omitted when the opera was restaged by the composer in Vienna, and not reintroduced until the early part of the 20thCentury – so the opera’s ending, with Giovanni dragged down to Hell, as depicted in the film “Amadeus”, was the standard for many years!

That “resonance” which Dame Patsy Reddy mentioned regarding recent “Me Too” revelations has already coloured a number of manifestations of this opera worldwide, among them the subject of an in-depth review of a UK production in North London from 2017 which I chanced upon, one staged by an all-female creative team, with modern dress and up-dated surtitles, giving a definite contemporary feel to the goings-on. The characterisations seemed to ring true with the women Giovanni tried to seduce in the opera, with the noblewoman Donna Anna and (eventually) the peasant girl Zerlina portrayed as strong and independent, while the once-abandoned Donna Elvira remaining seriously conflicted to the end by her ex-lover. And there were echoes of Hollywood impresario Harvey Weinstein’s recently-exposed crimes and the initial disbelief at the allegations made by various women concerning his sexual abuse of them, in Donna Anna’s fiancée Don Ottavio’s similar doubts uttered upon first hearing of Giovanni’s transgressions.

Fast forward to 2021 and a girdle about the earth’s distance to Wellington Opera, a recently-formed Trust here in the capital, and presently making the most of the Covid travel restrictions resulting in the availability of so many able home-grown singers for this, the Trust’s first production.  Having enjoyed a number of director Sara Brodie’s productions in the past, I was brimful with expectation, firstly all ears for the Overture, here occasioning a “sneak preview” of the opera’s inaugural crime, the Don’s invasion of the beautiful Donna Anna’s bedroom via a ladder. I thought Matthew Ross’s direction of the music a shade short-breathed with the very opening chords, terse and contained, not conveying to me the sheer drama of those opening sounds, and being too intent with forward movement. smart and snappy, which mode of course does come into its own with the allegro – no qualms about Ross’s urgency and the terrific orchestral response, there!

As the curtain opened again, there was Leoporello, waiting for his master – with an un-nervingly spectral figure gazing at him from further away for a few seconds, before leaving just as mysteriously as he had come. James Ioelu’s Leoporello had the common touch, the voice a roughish edge, the body language casual and footloose. His master, the Don, was all elegance by comparison, Christian Thurston laid-back and casual with his movements, almost an insouciance, but one masking an underlying focus of pursuit and would-be capture. My companion for the evening being of a younger generation, afterwards compared the Don’s “manner” to a Swedish singer she knew of, one Günther, having, she said, a similar kind of euro-trash party energy, complete with pout, open shirt and eye-liner! (on the strength of that, I think Middle C will keep her on……..)

Paul Whelan seemed luxury casting as the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father, though I actually found him more effective in the “Stone Guest” Scene than here, where I thought his characterisation was, like so many I’ve seen in this opera, a tad too elderly and lacking in real energy in the fight (the ensemble also got a bit “out” necessitating some “catch-up” singing) – surely the Commendatore would be only in his forties and therefore still a dangerous adversary, hence Giovanni’s killing of him to save his own skin! The fight certainly didn’t take enough cues from the slashing, whirling music Mozart provided, though the Commendatore’s actual despatch, by both the Don and Leoporello with a knife, was convincing enough.

Donna Anna’s discovery of her father’s body gave Amelia Berry’s voice the chance to shine – both she and her fiancée, Don Ottavio (a vocally steadfast Oliver Sewell) characterised the confused jumble of emotions beautifully, moving, separately and together, from despair to tenderness to vengeful attack – though their interaction was more static in movement than I would have expected, things like the oath sworn together on the Commendatore’s sword gave the scene both great gravitas and high drama.

After Giovanni affably dismissed Leoporello’s “character references” of his master as of little consequence, the sudden ”scent of a woman” heralded the arrival on the scene of Donna Elvira and her maid (the latter a non-singing role). I couldn’t help but enjoy Amanda Atlas’s extremely gutsy (if in places squally) A Chi mi dice mai, as it captured the character’s agitated,  unfettered feelings, something which carried right through her exchanges for the rest of the evening with the hapless Don, who lost no time here in volunteering Leoporello as a source of further information for her before making himself scarce!

James Ioelu made the most of his opportunities with the notorious “Catalogue Aria”, in which Leoporello presents a list to Elvira of the Don’s female conquests – the most interesting reaction I’ve seen to this from any Elvira (not here) was one during which the latter ridiculed the “list”, thus consigning the activity’s significance to the realms of adolescent train-spotting, or teenaged autograph-collecting!  Here it began as something almost voyeuristic on Leoporello’s part, before burgeoning into the public realm with an enlarged version of the list lowered from above as a banner for all the world to “tut-tut” over, presumably accompanied by some local (though not recent!) conjecture and embarrassment on the part of certain individuals (including, perhaps, a pregnant young woman who appeared from nowhere straight afterwards and disappeared as quickly as she had come, amongst the others….. earlier Leoporello had gotten “carried away” with some mock-gratuitous characterisations  pertaining to “the tall ones” on the list (È la grande maestosa!), before being “snapped out of it” by Elvira in no uncertain terms!

Came the “peasant wedding” scene, and the chance for us to be introduced to the “common folk” couple Zerlina (Natasha Wilson), and Masetto (Joel Amosa), each endowed with engaging voices and winning stage presences, establishing their characters with great elan! I thought the Don’s laid-back manoeuverings regarding  Masetto didn’t sufficiently generate menace and tension between them to motivate the latter’s reaction as per his Ho capito, Signor si aria, though with his fiancée Zerlina, the sparks certainly flew, giving the couple’s subsequent reconciliation scenes plenty of dramatic (and in places suggestive) interest.

From that point, with the dramatis personae introduced, the story’s often vertiginous events whirled us along, with the Don entirely failing here to live up to his reputation as a seducer, being countered by the desperate actions of Donna Elvira (rescuing Zerlina from the seducer’s clutches and sparking off Donna Anna’s recognition of Giovanni as her would-be seducer at the opera’s beginning) and the eventual confrontation at the “Masker’s Ball” scene between the adversaries. The latter scene was, I thought, superbly staged by Sara Brodie’s creative team of Matthew Kereama, Meg Rollandi and Jo Kilgour, particularly its introduction, the sinister, “avenging angels” aspect of Elvira, Anna and the latter’s fiancée, Don Ottavio well-caught by their emergence from the street’s darkness, their appearance illumed from within by the loveliness of their singing at “Protegga il giusto cielo” – “May the just heavens protect us”, and their energies when denouncing Giovanni galvanising the latter into evasive action!

The Second Act afforded numerous delights – the spirited interaction between Giovanni and Leoporello at the beginning, Amanda Atlas’s touching, unforced  Ah taci, ingiusto core – “Ah, be quiet unjust heart”, and in response, Christian Thurston’s loveliest singing of the evening with Giovanni’s entreaty to Elvira, Discendi, o gioia bella – “Come down here, my lovely”, (Leoporello, disguised as the Don, amusingly “miming” the latter’s gesturings throughout). We then enjoyed the sequence involving Giovanni deceiving and then beating the unfortunate Masetto, leaving it to Zerlina to find her beset fiancée and comfort him with some age-old remedies, Natasha Wilson delightfully suggestive during her Vedrai, carino, se sei buonino, – “If you are good, my darling”. And the confusion generated by the trio of Anna, Elvira and Ottavio’s discovery of Leoporello disguised as the Don convincingly drove the action forward through the latter’s escape and to the welcome reflectiveness of Oliver Sewell’s (slightly shortened) Il mio Tesoro“meanwhile, my treasure” (he had, as Ottavio, already contributed a lyrical, in places beautifully-floated first-Act Dalla sua pace – “Upon her peace of mind”), the second aria contrasting with Elvira’s impassioned Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata – “That ungrateful wretch betrayed me” soon after.

Of course, the overall focus of flight in the opera’s Second Act is towards the denoument of the Final Scene, though a “tipping-point” is the graveyard scene, where the Don, with a casual libidinous remark too many, activates his impending doom. I liked the eeriness of the opening scenario, strange lights and mist and statuesque figures, but wanted it to ambiently change in some way when the statue spoke. I could have imagined an even bigger and blacker voice, but as the statue Paul Whelan was much more in his element, though the impact of his “coming alive” was lessened for me through the figure being veiled, concealing both the moving lips and the nodding head. Then, allowing that scene’s culmination some stand-alone space, was the interim episode where Donna Anna again refused to marry Don Ottavio until a year had elapsed in the wake of her father’s death, Amelia Berry expressing the character’s angst and grief in beautifully fetching tones with Non mi dir, “Do not tell me” though like everybody else I’ve heard in this role, she had to work hard at the coloratura conclusion – what amazing singers Mozart must have had at his disposal to write for them like that!

So to one of opera’s greatest scenes, one which begins with what seem like more of the same from the Don, empty carousings and mindless debaucheries in the company of wrung-out revellers (the Don appearing to feast upon the “spent bodies” of his fellow-carousers as Leoporello helped himself to real food) when suddenly, with Donna Elvira’s scream came a rending asunder of the fabric of the work’s universe accompanied by a reckoning! Again, I thought the great orchestral chords (which we had heard in the Overture) missed an elemental quality, though Paul Whelan’s “Stone Guest” sounded suitably remorseless and sepulchral. As with so many assumptions I’ve seen of this role, I thought it just that bit too unrelievedly static in places to suggest the music’s inexorable advance – and while the hooded Goya-esque figure that bore down on and enfolded the Don at the end made an imposing impression I imagined it could have been altogether darker, even more sinister and elemental,  appearing to have been awakened from the void by the statue’s baleful summons.

However anticlimactic the epilogue after such a profound consignment of the guilty party to the nether regions, it did have the effect of returning the rest of us to our lives, laden with both a plethora of wind-born sound-memories and considerable food for thought. All in all, I’ve reflected since that for a new opera company to bring off such a production and performance first up was a stellar achievement due to committed effort by all concerned. The Wellington Opera Trust would, as well, have been heartened by the public response to this venture – may the company go from strength to strength after such a promising beginning!

 

 

Sleep-walking as Rhona Fraser’s Days Bay Opera returns with a delightful Bellini masterpiece

Opera in a Days Bay Garden

La Sonnambula (Bellini)

Conductor: Mark Carter; producer and director: Rhona Fraser

Cast: Natasha Wilson (Lisa), Morgan-Andrew King (Alessio), Rhona Fraser (Teresa), Elizabeth Mandeno (Amina), Lila Crichton (Notary), Andrew Grenon (Elvino), James Ioelu (Count Rodolfo).
Chorus: Jemma Chester, Emily Yeap, Sinéad Keane, Olivia Stewart, Simon Hernyak, Samuel McKeever, Patrick Shanahan, Alica Carter

Canna House, Days Bay, Wellington

Friday 12 February, 5:30 pm

In common with most of the world, Bellini is no longer a famous composer in New Zealand; his operas are now rarely performed. Of Bellini’s operas only Norma gets much attention. I’m only aware of Canterbury Opera’s production of it in 2002, since its last professional production by a touring company in 1928.

However, in 2016 Rhona Fraser’s Opera in a Days Bay Garden was responsible for a somewhat rarer Bellini opera – the story that Shakespeare had used in Romeo and JulietI Capuleti e i Montecchi; which was staged by Auckland Studio Opera in 2018.

After two productions in 2017 – Handel’s Theodora and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin – Rhona and her husband have been away for two years, in Germany. They returned last year and Rhona seems determined to resume the professional production of interesting operas. Her enterprise has been very missed.

Hers is just one of the small opera groups around the country which, very unevenly, offer opportunities for the public to discover opera and for advanced, mainly young singers, to gain first-class experience. None of these small companies, some, like Days Bay, fully professional, has attracted financial or other significant help from central or local government and few have lasted more than a couple of years.

If anything, there is less amateur or small-scale professional opera in New Zealand than there was 20 years ago, when, for example, both the Victoria University School of Music and the then Wellington Polytechnic Conservatorium produced an opera every year; now Victoria alone produces an opera every other year.

La sonnambula’s history 
Now, Days Bay Opera has brought one of Bellini’s most popular operas, La sonnambula, back to life, though this time, Auckland Opera Studio has been first with it, in 2011, The last previous production was in 1881. More interesting still is the fact that Sonnambula was just the second opera, after Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, to be performed in New Zealand: in 1862. Adrienne Simpson’s splendid history of opera in New Zealand (Opera’s farthest Frontier) records these and a couple of now forgotten English operas in the amateurish English Opera Troupe’s historic productions in the make-shift Royal Princess Theatre in Dunedin.

And the book records that in 1863 the company brought Sonnambula to Wellington: absolutely the first opera in Wellington.

Fine, warm weather offered a delightful environment for the first (and the other two) performances on the lawn below the house and narrow terraces on which the audience sat, The tree-filled garden surrounded by beech forest create what might be the most unique opera setting in the world.

The opera’s staging, created by Rhona Fraser, was contemporary, with a limited number of seats and other props, and with costumes that spoke more of the attitudes and situations of the characters than of their period. The orchestra comprised thirteen players, led by Anne Loeser and conducted by Mark Carter, was somewhat behind and to the left of the audienec; inevitably, it was  bit remote for some of the audience.

During the brief prelude an ill-tempered Lisa (Natasha Wilson) is tidying and cleaning impatiently, though her vivid singing and acting showed a more charming character. But that was not in relation to any member of the chorus; especially, she flaunted contempt for the heedless Alessio, rich-voiced baritone Morgan-Andrew King, who gained attention at the recent Whanganui Opera School. She rejects his love: any qualms about his beard or rude appearance must be set aside in our age of unorthodoxy.

The coming marriage between Amina and Elvino is heralded by the arrival of the Notary (the impressive Samoan bass Lila Crichton).

The opera really took off with the arrival of Amina (Elizabeth Mandeno), and her first big aria, “Come per me sereno” and the cabaletta “Sovra il sen la man” rejoicing in her expected marriage to Elvino. His voice, with his moving greeting “Perdona, o mia diletta”, picking up later with “Prendi: a’nel ti dono”, was agreeable though his demeanour might have fallen short of his propertied standing; however, he portrayed a credibly decent chap. Though one might wonder, as the story evolves, how someone so improbably sensitive could have gained his reputation in the village.

Rodolfo, the Count (James Ioelu), arrives, presenting an imposing demeanour and vocal confidence, all the signs of small-time nobility which he shows through fundamental decency.

The ensemble of villagers has its significant role throughout. In an interesting later episode the villagers in an effective evocation tell Rodolfo of the phantom that locals see at midnight, “Udite, a fosca cielo”,

Elvino and misplaced jealousy
Scene I of Act I ends with Elvino, prompted by the Count making flattering gestures to Amina, confessing to Amina his uncontrollable jealousy, his “Son geloso del zefiro errante” was a curious revelation.

Even though Amina convinces Elvino that his jealousy is misplaced and peace reigns, in scene ii she sleep-walks into Rodolfo’s room at Lisa’s inn (here an AirBNB), and there’s a tentative attraction between them. Amina’s entry, sleep-walking, changes everything; she sees Rodolfo as Elvino and throws herself at him but he gets out before Elvino and the villagers arrive. However, there is Amina, now in Rodolfo’s bed, and no sleep-walking excuse (they’ve never heard of somnambulism) persuades any of the villagers that things are different from what they seem.

It was a splendid scene. Even if suspended at a very high level of improbability and absurdity, it was both dramatic and funny. Throughout, Amina’s foster-mother Teresa (Rhona Fraser), exhibiting calm sanity and in excellent voice in all her several episodes, remains faithful to her, even, one supposes, if Amina were guilty.

At the beginning of the second scene of Act II, Natasha Wilson, as Lisa, plays a vividly stylish part, now seeing herself as the likely winner, able to capture Elvino for herself, and her short, tight white dress illuminated her expectations; she adorns it with a white veil.

The suspense, awaiting Rodolfo’s explanation to the villagers and specifically to Elvino about the nature of somnambulism is protracted. It’s clinched by Amina’s walking along a riskless board between rows of audience (instead of on a fragile plank above the mill-wheels on the river).   The last scene eventually brings an understanding of “sleep-walking” and Amina’s singing at the end is plaintive and moving.

Though sung in Italian, the notes in the programme were sufficient for those new to the work to understand – in any case, the Italian from all singers was admirably clear. Accepting the limitations fundamental to the out-doors setting and various sound and production constraints, the entire performance was admirable and completely enjoyable. Rhona Fraser is warmly welcome back in New Zealand.

If you missed this one, don’t hesitate to book early for the next.

For the record, these are the operas Days Bay has produced so far:

2010   The Marriage of Figaro
2010   The Journey to Rheims  (Rossini)
2012   Alcina (Handel)
2012   Maria Stuarda  (Donizetti)
2013   Cosi fan tutte
2013   L’oca del Cairo (Mozart)
2014   Der Rosenkavalier
2015   Calisto (Cavalli)
2016   Agrippina (Handel)
2016   I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini)
2017   Theodora (Handel)
2017   Eugene Onegin
2021   La sonnambula

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

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.

 

 

 

 

Poulenc’s “La Vox Humaine” given a stunning performance

Francis POULENC – The Human Voice (“La voix humaine”)
Words by Jean Cocteau (English translation by Johana Arnold and Barbara Paterson)

Barbara Paterson (soprano)
Gabriela Glapska (piano)

Tabitha Arthur (director)
Meredith Dooley (costumier)
Isadora Lao (lighting designer and operator)

{Suite} Gallery, 241 Cuba St., Te Aro, Wellington

Friday 31st January 2020

As we took our seats in the confined spaces of Cuba St.’s Suite gallery, pianist Gabriela Glapska was playing the music of Satie, beautifully coalescing the sounds of the composer’s Gymnopedies, the dance figurations wrought by the pianist almost as “held” as if depicted on a Grecian urn and the tones as “imagined” as they were real – “heard melodies are sweet, but…..” – here, time seemed to be slowed down, every note taking on a suspenseful, becalmed feeling, so much so that I thought Debussy’s Clair de lune which followed broke the spell that had been created (perhaps one of the Gnossiennes may have carried us further along, and into the ensuing silence more appropriately) …………. however, after the piano fell silent I was drawn into  the breathless poise of the stage setting’s opening, with singer Barbara Paterson (as “Elle”, the show’s only on-stage performer) having entered, the character tremulously waiting for what must have been a prearranged telephone call, the silences deliciously redolent with expectation and anxiety, impatience and foreboding.

Our viewing space’s angular intimacy was augmented by asymmetrically-placed ladders and a structural pillar for a centrepiece to boot, besides the art displayed on the gallery walls, Megan Archer’s depictions of what looked like entwined, almost convoluted limbs in various “clinches” underpinning the claustrophobia of the surroundings. The lighting seemed at first impersonal a la a hotel suite or utilitarian meeting-space, but as the interactive play between Elle and her telephone began to take shape, the hues and intensities of the lights responded to certain influences, reflecting the passing of time, the changing of the day and Elle’s state of mind as she struggled to make sense of her interaction with the person (her ex-lover) who had called her.

This was the scenario for a performance of Francis Poulenc’s setting of fellow-countryman Jean Cocteau’s monodrama, La vox humaine, the opera following the original play after a gap of 30 years. In each case a woman is onstage alone throughout, speaking on a telephone with her “ex” from whom she has not long parted. Poulenc worked with the role’s creator, soprano Denise Duval, in adapting Jean Cocteau’s work to operatic form, the composer reducing the original to a more malleable length, and writing for an orchestra as the accompaniment, and, in fact stating at one point that “the work should bathe in the greatest orchestral sensuality”. Duval was the composer’s favourite singer, and the pair seemed ideally matched to tackle what Poulenc described as “a musical confession” – in fact the composer was to describe later how the pair wept together “page-by-page, bar-by-bar” in what he called “a diary of our suffering” – both composer and singer had recently undergone emotional crises, obviously bringing their experiences to bear on these outpourings. Despite Poulenc’s remark concerning orchestral sensuality (I have listened to several performances with orchestral accompaniment) I thought Gabriela Glapska’s piano-playing here beautifully abstracted the colour in the orchestral score and gave us an immediacy of interaction between Elle and her “ex” whose direct quality had a definite and focused impact of their own – and singer and piano could and did, in those intimate spaces of Cuba St’s Suite venue, run a gamut of radiant, searing, euphoric and despairing emotion which made a proper foil for the myriads of more lyrical and intimate moments.

Though the opera was given in English on this occasion, I’m going to briefly revert to the work’s original language in describing this performance by singer and pianist as a veritable tour de force! (incidentally, this was a translation made, and previously performed, by an American soprano, Johana Arnold, who is in fact the mother of THIS performance’s “Elle”!) The opening “charged” silences during which Barbara Paterson compellingly held our attention while waiting for her telephone to ring were nothing short of riveting, her aspect conveying to us both her vulnerability and her determination, with movements affecting a measure of command and confidence but all too readily revealing tension and uncertainty when put under pressure, responding with bird-like rapidity to the telephone’s ringing and various unwanted external interruptions.  Both her face and form displayed remarkable aspects of grace and fluidity throughout (such as her almost coquettish teasing of her “ex” in places, as if either forgetting or choosing to ignore their actual disfunctionality) when contrasted with her rapid, almost furtive reactions to moments of shock or conflict, often succeeded by sequences of deflation and despair as if she suddenly felt drained of energy and will. Incidentally, I was pleased there was a “proper” telephone, and thought the interactions of the singer with the medium totally in keeping with telephonic use at the time – the interruptions of the singer’s conversation with her “ex” by somebody using a “party line”, though outside present-day telephonic experience, are nevertheless significant here, as they underline and indeed symbolise the overall breakdown of the relationship and its presently fraught concourse.

Always Paterson’s movements and expressions synchronised beautifully with both the words and the unheard voices of the people who talked with her, the telephone operator at the very beginning, the party-line neighbour, and, of course, her “ex”, whose status as such we didn’t really “pick up” on until that lump-in-the-throat moment where Elle plaintively responded to a request from him for a “bag” of what she called “your letters and mine” with the submissive words “You can send for it when you like”, conveying the “hurt” of the request all the more poignantly with the phrase “I had no idea you wanted them so quickly” , and of course when contrasted with the playful sensuality and kittenish aspect that entered her description for him (all a fabrication) of what she was wearing at that time.

The singer’s own arresting looks and engaging stage personality couldn’t help but sharpen the focus of our conjecture generated by her character’s relationship’s obvious dissolution – and throughout all of the possible scenarios were adroitly “brushed into” the opera’s action by the production, momentarily reflecting the attitudes and behaviours of both characters and as quickly superseded by other possibilities. Volatilities were suggested on both sides, with Elle in places abruptly and passionately responding to both her own realisations of her conflicted state and her ex’s “anger” in places as a result of things she had said, her more agitated irruptions sometimes ending in tears.  She’s shown as a romantic dreamer, whether by nature or by artifice or both – at one point the mood created by some exquisite pianissimo singing was broken by her own realisation that she was in a dream of denial, while the world pursued its own course, leaving her stranded. Her attempts to preserve the vestiges of an old intimacy was given a wonderful sensuality in places, no more so when she used the piano as if it were her lover’s body, stretching out upon it at one point as if reimagining her words “when we were in bed and I had my head in that small place against your chest”, making the intrusion of the loud music from the ‘phone all the more symptomatic. The subsequent “confession” to him that “what is really hard to bear is the second night, and the third….” is the most enduring impression of all, the mood evoked by singer and pianist readily bringing pathos as we empathise with her predicament, the empty despair of “and getting up and going out, and to go – where?” unequivocally laying all of our emotions bare…….

Very great credit to all concerned regarding this production, the performers’ sterling efforts backed up steadfastedly by Tabitha Arthur’s fluid, naturalistic and unobtrusive direction and Isadora Lao’s sensitively-wrought illuminations. Such finely-crafted and deeply-committed presentations deserve the widest possible currency, as well as the heartfelt thanks of those of us fortunate enough to enjoy what was, for this audience member, a profoundly moving experience

Further performances –
NZ Academy of Fine Arts, 1 Queens Wharf, Wellington
27 – 29 February 2020
6pm
BUY TICKETS

 

Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer warmly invite all of us to “meet Karpovsky” at Wellington’s Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre and Willow Productions present:
MEETING KARPOVSKY
A dance-drama devised and written by Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer
Directed by Sue Rider

Sylvia Morton (Helen Moulder)
Alexander Karpovsky (Sir Jon Trimmer)

Music by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Adam, JS Bach, Hérold (arr.Oliver), Weber (arr.Berlioz), Lincke

Original design – David Thornley (stage) / Philip Dexter (lighting)
Lighting – Deb McGuire
Sound recording – Joe Hayes

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Wednesday, 6th November 2019 (until 16th November)

I thought, both for myself and for the readers of “Middle C”, I’d explore the colourful genesis of Circa’s current production “Meeting Karpovsky”, as it was something I for one knew very little about, having not seen the original 2002 production. It all came about through actress Helen Moulder wanting to bring to fruition a long-held desire to be able to dance with Sir Jon Trimmer, the doyen of New Zealand ballet dancers – she then shared her idea for a “woman admirer meets famous dancer” scenario with Cathy Downes, director of the Court Theatre in Christchurch, who encouraged her to get in touch with Sir Jon and get something going. So, late in 2001 she contacted Trimmer, and to her delight received an interested and enthusiastic reply, as she did also from Australian director Sue Rider with whom she had previously worked (and whom Court Theatre were keen to have working there). So, with the participants, director, and venue sorted, and technical support, funding applications and projected dates set in place, what was then urgently needed was the actual play!

Gradually the scenario, along the lines of the original idea, took shape between actor, dancer and director, the title evolving from “The Woman and the Dancer”, through “Sylvia Fantastique” to “Meeting Karpovsky” (a fictitious name and character), the woman talking and the dancer communicating with “mime, dance and stillness”. Pictures of Trimmer (as Karpovsky) in “his most famous roles” were used to flesh out both the life-story of the woman,  Sylvia Morton, and the career of the dancer. Additional elements, such as the numerous boxes piled up in the room, and containing things such as a willow-pattern tea-set, found their place in the presentation’s unfolding. And, of course, there was the music, with excerpts from the ballets depicted in the posters taking pride of place in turn with other excerpts occasioned by different references, for example to the ballerina Anna Pavlova.

Reviews at the time were unhesitating in their praise of the presentation – worth quoting is that from the Listener of November 23rd 2002: –  “Moulder is remarkable as the helpless, hopeless Sylvia. She has a luminous quality and imbues the unworldly Sylvia with a rare beauty and charm. Trimmer plays Alexander Karpovsky with delicate grace. He glides silently, elegantly around the stage, tender as a love poem and replete with compassion and kindness. Together, they are magnificent: she a jittery, wounded gazelle gambolling alongside his sure dance of love and understanding”.

Moulder and Trimmer then toured New Zealand with the play in 2003/4, the production winning “The Listener Best Play” and Moulder the “Chapman Tripp Actress of the Year” awards. The production returned to Circa and then to some North Island venues in 2012 before touring the whole country with “Arts on Tour” in 2015.  This current Circa season of eleven performances is to commemorate Sir Jon Trimmer’s 80th birthday. From what we saw this evening no-one could guess as to the play’s extended performance history, everything seeming freshly-minted, and wrought out of impulses whose histories appeared to us to enliven and quicken the senses rather than weigh down and bedraggle the responses or blunt their edges.

Technically, the play is superbly presented, firstly at the very outset and then frequently and startlingly punctuated with disturbingly visceral sequences of sounds of trains passing, as it were “through the middle of the house”, a technical tour de force of evocation, though one felt the intention was more a psychological than a physical assault, akin to an inward cry of terror or scream of pain inflicted by a recurring memory or nightmare. Otherwise the darkness seems to be cultivated as a benign element rather than anything forbidding, especially as it brings the dancer, Alexander Karpovsky, into the room where Sylvia Morton is engaged in an endless struggle with her minutae, her memories and her demons.

Helen Moulder’s comprehensive ownership of her character draws us inexorably into Sylvia’s chaotic world criss-crossed with invisible strands she spontaneously activates, which in turn resonate others, often with through-line gentleness, but at other times with disconcerting, even panic-stricken switches of impulse. These invisible strands are woven through and around each of the large posters of Karpovsky dressed for his most famous roles, which Sylvia refers to in turn during the play’s action – thus she equates her hero Karpovsky with the charismatic Herr Drosselmeyer from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”, compares her relationship with her own daughter Anna to that of the Widow Simone’s and her daughter’s from “La Fille Mal Gardee”, sees the character of Albrecht, in “Giselle” as similar to that of Charles, her husband, who betrayed her, and identifies with the pain and sufferings of  the puppet Petroushka in Stravinsky’s eponymous ballet.

Sir Jon Trimmer’s equally remarkable assumption of the all-but-silent role of Alexander Karpovsky created the perfect foil for Moulder’s unilaterally besieged characterisation of the beleaguered Sylvia. His aspect was at once the personification of some kind of spontaneous extra-terrestrial whim, and a true figure for the ages, albeit one entirely without a baleful or sinister aspect – a “quality of stillness” instead conveyed his importance, if at first in a truly open-ended way. Dancers are, of course used to such meaningful conveyance, deprived as they are of the use of speech, and, like artists of mime, having to conjure meaning without words. Trimmer’s was a veritable “master-class” in this respect, including that enviable art of creating unprompted impulse, a quality unique and fresh (one, of course, that’s highly prized across all artistic disciplines). For this reason I felt the show’s single flaw was the “one word” uttered by the dancer – perhaps as an idea it seemed to have its own special impact on the process of Sylvia’s emotional journey, but in situ I felt more “deflated” than galvanised by the “alien” sound of the dancer’s voice, and found myself wishing that a simple gesture had been used instead – I thought it a blip of a distraction rather than a revelation.

Having gotten that very idiosyncratic judgement off my chest (I’m certain this aspect of the play would have been “put to the sword” on many an occasion by all and sundry – and by dint of its presence has obviously survived sharper anatomisings than my relatively blunt critical instrument could ever furnish!) I’m bound to say that it mattered hardly a whit to my overall reaction to the play. I thought it all touched greatness in so many places, not the least in conveying the dichotomy of having a character “imagine” and bring into being another character who then appears to step outside the boundaries of the original conception, all by way of portraying an “opening up” of understandings and strengthening of feelings. I could readily relate to it all, and imagine that others would also have invariably been touched in some way by this exceedingly gentle in places but at times surprisingly powerful piece of theatre – my thanks and congratulations to all concerned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enthralling and disturbing – NZ Opera’s take on Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw”

New Zealand Opera presents:
BENJAMIN BRITTEN – The Turn of the Screw
(libretto by Myfawny Piper, after the novella by Henry James)

Conductor: Holly Mathieson
Director: Thomas de Mallet Burgess
Designer: Tracy Grant Lord
Lighting: Matthew Marshall
Assistant Director: Eleanor Bishop

Cast: Anna Leese (Governess)
Jared Holt (Prologue/Peter Quint)
Madeleine Pierard (Miss Jessel)
Patricia Wright (Mrs Grose)
Alexa Harwood (Flora)
Alexandros Swallow (Miles)

Members of Orchestra Wellington
Leader: Justine Cormack
Piano/celesta: David Kelly

The Opera House, Wellington

Thursday, October 3rd 2019
(Wellington: Saturday. 5th October

Auckland: 18th, 20th, 23rd October)

 

It’s difficult to think of another opera whose overall theme, story-line and characterisations are more interlaced by ambiguities as Britten’s The Turn of the Screw –  the story on which the opera is based, Henry James’ novella of the same name, carries its own versions of much the same kinds of imponderables, though the opera seems, if anything, to further complicate and intensify the issues. The story tells of a young woman securing a job as governess of two children in a remote setting, only to feel with increasing conviction that the ghosts of a former valet and governess in the house are attempting to “possess” the minds of her young charges for their own purposes.

A critic in 1898 called Henry James’ work “A deliberate, powerful and horribly successful study of the magic of evil”, a judgement that has since been channelled into various critical streams regarding both novella and opera – firstly, that the governess is protecting the children from evil as presented by the ghosts; secondly, that the governess is “imagining” the ghosts, and is thus herself a danger to the children; and thirdly, that the story is purposefully ambiguous in not allowing the reader to decide between these viewpoints. The opera seems to uphold the third course, by ultimately refusing to ascribe blame for the narrative’s ultimate tragedy of the ending to any one cause or party, and leaving us with James’s own dictum, “Make the reader think the evil, make him think it for himself, and (one is) released from weak specifications”.

Mfawny Piper’s libretto gives the ghosts (both mute presences in James’s story) their own voices, well-wrought inventions which enable some background to the past – in particular, these “flesh out” something of the housekeeper Mrs Gros’s knowledge and judgement of each of the characters. She expresses this to the governess, most damningly of the former valet Peter Quint who, in the housekeeper‘s words “made free” with everyone, including one of the children, the boy Miles. Productions of the opera have, since the premiere in 1954, not unexpectedly moved from presenting an out-and-out “ghost” story, and “gone with the times”, by turns reinterpreting the work with Freudian depictions of a frustrated spinster bringing a fevered imagination to bear upon the scenario, fresh awarenesses of issues such as sexual exploitation and corruption of children, and gay “subtexts”, one example of the latter citing the celebrated recitation of Latin nouns by one of the children to the governess, as a “schoolboy list of phallic expressions”.

To its credit, the current production avoids any gross representation of any of those standpoints (as some ego-ridden contemporary opera presentations of any of the standard repertoire mercilessly and deleteriously indulge themselves in), and instead hints at possibilities, leaving its audiences in a state of wonderment (a version of James’s “leaving it to the reader”), which personalises reactions to the details of the events and their outcomes, thus creating far more interesting theatrical situations for people to “take away” from and ponder what they’ve witnessed. An example of this was the scene in the second act where the governess (Anna Leese) sits with the half-undressed Miles (Alexandros Swallow) on his bed, the young woman bent on competing for the boy’s attentions with the marauding ghost of Peter Quint (Jared Holt). The governess’s obvious “longing” for the affections of the children’s guardian (as witness her demeanour when previously  reading aloud what she had written in a letter to him) has sublimated into a version of the same longing for affection from Miles  –  here the dialogue suggested more the talk of lovers who need something from one another than of adult-and-child interaction, yet with the physical boundaries between the two (just) maintained.

In this respect, Anna Leese’s portrayal of the emotionally constrained and psychologically besieged governess – in thrall to a man (her employer, the children’s guardian) she has never met but is bonded to by a sense of duty permeated with her own Molotov-cocktail mix of fantasies involving his approval and her own self-worth – was incredibly finely-crafted. Together with her director, Thomas de Mallet Burgess, she built with great subtlety and whole-heartedness a character with endless depths of longing and anxiety, her voice running the gamut of expressiveness as regards its different versions of beauty and presence. Her singing, though not always entirely clear in terms of diction, gave voice to a character whose sincerity we might not have doubted but whose capacity for self-knowledge and decisive action seemed difficult to fathom, right up to the work’s unnerving conclusion. We left the theatre still carrying a relationship with her that resonated in a somewhat disturbing and unresolved manner – and within our consciousness of what we’ve witnessed echoed most hauntingly that phrase of W.B. Yeats’ from his poem “The Second Coming”, here given by Mfawny Piper to the ghosts to sing separately and together, pertaining to the children, but ultimately to all of us  – “The ceremony of innocence is drowned”.

The governess’s dramatic foil was Patricia Wright’s sonorously-delivered assumption of Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, a long-time servant at the house – a plainly-spoken, simple woman, great of heart, but conscious of her position and lack of education in comparison to the governess. Both singers negotiated this governess/housekeeper relationship with great pliancy and spontaneity, conveying the fragility of things at the point near the story’s climax where the housekeeper took the girl Flora away as if losing faith in the governess’s ability to protect her. I thought Wright’s announcing to the latter (with what seemed like some strangely grim satisfaction) that her letter to the children’s guardian was not delivered, had all the portents of doom required, even if her character at that point  was only a messenger.

The ghosts, Jared Holt’s darkly dangerous Peter Quint, and Madeleine Pierard’s compelling, positively gothic Miss Jessel, were introduced as “presences” long before they actually appeared – their silhouetting on a diaphanous stage-curtain at first underlined their “in the mind” aspect, but their presence was soon made all too tangible at subsequent moments. Jared Holt’s melismatic calls of Miles’ name produced a “frisson” of compelling unease, while Madeleine Pierard’s relatively darker but still riveting tones summonsing Flora gave a more sinister impression of rising from below (perhaps from the lake waters in the house’s grounds).  Holt relished the quasi-heroic music of self-portrait, his words styling him as “ the riderless horse” or the “hero-highwayman”, images associated with unfettered action and feral freedom – Pierard’s darker, more piteous music tied in with her character’s equating with “wronged women” of earlier times. The two ghosts brought matters to a head between one another superbly in their evocation of a shared past, one in which Quint was the wrongdoer and Miss Jessel his victim, uniting only in their common purpose of seeking “a friend”, Quint desiring Miles and Miss Jessel wanting Flora.

No praise can be too high for the on-stage work of the young singers playing the roles of the opera’s two children here in Wellington – Alexa Harwood’s Flora and Alexandros Swallow’s Miles. Neither could be faulted regarding what seemed to me like their total identification with the characters, as if they had each stepped into their respective roles and filled them out from within. Musically, too, each sang like both the angels and the mischief-makers one knows children are capable of appearing to be, all the while. Alexa Harwood’s Flora most convincingly wove her stage movements into the fabric of her singing performance, while Alexandros Swallow, his Miles more often the follower than the leader, matched his stage-sister at every turn, both through gesture and voice, bringing also his considerable theatrical skills to precisely-honed fruition in miming complex piano-playing patterns most convincingly. Each in their different ways conveyed the effect of the drama’s potential for harm upon his or her own character, to profound effect – remarkable performances!

I feel compelled to make the point that, though the opera was sung in English, a good deal of the text I found hard to follow, almost always when the voices were under pressure or singing in ensemble – a number of people I spoke to afterwards confirmed that they would have appreciated surtitles to better serve their understanding of the plot’s finer detail. The clearest enunciation came from Jared Holt in a piano-accompanied Prologue (the opening of a “written account” of the governess’s story) which he delivered in the role of a narrator. In my experience this loss of clarity is a common phenomenon with higher solo voices singing in the vernacular in a large venue – so, in making the difference for listeners between (a) a merely-pleasant-sounding and (b) a “made-more- intelligible” utterance I feel this would be something that everybody would surely want – having said all of this, I find myself wondering how singers themselves feel (felt?) about it?

Initially I was disappointed that the chamber ensemble accompanying the singers was set so far back on stage, almost as a kind of “noises off” accompaniment, having enjoyed so much the vivid interactions between voices and prominently-placed instruments in various recordings I listened to – in the course of the opera’s action I modified this viewpoint to an enjoyment and appreciation of the atmospheric ebb and flow of Britten’s scoring throughout the work. There was certainly no real lessening of impact during the opera’s most forceful moments, once our ears had gotten “the pitch of the hall”, and the quieter, more distant moments had a tragic beauty whose irony gave even more of an edge to the story’s overall impact.

The instrumental playing (largely members of Orchestra Wellington, led by violinist Justine Cormack), and complemented by pianist David Kelly (whose stylish solo accompanying Jared Holt’s narration opened the work) was directed with precision, verve and enthralling atmosphere by New Zealand-born conductor Holly Mathieson, whose work I hope to hear again before too long. I did want to SEE the players play, but as I’ve said the scenario called for a different conception which worked powerfully in its own way.

I couldn’t fathom at first why Alexandros Swallow (who sang Miles) was the first to appear on stage at the work’s beginning UNTIL he sat down at the piano and APPEARED to begin to play the aforementioned solo that accompanied the tenor to begin the opera – and then I remembered he was to play the piano in one of the opera’s later scenes (Variation XIII)  – both sequences were superbly played by the ACTUAL pianist David Kelly (and brilliantly mimed on stage by the young singer!). There were various divergencies of movement and stage placement from what I was expecting, all of which I thought worked save for the appearance of a bed pushed in for no apparent reason at the beginning of Act Two. The rest flowed with irresistible momentum!

Finally, this was a production that looked good and convincing, and maintained a kind of unity throughout – perhaps the scene by the lake during which Flora encounters Miss Jessel didn’t have much “outdoor” ambience, being kept under the omnipresent pall of darkly-inclined variants of illumination that marked nearly all of the scenarios! Still, Matthew Marshall’s lighting generally held us in thrall, scene by scene, by turns revealing and concealing, reassuring and malevolent, warm and chill, delicate and laden, the ambiences working well with designer Tracy Grant Lord’s “framed” portals which gave the spaces at once telescopically-extended vistas with oddly claustrophobic effects – “black holes” of imaginary space in which the characters play out life’s illusions. Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess, together with his assistant Eleanor Bishop, presided over a lucid, if challengingly ambivalent scenario of interaction between the players in the drama, encouraging the essences and their contradictions as expressed in people’s motivations for doing what they do – for ostensible good or evil, or for ends that accord with Peter Quint’s desperate enjoiner to Miles  – “You must be free!” Like anything (and this is perhaps Britten’s (and James’) ultimate message – such freedom comes at a price.