Brass Poppies – ordinary people at war

The New Zealand Festival 2016 presents:
BRASS POPPIES (Ross Harris – music / Vincent O’Sullivan – libretto)

James Egglestone (William Malone)
Sarah Court (Mrs Malone)
Robert Tucker ( Tommo)
Anna Leese (Mary / Luck)
Jonathan Eyers (Billy)
Madison Nonoa (Joyce)
Wade Kernot (Fred)
Mary Newman-Pound (Lucy)
Andrew Glover (Turk/Patriot)
Benjamin Mitchell, Taniora Rangi Motutere (dancers)

Jonathan Alver (director)
Maaka Pepene (choreographer)
Jon Baxter (AV design)
Jason Morphett (lighting)
Elizabeth Whiting (costuming)

Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Stroma New Music Ensemble

Shed 6, Wellington

Thursday 3rd March 2016

Poet Vincent O’Sullivan and composer Ross Harris have collaborated on no less than eleven words-and-music works since 2002, the most recent being the chamber opera “Brass Poppies”. The work received its premiere at Shed 6 in Wellington last week, and after finishing a four-night season has gone on to Auckland’s Mercury Theatre where it will play for two more nights later this week.

Though the opera was actually completed by O’Sullivan and Harris before their previous Festival presentation Requiem for the Fallen, was given in 2014, it effectively complements the latter. Brass Poppies treats the subject of war and its effect upon people in a remarkably intimate and personalized way. While the Requiem was notable for its diversity of means (string quartet, brass and percussion, various taonga puoro, chamber choir and tenor solo), the opera, though no less telling in its impact on the listener, is more “conventionally” written for voices and chamber ensemble.

Harris commented in an interview beforehand that he thought the work had more in common with Stephen Sondheim and Kurt Weill, rather than with “conventional” opera. It seemed to me that there were a few such influences, consciously or otherwise applied – for example the meeting of the young soldier, Billy and the young girl Joyce at the dance I thought reminiscent of the meeting of the young lovers in “West Side Story” – and the all-pervading dance-rhythms which drove the opening scenes so surely and buoyantly seemed also to me to draw from the composer’s involvement with things like Klezmer music. Particularly affecting was Tatiana Lanchtchikova’s accordion-playing, rhythmic pulsings and harmonic flavorings which conjured up a bitter-sweet ambience that flavoured the whole ensemble’s music-making throughout.

O’Sullivan’s libretto, though an anti-war statement, never thumps a tub, or loads the scenario with suffering or horror of a cathartic kind – his words have the lightest of touches, with everything insinuated or suggested at the start, and stated simply and poetically at the end. And Harris’s music does the same, the lyrical lines and dance rhythms keeping the narrative flow on the move, and maintaining forward movement even when, in places, suggesting the gentlest of  pulsatings amid the silences. And so the sense of tragedy is heightened for us, because the lives and circumstances of the four soldiers are so very like ours, easily identifiable with – and yet somehow the monstrousness of what they and their families are drawn into is conveyed, the “snuffing out” of lives on a hitherto unprecedented scale is numbingly registered.

It’s the kind of thing that Wilfred Owen wrote about in his poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth” with the words –

“The pallor of girls, brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.”

Together at the opera’s beginning, the soldiers and their families (represented by the women) are taken away from the ordinariness of their lives and gradually drawn into different worlds, each replete with remembrances of and longings for what was and might be again – at the beginning we heard rhetorical-sounding statements, deeply-felt but already with a hollow ring, such as  “This is what we’re fighting for”, and similarly-felt exchanges between the couples “What we told each other we remember”. When parted, the dialogues (via letters) took on the poignancy of  separation and the mutually-shared hope that “luck” would keep the men company and keep them safe, a spirit characterized by one of the women as a “presence” circulating among the men at Gallipoli.

Such sentiments were, of course, lump-in-the-throat in effect, as were the longings expressed for a “return to what was”‘ on both sides. One husband-and-wife exchange was shared by both singers, one taking over the words of the letter from the other; while another soldier’s letter recalled memories of walking with his girl in orchards filled with apples – he then made reference to walking under a different kind of orchard, those of the stars overhead at Gallpoli. It was all very heartfelt on a deeply personal and individual scale, with hopes, fears, sorrows and resignation gently brought together in a wholly natural way.

A jingoistic note was expressed by a British Empire figure repeating vainglorious cliches of valour and sacrifice, set against verses whose words underlined the cynicism of the “victory” rhetoric, as did the ditty about the Kings “in their counting houses, counting out their money”, making something fairytale-like from out of the turmoil and tragedy. All of this struck such hollow resonances as the soldiers, all having been killed by this time, countered these sentiments by announcing  the grim finality of their position with the words “we’re not likely to change our minds as the grass keeps growing” – and later, commenting on “the deep snows of forgetting”. Emotions ran in parallel, the women in mourning and the shades of the soldiers (sightless to their bereaved partners) in lament for what has been lost, with the women singing of the subsequent evenings as “silent as a shattered gun”. The quiet interlocking of thought and emotion, and the avoidance of overt, visceral grief gives oceans of realm for  individual feeling to well up and flood the spaces, so that we in the audience were overcome with the cruel emptiness of it all, on both sides.

Describing his words for the libretto as “only the scaffolding for something bigger” O’Sullivan paid tribute to his collaborator’s music, though to this listener’s ears what came across was a tapestried amalgam of words and music, wrought  out of similar impulses. The music, as strongly as did the words, told us who these people were – ordinary people being asked to go and perform in extraordinary situations. So Harris’s music was catchy and recognizable and readily identifiable – period pieces, such as waltzes, marches and other different dance-forms, the music of the people, so to speak. The rhythmic verve of the dance was physical in its impact, and its sudden changes of metre both ironic and volatile in its effect. I thought I heard those Klezmer touches on various occasions, the genre’s intrinsic bitter-sweet ambiences here very much to the point.

Director Jonathan Alver’s staging of the work made creative theatrical use of the ostensibly unpromising Shed 6 venue. I hadn’t heard any live music there previously, so my first reaction to encountering what seemed to be such “barn-of-a-place” surroundings was of dismay – fortunately, these concerns weren’t realized in performance. The clarity of both vocal and instrumental lines was, I thought,  exemplary, though the surtitles played their part in clarifying lines throughout the more concerted singing passages. Balance between singers and instrumentalists seemed well-nigh perfect, with conductor and players being visible “on stage” throughout, over to one side rather than down in a pit of any kind – part of the work’s choreography of movement.

The production wasn’t “in the round” as the Requiem of two years ago had been in Wellington Cathedral – this was more conventionally staged, with singers and dancers appearing on a stage via entrances diagonally placed between column-like walls on which were projected various scenes and scenarios. In this way the singers and dancers seemed to come in from the midst of whatever scheme was projected onto the surfaces of the columns, and in places return to them via their exits, which I thought worked beautifully as an idea – no more poignantly than when the soldiers took their leave of their women through exits framed by contemporary photographs of freshly-enlisted men in uniform marching down Lambton Quay in Wellington. Besides the four couples and the Turkish figure / British patriot character, there were also two sprite-like dancers whose movements expressed both gentleness and strength, delicacy and vigour, the latter sometimes combatative and warlike. Costumes were simple – khaki uniforms for the men, period dresses for the women, as expected. After the soldiers were each killed they remained as “presences” on stage, haunting their women, though not being able to communicate – very simple and powerful.

This was very much an ensemble opera, though with a number of stand-out vocal moments for individual voices. The conversations among the characters were as significant as were the individual soliloquies, each acting as a foil for the other, though the solo sequences tended to “carry” the more profound utterances. The couples interacted with admirable ease and fluency, each with a particular character, from the tremulousness of the two youngsters, Joyce (Madison Nonoa) and Billy (Jonathan Eyres), to the no-nonsense working-class codes and understandings used by Fred (Wade Kernot) and Lucy (Mary Newman-Pound). Australian tenor James Egglestone as Captain William Malone relished his occasional stentorian moments, though most memorable was his tender interaction with his wife (Sara Court), particularly during the reading of a letter home, the husband taking over from the wife halfway through with the reading  – it was all a perfectly-tailored piece of give-and-take.

Robert Tucker (as Tommo) beautifully put across his letter/song which recalled memories of the apple orchard where he courted Mary (Anna Leese), and making the most of his declaration of surprise and resignation at looking upwards at a different kind of orchard at Anzac Cove – the night sky. As for Anna Leese, her strong-willed Mary, vigorous and feisty, “morphed” this character at one point in the story with Lady Luck, a female personification of good fortune, taking it upon herself to circulate among the Allied soldiers, singing about the “mantel of luck”, in between wordless chantings, everything beautifully and lyrically sounded. Again, one got the sense of the impact made on individuals, with Mary’s description of an excursion up to Brooklyn an almost Janus-faced aspect of her “Luck” persona by association – things that ordinary men and women would think of and hold onto in extraordinary situations, and expressed in a naturalistic context. FInally, Andrew Glover made the most of his cameo-like opportunities as the ghost-like Turkish soldier and the British patriot, enigmatic figures at opposite spectrum-ends.

Every instrumental sound was vividly realized by the Stroma Ensemble under Hamish McKeich’s direction – the musical realizations played their part in enhancing the production’s consistently underplayed yet powerful inner resonances. It’s one whose message will continue to resound, and repay revisiting.