Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” – an operatic transfiguration

New Zealand Opera presents:
MANSFIELD PARK– an opera by Jonathan Dove (composer) and Alasdair Middleton (librettist)
Based on the novel “Mansfield Park” by Jane Austen (published 1814)
Director: Rebecca Meltzer
Wardrobe and Props: Sophie Ham
Piano Accompaniment: Soomin Kim and David Kelly
Stage Manager: Chanelle Muirhead
Production: courtesy Waterperry Opera Festival, UK
Cast: Fanny Price – Ashlyn Tymms
Lady Bertram – Kristin Darragh
Sir Thomas Bertram – Robert Tucker
Maria Bertram – Sarah Mileham
Julia Bertram – Michaela Cadwgan
Edmund Bertram – Joel Amosa
Aunt Norris – Andrea Creighton
Mary Crawford – Joanna Foote
Henry Crawford – Taylor Wallbank
Mr. Rushworth – Andrew Grenon

Wellington Public Trust Hall
Lambton Quay, Wellington

Thursday 18th April 2024

First staged in 2011, composer Jonathan Dove’s and librettist Alasdair Middleton’s adventurous adaptation of Jane Mansfield’s novel “Mansfield Park” has since achieved world-wide exposure, eventually finding its way to what author Adrienne Simpson once called “opera’s farthest frontier”, the shores of Aotearoa New Zealand, the work taking pride of place as the first 2024 production staged by New Zealand Opera.

It occupies territory close to the heart of the company’s recently-appointed general director, Brad Cohen, whose vision centres upon “getting a wider range of people to attend the opera” by diversifying the various presentation spaces and enlarging the scope of the repertoire in a “something for everybody” manner. It’s a philosophy straightaway borne out by the “outside-the-box” delivery that characterises this latest production, which is, of course, very much in line with the original story’s essentially domestic setting.

Mansfield Park has an ensemble of ten on-stage singers (an audience member makes a brief appearance as a non-singing “extra” at one point) accompanied by a piano duet, everybody occupying a shared space in the same room (the venue on this occasion Wellington’s Public Trust Hall), and with the performers making entrances and exits from and towards various directions including through the audience itself, creating a vibrantly inclusive ambience for all concerned to enjoy. Nothing more removed from the usual operatic scenario of stage, proscenium archway and auditorium, all clearly delineated, could have been imagined.

Composer Jonathan Dove has since recast the work with a chamber orchestra accompaniment, but I hugely enjoyed the omnipresent sound of the original piano duet (here superbly realised by Soomin Kim and Devid Kelly), the pair completely out of my view from where I was sitting mid-hall, but whose pianistic ambiences unfailingly conjured up the largely drawing-room atmosphere of most of the story’s action. The music might have occasionally seemed “vocally minimalist” or suggestive of “silent film” accompaniment – but the score’s different, more thoughtful or even grandly epic evocations in other places were etched in just as surely and atmospherically. I kept on thinking about the composer telling us that he recalled moments of “hearing music” when first reading parts of the novel, and how we might be hearing the results of those reimagined moments.

I was grateful for the production’s use of subtitles, despite the opera being in English – I’d found in various “opera in the vernacular” performances the text often suffering from a lack of clarity in places. Fortunately I found this cast particularly well-drilled in this respect, and especially in the case of singers such as Andrea Creighton as the voluble Aunt Norris, even when having a lot to say in a short time! Also exemplary in this respect were Robert Tucker and Kristin Darragh as the parents, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram – and I must mention the special pleasure I derived from Andrew Grenon’s vivid word-characterisations as the bumbling Mr. Rushworth!

So, within the elegant frame of what would have otherwise been something like an original Gainsborough-like landscape oil painting on the drawing-room wall appeared the opera’s libretto, written by Alisdair Middleton. The action was divided into two acts containing altogether eighteen “chapters” (Austen’s original novel has over forty of the latter!). The cast itself announced the name and number of each chapter, with the setting, aside from a couple of al fresco forays into “wilderness”, “shrubbery” and “grottoes”, largely taking place in Mansfield Park’s stylish interior. It all had a surface charm “mirroring” the emphasis placed on social climbing and material expectation in society, to which young people’s affairs of the heart were constantly shaped and manipulated.

The heroine of the piece, Fanny Price, has a “back-story” in the novel that’s here hardly touched upon – and then in the most negative terms by her widowed Aunt Norris – she seems to be constantly berating Fanny for her lack of “ostensible” gratitude to her rich Aunt and Uncle, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, for taking her into the household at all to relieve the pressure on Fanny’s own family. There’s a lot going in in the Bertram household, with Sir Thomas having a business in Antigua which takes him away from his four children, all of whom are looking either for suitable careers (the boys, one of whom , Tom, doesn’t appear in the opera) or marriage-matches (the girls, one of whom, Maria, is already engaged to the wealthy but exceedingly boring Rushworth!).

Fanny’s covert interest is in the younger brother, Edmund, who, unlike his sisters, treats her kindly, but as he would a kid-sister for most of the time. Of course, the pair finally make good their largely unspoken deeper interest in one another, despite the various cajoleries of a neighbouring and outwardly attractive brother-and-sister pair, Mary and Henry Crawford who arrive on the scene early in the piece to disrupt things for their own ends. The production cleverly cuts through this and more besides of the elaborate and complex Austen original, thanks to some judiciously- focused textual distillations and sharply-characterised, forward-driving music.

Director Rebecca Meltzer originally created this production for Waterperry Opera in Oxford, UK in 2018, resulting in her being invited here to direct the production with NZ Opera. Her fondness for working with singers in intimate audience environments was readily evident in the detailed delivery given the texts by the cast. As well, her direction of the opera’s “outdoor” scenes (such as the hilariously-contrived journey of the company to the estate of Mr.Rushworth at Southerton in the “barouche”, and the deployment of people not in the scene as characters but instead as “stage-props”, such as trees and gateways!) caused plenty of merriment.

We also relished the sensitive treatment of the more lyrical chorus-like moments in the work, like the almost Mozartean farewell (one thought of Soave sia il vento in Cosi fan Tutte) accorded Sir Thomas from the ensemble on his departure to Antigua, and the lovely “Stargazing” music duetted between Fanny and Edmund in Chapter Six. At the other expressive end of the work’s range was the wonderful scene “A Newspaper Paragraph” in which the general ensemble seemed to revolve like a flywheel around the sensational newspaper publication of Henry’s elopement with Mrs Rushworth, the characters gradually splintering off in different directions and leaving Edmund at last able to come to his senses regarding Mary Crawford’s true character via HER reaction to the news – fabulous musical theatre! – (but more about the work’s final chorale in a minute……)

In the title role of Fanny, mezzo-soprano Ashlyn Tymms looked, moved and sang with ease, grace and decorum as befitted her character and station in the Bertram household (Sophie Ham’s costumes beautifully modulated across the entire cast), though she allowed her emotions to betray her feelings given the chance, as when steadfast in her refusing to comply with Sir Thomas’s wishes that she should accept Henry Crawford as a husband. Her and Edmund’s final vows of commitment to one another were all the more touching for their “surprised by joy” aspect and given all due warmth of tone by both singers. As Edmund, Joel Amosa looked and sounded all the while steadfast, straightforward and upright, even if his head had been turned by the all-too superficially engaging Mary, whose portrayal brought forth resplendent and characterful singing from Joanna Foote.

Mary’s rakish brother Henry received a confident, swashbuckling rendering from Taylor Wallbank even if I felt some of his higher notes evinced a degree of strain. In the pathetic and thankless role of Mr Rushworth, I thought Andrew Grenon’s characterisation brilliantly and almost painfully engaging, as was his singing. As for the remainder of the Bertrams, both Robert Tucker and Kristin Darragh brought an ease of vocal delivery to their roles that itself gave their characters a kind of status and authority as Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, in stark contrast to Andrea Creighton’s waspish and petulant yet wonderfully sung Aunt Norris, a thorn in her niece’s side as of her own god-given right! And each of the two sisters, the “twelve thousand-a-year-obsessed” Maria, and the younger, impressionable and impetuous Julia were played with characterful spirit and sung with attractive tones and well-crafted “surface” by Sarah Mileham and Michaela Cadwgan respectively.

What brought home to me an enduring feeling of the production’s depth and resonance of quality and truth was the opera’s final scene – after all Fanny’s trials and tribulations, endured with the utmost steadfastness, she is rewarded by the love she has wanted for herself for some time, that of Edmund Bertram. Austen celebrates her Fanny’s ultimate triumph somewhat matter-of-factly in the novel, whereas the composer and librettist of the opera obviously felt the need for some kind of outward catharsis, at any rate on Fanny’s part, and by extrapolation, on Edmund’s as well. So, at the end is the most beautiful of the opera’s sequences, with all the characters of the story, family, friends, villains and monsters alike gathering in a group on the stage to intone these beautiful words – not Austen’s own, but the librettist’s, speaking, as it were, for all of us who have been through the experience afforded in all of its forms by this remarkable work:
“Too soon falls the dusk,
Too soon comes the dark;
Let us learn to love, laugh and live –
at Mansfield Park!”

History in the making in 2023 – Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck” performed “live” for the first time in New Zealand

Orchestra Wellington presents:

RED MOON – Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck” (1925) arr. Eberhard Kloke

Cast: Wozzeck – Julien Van Mallaerts
Marie – Madeleine Pierard
Captain – Corey Bix
Drum Major – Jason Collins
Doctor – Paul Whelan
Andres – Alex Lewis
Margret – Margaret Medlyn
First Apprentice – Robert Tucker
Second Apprentice – Patrick Shanahan
Soldier – Richard Taylor
Idiot – Corey Bix
Marie’s Child – Ivan Reid

The Tudor Consort (Music Director – Michael Stewart)
Schola Cantorum of St Mark’s School ( Music Director – Anya Nazaruk)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (Music Director)

Director – Jacqueline Coats
Stage Manager – Janina Panizza
Lighting Design – Daniel Wilson

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 11th November, 2023

It’s the stuff this country’s musical legends are made of, joining occasions notable for their uniqueness such as (off the top of my head) Igor Stravinsky’s conducting of the then NZBC Symphony in 1961, the first-ever “at home” performance of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” at the 1990 Wellington International Arts Festival, Michael Houstoun’s ground-breakingly-complete cycle in 1993 of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, and the first all-New Zealand cast performance of a Wagner opera, Parsifal, in 2006 in Wellington – readers with longer and/or sharper memories than mine will doubtless construct their own “pantheon “ of legendary home-grown occasions to which this one might well be added.

I’m referring by association to the incredible achievement of all the people involved with Saturday evening’s performance in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre of Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck”, a work which had its own first performance in 1925 in Berlin, and has thus taken almost a hundred years to get to these shores and be performed “live”.  But that’s just what Marc Taddei, Orchestra Wellington, the singers and the associated creative team managed to finally “bring off” – and, to add appropriate lustre to the occasion, with the confidence and surety that gave the presentation the kind of elan and brilliance that took one’s breath away! Though it was one might call a “semi-staged” production, and the deployment of the singers might, in my opinion, have on occasions been differently undertaken to the work’s greater advantage, the sheer commitment, verve and aplomb of the singing and playing never faltered throughout the entire evening, as evidenced by the sustained applause at the work’s end.

Conductor Marc Taddei in his pre-performance talk earlier in the evening characterised the performance of “Wozzeck” as the culmination of Orchestra Wellington’s 2023 season of works which had been “looking to opera for increased representation of the “human” spirit”, and finding at the end an opera which presents that very spirit in totally unvarnished form – it “lays bare the lie that the poor can simply get on with their lives and survive”, though Berg himself was adamant that “what happened to Wozzeck can happen to anyone who is subjugated by others and cannot defend himself”. In this opera there’s no institutionalised or miraculously-produced “force for good” which speaks up for Wozzeck, alerting us to the uncomfortable fact that it will have to be us, the audience members, who will need to do so, to look at the tougher parts of life and not look away. As one commentator wrote of the character of Wozzeck – he is “a metaphor for one of the opera’s fundamental concerns – the generative, toxic force of societal humiliation”……

Jacqueline Coats’s production here put the performers together on the normal orchestral platform of the Michael Fowler Centre, giving each of the singers a degree of  elevation in their scenes but keeping them largely behind the orchestra. This certainly directed one’s focus onto the opera’s music rather more than its stage action – something that I didn’t object to in principle, it being semi-staged anyway – but here it had the disadvantage of distancing each singer’s character from the audience, both physically and vocally, the faces and figures of the singers feeling somewhat “removed” from us, and the voices having to cut through from the rear the sometimes crowded acoustic sound-picture taken up by the orchestra.

It wasn’t until Act Two’s Scene Four (the dance-scene in the beer garden), that the Two Apprentices and Wozzeck were brought forward, almost to the front of the stage, the Apprentices with their “brandy wine” verses, and Wozzeck’s bitterly-voiced condemnation of his wife Marie’s dancing with the handsome Drum-Major – suddenly, what a difference to the immediacy of the characters before us this closeness made! In the following scene in the Soldiers’ barracks the sleepers were arrayed again out the front on the floor, which surely should have been where the Drum-Major’s and Wozzeck’s confrontation took place – but they were returned to behind the orchestra once again. Both voices could clearly be heard, but if only they had been closer to give us more of the physical flavour of their set-to! True, the singers acted primarily with their voices rather than gesture and movement, but simply their closer physical proximity would have brought more of the characters’ salient defining features into focus, advancing the story’s theatricality and impact.

If I seem to be making too much of this “placement” of the singers, I should emphasise all the more that all of the voices had sufficient strength to properly sound their words from wherever they were placed – so while it often looked more oratorio-like than operatic in terms of stage action, it was all well-served by both voices and instruments as regards the work’s musical values. And as we had briefly but tellingly observed with Orchestra Wellington’s recent foray into the music of one of Berg’s contemporaries Anton Webern, Marc Taddei and his players seemed to revel in the complexities and varieties of the composer’s scoring, unflinchingly addressing the expressive power of countless moments in the work, examples being the two horrifying orchestral crescendi following Marie’s murder by Wozzeck, and the naked anguish of the full orchestra’s final interlude separating  Wozzeck’s drowning from the children bringing news of Marie’s death to her child, who in a wrenching moment of bathos concludes the opera by continuing to ride his hobby-horse (these and other moments seeming to lose nothing of their power in arranger Eberhard Kloke’s judicious score reductions). But in addition, all of these things were set in stark contrast to the opera’s manifold beauties and delicacies of scoring in places, stressing the piteous aspect of the work’s tragedy  – for example, the beautiful sonorities of the string and brass playing echoing Wozzeck’s fearful rant while in the fields, with his  “Ein Feuer! – Ein Feuer” outburst; and again when accompanying his friend Andres’s tender concern as the latter led his disconsolate friend away to home. Conductor Marc Taddei’s wondrous grasp of the ebb and flow of these disarming contrasts and his players’ ability to deliver the full range and force of their extremes made in itself an unforgettable impression.

Just as astonishing were the performances of all of the singers, triumphing over their at times awkward stage placements with what seemed like the utmost commitment and confidence. In the title role, Julien van Mellaerts laid bare the both the quiet desperation and the frightening hallucinatory torment of the poor soldier, his piteous attempts at explaining his situation falling on deaf ears all about him, undermining his relationship with his wife Marie and driving his desperation to an abyss of madness. He conveyed so many telling vocal contrasts in places such as between his first-scene phrase “It must be fine indeed to be virtuous”, and the following cry “If we should go to heaven we shall be thunder-makers!” – again, I thought his all-too-brief front-of-stage moments in the Act Two dance scene after he witnessed Marie’s consorting with his rival, the Drum-Major, straightaway conveyed by dint of his immediacy more of the sense of a theatrical character, something his performance as a whole deserved to be allowed to generate more often. Alex Lewis as Wozzeck’s more straightforward friend and fellow-soldier Andres consistently used his fine voice freshly and lyrically, such as in his attempts to distract his friend from his disturbing hallucinations when together in the fields, and in the Act Two dance-hall scene with his guitar-accompanied ballade.

In the very opening scene we relished Corex Bix’s Captain conveying all of his character’s patronising and judgemental sanctimony in his attitude to Wozzeck, the latter becoming both the vehicle for and object of his superior’s derision, a default setting which stretched like a spider’s web over most of the drama. In addition, he ably brought to life the small but significant part of the Idiot at the dance who tells Wozzeck that he “smells blood” as Marie and the Drum Major are flagrantly dancing, while the drunken Apprentices (Robert Tucker and Patrick Shanahan in turn, sounding nicely unbuttoned and with alcohol having unloosened their tongues, to risible effect) are philosophising on the nature of human existence.

As Wozzeck’s ill-fated wife Marie, Madeleine Pierard conveyed a splendidly rich and tangible vocal presence, her voice easily riding atop the orchestral textures, and relishing the score’s tenderer moments with her (here invisible) child in places like her Act One Scene Three “Lullaby” song “Hansel, spann Deine sechs Schimmel an….” , so very beautifully accompanied by the orchestra’s  tuned percussion, and also in her gloriously guilt-ridden “jewel song” (her feelings underlined by lurid stage lighting) when considering the Drum Major’s gift to her of a pair of earrings. Though she wasn’t ever brought to the front of the stage during the production, her interactions with various other characters, such as her neighbour Margret, and the Drum Major, not to mention Wozzeck himself, were admirably conveyed by vocal means, even if we missed the dramatic impacts of more tangible physical gesturings in places such as her tryst with the Drum Major – it was left to the orchestra to express all too graphically the paroxysms of desire and lustful action between the characters.

As Margret, one of Marie’s neighbours well aware of what was going on and constantly at logger-heads with Marie, Margaret Medlyn (who had previously played Marie’s character in an Australian production some years ago) made a suitably inquisitive and self-righteous-sounding bystander, both in the street when watching the Drum Major passing with his band, and at the second dance scene in Act Three. Though essentially one-dimensional a character, Jason Collins’s libidinous Drum Major readily conveyed his character’s concupiscent appetites and brutal nature by dint of his boastful, vainglorious tones and gestures, his word-made-flesh moment being the beating he gave the unfortunate Wozzeck in the soldier’s barracks at the end of Act Two.

Another authoritative symbol of Wozzeck’s oppression was the figure of the Doctor (assertively and sonorously  portrayed by Paul Whelan), with whom Wozzeck had entered a kind of arrangement involving various idiosyncratic medical theories which the Doctor tests by using Wozzeck as a kind of guinea-pig, and for which he pays the latter a mere pittance. Though not an actual physical assault, perhaps the opera’s most mean-spirited act of humiliation inflicted upon Wozzeck was perpetrated by both the Captain and the Doctor together, meeting Wozzeck out on the street and callously insinuating to him the gossip involving Marie’s infidelities with the Drum-Major, leaving him distraught and undone at the realisation of his wife’s betrayal.

The opera delineates processes by which human capacity for suffering can reach destructive limits through unrelieved and often institutionalised neglect and abuse – Wozzeck’s tragedy is his victimisation through such processes, giving him insufficient means of escape from such a descent and from such a place. Besides its individualisation such processes can have effects which are both transmittable and hereditary – though Marie’s murder is shocking, just as disturbing and piteous are Wozzeck’s visions and phobias which took him to such a murderous state. Also just as disturbing is the opera’s final scene, in which Marie’s and Wozzeck’s child is confronted with the news from his playmates of his mother’s death (and later, by extrapolation his father’s death by drowning at the same time) – to which the boy’s response is to repeat a simple playground chant as he rides his hobby-horse off somewhere – a moment’s stunned silence after the child leaves brought home to us the idea that the child now has no-one to take care of him, his parents having been obliterated in a suitably shocking manner, and he is left in a world which has demonstrated over the past hour and a half of operatic presentation little or no sign of caring, and left us with the realisation that unless we care about such things nothing of the kind will change.

After that “moment” there was heartfelt and sustained applause for all concerned, with the reaction continuing afterwards with talk into the night as to what it had all meant, a removal from our (well, for most of us!) normal experience and an immersion into the stuff of nightmares resulting in desolation and despair – and all rounded off with a repeated childlike cadence that bleakly commented on existence emptied-out of hope and redemption. What a work, and what an experience for us all!…….

 

 

Pasifika (m)Orpheus operatic presentation a poignantly human tale

(m)ORPHEUS –
a reimagining of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Eurydice” (reorchestrated by Gareth Farr)

Cast
Samson Setu – Orpheus
Madison Nonoa – Amor
Deborah Wai Kapohe – Eurydice

Production Design : Tracy Lord Grant
Director: Neil Ieremia
Assistant Director: Jacqueline Coats
Lighting: JAX Messenger
Conductor: Marc Taddei
NZ Opera Chorus, Black Grace Dancers
Orchestra Wellington : Concertmaster – Amalia Hall
Violin (Vivian Stephens ), Viola (Susan Fullerton-Smith), Cello (Jane Young)
Clarinet & Saxophone (Mark Cookson)
Trumpet & Flugelhorn (Matt Stein)
Trombone & Euphonium (Peter Maunder)
Marimba (Naoto Segawa &Yoshiko Tsuruta)
Guitars (Gunter Herbig)

Opera House, Wellington September 23rd 2023

I didn’t know until I began exploring the recent performance history of Gluck’s opera that Orpheus and Eurydice had been “reimagined” here in Aotearoa New Zealand before – a 2018 production at the Auckland Arts Festival presented the work as “A Dance Opera” directed and choreographed by Michael Parmenter, and designed then by the present designer, Tracy Lord Grant – on that occasion the opera was sung as the action was “danced”, with everything integrated into a contemporary-style presentation, including numerous visual ”links” and various enactments of and between the opera’s action and everyday society. From the reviews I have read I’m compelled to say that it was certainly something I greatly wished I had seen.

This very different 2023 reworking of a “dance-opera” idea came from director/choreographer Neil Ieremia, one unhesitatingly presenting a Pasifika view as confidently and naturally as one would a world view – throughout, the confidence and surety of the chorus regarding both singing and movement drew me into the central idea of the story’s world, the Samoan words at the extremities of the action effectively “ritualising” the storytelling as potently as any non-vernacular opera libretto does as a matter of course. In fact the chorus here under Ieremia’s direction were as much a “fulcrum” to the action as in any classic Greek play, thus forging links on a number of counts between times and places delineating humanity at large – a heartwarming achievement on the part of both director and players.

Further advancing both the Pasifika and classical European view of life and death is the concept of an  “underworld”, here brought to visual, though not especially dramatic use in the story, being used more effectively in stasis than in movement between. Perhaps the most effective moment confounding this assertion was the staging of the Furies at the beginning of Act Two hanging upside down from an elevated level like predatory bats before realigning themselves firmly on the floor of Hades itself to challenge Orpheus’s presence. These were Neil Ieremia’s own dance group Black Grace, dancers who have already made an impact with both traditional and contemporary presentations, and here they excelled as much with their aggressively baleful aspect as the Furies as with their contrastingly lyrical dance depictions of hero and heroine as a couple and what seemed like stylised re-enactments of Orfeo’s attempt to lead Eurydice out of Hades and back to life.

Interestingly, this production styled itself in its title as Orpheus alone, but with a parenthesised “m” suggesting both the power and influence of sleep (“Morpheus”) over the title character, while also playing down the role of Eurydice almost to the point of being a dream-like figure who, having already died before the story’s beginning lived only in Orpheus’s imagination. Neil Ieremia advances the view that, with Eurydice’s loss, Orpheus is now without his “feminine” side, namely his “compassion, empathy and sensitivity”. Still, we couldn’t help but respond to what happens between then during the course of the story as a kind of lovers’ tragedy, as in the Gluck original of 1862, even if the presentation’s final scene has Orpheus and Eurydice parted once again, with the hero up the stairs in isolation while Eurydice’s body lay inert on the level below…….one is reminded, amid the tragedy, of a phrase such as “did we dream you or did you dream us?” underlying the feeling of isolation and bewilderment of human loss……

The voices of the principals uncannily reflected their situations both during and at the conclusion of the opera – Samson Setu’s rich, golden tones beautifully filled out Orpheus’s fully-committed anguish and grief at the opera’s beginning, strengthening his tones with resolve when confronting the Furies, and melting with tenderness at the thought of seeing his Eurydice once again. However, neither his voice nor his body language “caught” for me the ambiguities of his despair at firstly having to “give in” to Eurydice’s pleas that he look at her at the climax of their flight from the Underworld, before helplessly watching her die. As Eurydice Deborah Wai Kapohe similarly charmed us with heartfelt and delicate sounds at first but couldn’t then summon the vocal heft to “galvanise” my sensibilities with her despairing cries as her end approached. Of the three principal singers the most flexible and responsive to both text and situation was Madison Nonoa as Amor, at once girlish and worldly, pink-puffer jacketed and denin-jean shorted to boot, as if she’d just drifted in from Courtenay Place here in Wellington, her laid-back humour a perfect foil for the seriousness of the other two characters.

Composer Gareth Farr responded to the challenge of “reinventing” Gluck’s orchestration of the work with Pasifika-like elements and gesturings, bringing into play an amalgam of brass and woodwind mixed with marimba, and underpinning the soundscape with a string-quartet like continuo for the action’s unfolding, along with a guitar (played by Gunther Herbig) as Orpheus’s lyre idea, all of which sounded “similar yet different” to the 18th-century original. Conductor Marc Taddei’s robustly controlled trajectories kept the action moving, getting playing from the Orchestra Wellington musicians that was spot-on in terms of accuracy, ensemble and atmosphere. Tracy Lord Grant’s stunning designs, Jacqueline Coats’s able directorial assistance and JAX messenger’s lighting all played their part in evoking in the Wellington Opera House’s atmospheric precincts this resonantly Antipodean realisation of the age-old darkness-and-light story of love and loss.

 

Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” – a production for our time

NZ Opera presents:
BELA BARTOK – Bluebeard’s Castle
A co-production by Theatre of Sound and Opera Ventures (UK)

Cast
Susan Bullock – Judith
Lester Lynch – Bluebeard
Erin Meek – Judith 1960s
Katie Burson – Judith 1970s/80s
Marion Prebble – Judith 1990s
Ava Phipps – Meadow
William Kelly – River

Laurence Renes (conductor)
Daisy Evans (Director and Translator)
Stephen Higgins – Revival Director
Adrian Linford – Scenic and Costume Designer
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting Designer
Max Pappenherim – Sound Designer
David Kelly – Repetiteur

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 10th August 2023

 

This presentation was a boldly-conceived contemporary recasting of the enigmatic story of Bluebeard, a character with origins in myth and legend where he’s portrayed as some kind of “serial killer”of his wives. It was then adapted in operatic guise around a century ago by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok as a story of a love-encounter between two strong-willed personalities leading to the tragic subjugation by one of the other.  Now, here, we witnessed  a radically different “take” of Bartok’s and his librettist’s story, still using the composer’s music and an updated English version of the same libretto, but presenting an entirely new husband/wife scenario.  – the couple’s long-standing marriage is shown as being put under considerable strain by the onset of some kind of cognitive disorder on the part of Judith, the wife, a situation borne with considerable forbearance of character from both partners. And, there’s a good deal of sympathy elicited for the plight of each in the situation for different, albeit closely-related reasons that are essential to the drama.

This particular production had its origins in the UK from the Theatre of Sound Company’s reworking by director Daisy Evans of Bartok’s presentation – here, Bluebeard and Judith are living their lives as an ordinary suburban couple, but with Judith’s own grasp of reality seemingly under siege, and her husband, Bluebeard experiencing the pathos of appearing to gradually lose his wife to dementia. So Bluebeard’s “castle” is transformed into their home, and the “doors” (so strikingly symbolic in Bartok’s work) are embodied in a large chest filled with the couple’s memorabilia, one which, during the work Judith frequently refers to with demands that it be opened and its contents revealed.

What seems to be presented here is Judith’s replaying of a version of her own life story as, one by one, certain aspects of the couple’s past are uncovered, in each case embodied by the appearance of a younger woman on the stage, the three that appear by turns throughout the course of the different “revealings” obviously representing younger versions of Judith, and with whom Bluebeard interacts knowingly and affectionately. Still, there’s certainly a kind of ambivalence present in some of these “revealings”, as to whether the latter “wants” Judith to revisit some of these memories, or is, in fact being forced to reveal aspects of his own past that he would prefer remained secret. The sixth of the “doors” is, in some ways, the most telling of these revisitings (as it is in Bartok’s own staging as “the “lake of tears” wrought from what Bluebeard in the opera describes as his own sorrows), where husband and wife here physically wrestle with a box containing what seem like letters, photographs and memorabilia, and the contents are dramatically spilled out onto the floor in front of them – we are uncertain whether the angst here is shared in common by the couple or the result of Bluebeard’s own secrecies being uncomfortably exposed. The husband’s anguished plea of “Judith, must we do this?” adds to the tantalising ambivalence of it all.

The denoument, so telling in Bartok’s version with the revealing of Bluebeard’s former wives, somewhat macabrely and symbolically remaining alive but “held prisoner” in the castle, and the subsequent subjugation of Judith to a similar fate, is here of a vastly different order. The reappearance of the different “Judiths” along with whom one supposes are either the couple’s children or grandchildren swing the scenario’s portals  wide open as to the state of things for the pair at the work’s conclusion. Bluebeard’s own resignation to a world of darkness comes across as an intensely personal realisation, but one whose recalibration as a tragic experience “shared” with his wife makes for an intensely moving conclusion in the work’s updated version, a devastation of experience in which love seems to be the only worthwhile positive response.

As with Bartok’s and his librettist poet Bela Balazs’ version of the legend, some of the events of the story give rise to considerable conjecture on the listener’s part as to what is “meant” in places; and I found myself puzzling over certain aspects of the present production. The chief one was the fifth of the “revelations” in which Bluebeard describes the majesty and grandeur of his “realm”, accompanied by the work’s most spectacularly-wrought music, and to which he here reacts by the donning of some kind of “party” costume, and greeting two children, who are presumably a remembrance of his and Judith’s own offspring. Wondrous though the orchestra sounds are, I would hesitate to characterise them as “party music”, and in doing so am confessing to a lack of imagination on my part as to what was at this point exactly being alluded to. Of course, as with many instances of great art, one’s own capacities for understanding are often pushed beyond one’s own limits, and continue to remain a source of wonderment, in some cases remaining a mystery.

All of this was conveyed, firstly and foremostly, by the two singers, Susan Bullock and Lester Lynch, with the utmost dramatic and theatrical skill and conviction throughout – against a backdrop of a whole world of mysterious orchestral sonority conjured up by conductor Lawrence Reynes with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in top form throughout, the soloists “sung” their characters into life, aided by movement and gesture which fitted their characters and situations like a pair of gloves upon the hands of a single person. One hesitates to describe the pair individually, as everything they did on the stage conveyed an awareness of and response to the other, bringing home to us the extent of their tragedy and the remarkable generation of human emotion they directed towards one another throughout. Occasionally the voices were swamped by the orchestra, but such places in operatic scores often demand such a fusion of overwhelming sound in places where voice and instruments become as one – and one surrenders to such moments as part of the experience.

The scenario, and the characters’ movements in their world were unerringly delineated throughout, with direction, costumes, sound and lighting tellingly and atmospherically wrought. Conductor Lawrence Renes controlled the orchestral ebb and flow with point and flexibility, allowing the big moments to “tell” as effectively as he did the score’s many  “whispered” detailings at the other end of the tonal spectrum, all quite remarkably re-contextualised here to suit the time and place of the updated schema, and realised with playing that by turns thrilled, gripped. disturbed and delighted. I was sorry that the printed programme provided for audience members seemed to continue the recent trend of NZSO programmes providing a bare minimum of information regarding the works performed and the artists involved, and requiring patrons to “scan” on machines provided in order to get “full programme notes and artist information”. These omissions, such as any detailed background history to the composer and the work presented, along with any kind of artist information certainly detracted from any in-depth “souvenir value” the publication might afford enthusiasts such as myself.

This minor quibble apart, I found myself “caught up” in the experience of this “Bluebeard’s Castle” to a degree I hadn’t quite expected, exchanging my hitherto awe and wonderment at the usual, familiar encounter with the work for a different kind of confrontation with adversity and darkness. It was one which I found couldn’t help but echo some of my own resonances of involvements with various people, interactions which were difficult, and often distressing to encounter and try and come to terms with. This production could be described as a “brave new world” of sorts, and is something one ought to, if one gets the chance, go and experience wholeheartedly for oneself.

 

A thought-provoking “Cosi fan tutte” from NZ Opera

New Zealand Opera presents:
MOZART – Cosi fan tutte (1790)– Opera Buffa in Two Acts

Cast:  Emma Pearson (Fiordiligi), Hanna Hipp (Dorabella), Jonathan Abernathy (Ferrando)
Julien van Malaerts (Guglielmo), Georgia Jamieson Emms (Despina), Andrew Foster Williams (Don Alfonso)

Director: Lindy Hume
Assistant Director: Matthew Kereama
Set/Costume Design: Tracy Grant Lord
Lighting Design: Matthew Marshall
Chorus Director: Michael Vinten

NZ Opera Chorus Wellington
Orchestra Wellington
Conductor: Natalie Murray Beale

St.James Theatre, Wellington

Wednesday 14th June,  2023

This production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte opened in Auckland on May 31 for three performances before coming to Wellington mid-June for another three nights, the season concluding in Christchurch in July following another trio of performances. The production coincided with the conclusion of NZ Opera General Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess’s five-year tenure in that role, one which featured plenty of incident and not a little controversy, as well as bearing the brunt of the effects of the pandemic for a good deal of that time. In view of what he called these “extraordinary times” de Mallet Burgess would have been well pleased with having Cosi as a fitting finale to his stewardship of the company, and especially in the light of the critical response garnered in the press by the production’s Auckland season.

Already in Wellington, the reception accorded this, the opening night at the capital’s  splendidly refurbished St.James Theatre has reinforced the general enthusiasm accorded  the new production. Cosi fan tutte has probably been the most trivilised, misunderstood and  belittled of all of Mozart’s operas over time; and even now commentators seem to disagree as to what Mozart’s and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s real intentions were in bringing to life a drama whose story-line seems so overtly cynical and even misogynistic. Two young blades make a bet with an older, cynical friend regarding the constancy of their respective lovers, which involves each wooing the other’s amor in disguise – outwardly each succeeds, but with not altogether expected confusions and doubts resulting from the exercise.

Australian director Lindy Hume’s own response to the work has, as she told us in an illuminating programme note, undergone a definite change over the years, one that’s certainly been reflected in other productions I’ve seen and heard from different parts of the world of late, nearly all involving a definite shift in attitude towards human relationships and societal sex-roles. For Hume the essential message concerning the characters and their interactions in the story is conveyed by the “before” and “after” aspects of the various emotional topographies that everybody has tumbled into, which, in effect, turn them all into “strangers to each other”.

As one critic perceptively pointed out, da Ponte might well be accused of misogyny in his libretto, but Mozart in his music more readily refutes such a charge, even given the men’s statement of the “Cosi fan tutte” motto, which rings hollow in the light of both their own connivance, and its undermining of their original partners’ resolve. And the final lines of the work, which propound a “let reason be one’s guide” resolution to the affair, is sung by all of the personalities with bewilderment rather than certainty, conveying the conclusion’s ambiguities with unnerving dismay, rather than falling back on the somewhat relieved “as we were” scenario beloved of countless earlier productions over the years.  Of course both Mozart’s and da Ponte’s work give the listener/observer/reader ample conjecturings along the way, with words and music which seduce and conceal as much as expound and illuminate. What Hume’s production brings out is the extent of the epiphany undergone by all the characters during the evening, disconcertingly made evident at the end.

Set and costume designer Tracy Grant Lord used a fluidly-employed revolving stage brilliantly mirroring the uncongealed nature of the work’s constantly-evolving interactions with the inestimable help of Matthew Marshall’s lighting designs. While from the very beginning the settings established and maintained a contemporariness throughout, other aspects seemed to underline a transformational fairytale air, such as during Act Two’s Garden scene, with shades of The Magic Flute in the appearance of the chorus in animal masks, and the full-length flowing gowns worn by the two girls, in a sense anticipating their transition into proper womanhood which the story and its circumstances bring into bitter-sweet effect.

All involved – soloists, chorus, conductor and orchestra – gave their all in the enterprise, the singers at once doing full justice to the “ensemble piece” aspect of the work (famous sequences such as the gorgeous Act One Terzettino “Soave sia il vento”; and the brilliantly disputatious full-cast finale to Act One were brought off magnificently), as did the various “couples” with their frequent duetting numbers and solos alike. Both sisters, Emma Pearson as Fiordiligi and Hanna Hipp as Dorabella, were nicely differentiated vocally and physically, Pearson’s constancy of character and elegant beauty of voice contrasting well with Hipp’s more adventurous inclinations and her compelling and engaging gusto.

Their lovers, Julien Van Mellaerts as Guglielmo and Jonathan Abernathy were similarly contrasted, the former’s sonorous and outgoing good humour a perfect foil for the latter’s more serious, heroic intensity, qualities which were to be thoroughly put to the test by the plot’s convolutions. Conspirators Don Alfonso (by turns rigorously and urbanely sung by Andrew Foster-Williams) and Despina (with Georgina Jamieson Emms here revelling in not only her character’s upwardly-mobile status promotion as bar-manager, but in her two famous cameo appearances as a doctor and a notary) brought their different kinds of  gravitas and comedy to bear at cardinal moments.

And conductor Natalie Murray Beale’s vital, pliable direction held cast, chorus and orchestra, together with distinction, making the most of the NZ Opera Chorus’s Wellington contingent’s infrequent but always mellifluous and characterful contributions to the settings; and securing from Orchestra Wellington a richly-varied set of reponses, both solo and corporate, to Mozart’s ineffably beautiful score. In this way conductor and players became the fulcrum around which the opera’s equivocations were most successfully and thoughtfully delivered throughout, for our pleasure!

 

Myth and Ritual in everyday life – from Orchestra Wellington

RICHARD STRAUSS – “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome”
ARJUNA OAKES – “Safe Way to Fall”
JOHN PSATHAS – Zahara
BELA BARTOK – “The Miraculous Mandarin”  Ballet

Orchestra Wellington
with……..
Arjuna Oakes (singer)
John Psathas (piano)
Valentina Michaud (saxophone)
Orpheus Choir, Wellington
BalletCollective Aotearoa
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei  (conductor)
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday June 3rd, 2023

“Myth and Ritual” was something of a concept-bending title, to my initial way of thinking, as a description of the programme Marc Taddei and his musicians put together on Saturday evening (June 3rd). Myth brings to mind legendary figures and events, while ritual suggests some kind of rite to do with religion or culture.

However, with the boundaries pushed out wider, as here, we saw that the concert’s range and scope took in both individual and societal aspects of the human condition, involving both transgressors and victims.

Bookending the evening’s presentation were portrayals of obsession matching that of any mythical hero – while the two central items presented conflict of diametrically opposed kinds, one in terms of individual resolution, and the other in epic, broad brush-stroke happenings putting groups of people at risk.

Not only was the evening‘s content far-flung, but the means by which the performances worked their magic were varied, which was part of sustaining our interest through spectacular orchestral, solo vocal, instrumental, choral and theatrical means.  Perhaps it wasn’t everybody’s “cup of tea” in toto, but it did have a readily-welcomed “different strokes for different folks” sense.

Things began spectacular with the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” written by Richard Strauss for an episode in his opera “Salome”, which was a setting of Oscar Wilde’s play (written in French) whose subject was the eponymous Biblical character, the beautiful step-daughter of Herod, the Judean king of around the time of Jesus Christ.  Strauss’s set both French and German texts of Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome” which makes mention for the first time of the “Seven Veils” (in Matthew 14 she merely “danced for the guests”).

Wilde designated for Salome a kind of growing sexual obsession with John the Baptist (Jokaanan, in the opera), one which, along with the erotic nature of the Dance Strauss readily took on for the entirety of the character, presenting her as no less an obsessive figure than any mythical hero or heroine bent upon achieving great deeds.

An extraordinary tour de force of composition, the Dance brought forth from Marc Taddei and his players a brilliant response in both corporate orchestral and individual soloistic terms. From the frenetic opening, through the most languid sequences and right up to the final whiplash chords, the playing caught every mood, superbly voicing the chameleon-like progressions with that unique combination of sensuousness and “edge” to themes, rhythms and textures.

What particularly held my attention was the spaciousness of the phrasings in the early stages of the dance by both solo players and sections,  Taddei and his musicians enabling the music’s essential bitter-sweet character to emerge, setting the strings’ almost decadent voluptuousness against the winds’ piquant flavourings, the latter pungently activating the dancer’s growing excitement and urgencies, leading to the unbridled excitement of the concluding section’s abandoned flourishes, the knife-edge wind arabesques, and the cataclysmic whiplash chords at the end – stunning!

Nothing could have been further from these excesses than the concert’s second item, a song for voice, piano and orchestra called “Safe Way To Fall”. Written as a collaboration between singer/songwriter Arjuna Oakes and composer/performer John Psathas, the work grew from a “springboard” award from the NZ Arts Foundation which enabled Oakes to choose Psathas as a mentor, and led to a creative partnership between the two. The pair shared a desire to explore ideas that would “make musical ideas hit home emotionally”, and the song was one of four tracks that emerged from this initial collaboration.

With Psathas himself as the pianist (his debut as a performing pianist in public, he told us afterwards) and the orchestra providing backing of what seemed a “filmic” kind of orchestral texture, Oakes delivered his song via a microphone, words expressing the idea of feelings of vulnerability giving rise to strength in relationships. Psathas’s most telling comment afterwards. I thought, was that collaboration seemed a way for an individual to grow stronger, or in other words, a “Safe Way to Fall”, considering that any creative journey will involve occasional failings and fallings. What I got from the item and its presentation was an insight into creative process that’s outside popular perception of that process, but nevertheless produces a result, whatever one might think of the same as heard here.

John Psathas’s other (somewhat more substantial) contribution to the concert was in a more traditional “inspired by various stimuli” kind of mode, in this case a two-part synthesis of other people’s literary and musical skills. The composer was entranced by author Dean King’s “Skeletons on the Zahara” outlining the historical shipwreck of a group of American sailors off the western coast of Africa in 1815, and their subsequent travails in a hostile desert landscape and at the hands of nomadic tribesmen – so when saxophonist Federico Mondelci, who in turn had been inspired by an earlier concerto for the instrument by Psathas, approached him to write another concerto, it was Zahara which came into being.

Saxophone soloist for the concerto’s performance Valentine Michaud provided considerable visual as well as musical stimulus, appearing on the platform in a stunningly voluminous (social-distancing-style?) orange-crimson dress whose undulating folds seemed to become as desert sands as she launched into the first of the concerto’s four movements,  her instrument straightaway “possessing” the ambience created by the long lines of the ambient orchestral accompaniments, denoting rituals of both physical and spiritual identification.

The concerto moved through these exotic realms with considerable variety, a second movement establishing ostinato-like rhythms as the soloist’s playing gradually “enlivened” the music, the exchanges massively and dramatically irrupting and falling away almost to nothing in attention-riveting ways; and a third movement prayerful and ethereal, the music’s haunting aspect enhanced by the soloist’s playing of multiphonics (two notes played at once) above what seemed to me like enormous blocks of air, as if one was a bird soaring over a landscape far below, before the ostinato rhythm was re-engaged and the soloist rhapsodised with the orchestral winds, oboe, bassoon, and clarinet.

The final movement straightaway re-invoked the whole scenario, creating in my mind a desert environment through winds and brass, over which the strings soared as the sky and beneath which the percussion rumbled as of the deep earth. Valentine Michaud used a soprano sax to scintillate through the movement’s first part, then returned to her tenor instrument to deepen the “earth-connection”, the orchestra keeping the ostinato thread going throughout, and lifting the ambiences into a “cheek-by-jowl” fusion of excitement and oneness with the soloist, all scintillation and coalescence to finish!

Michaud returned us to our lives at Zahara’s conclusion with an encore, playing a fun work which she told us was called “cuku” (a chicken), and further demonstrating her virtuosity with multiphonics, as if two birds were simultaneously calling to one another – a very “rustic farmyard” piece which entertained us most delightfully!

And so, after the interval, we entered the very different world of Bela Bartok’s ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin”, having, incidentally, been warned at the beginning by a “voice-over” announcement that the work we were about to hear contained scenes of rape and sexual violence (one might imagine the present-day general cultural entertainment scene well-versed in such antics, though of course government health warnings are still bandied about, and “live” performances might still shock the unsuspecting with the unexpected!)

Musically, I found the performance as enthralling and satisfying as was the Strauss work in the concert’s first half. The opening vortex of bedlam-like sounds – “humanity’s mad, inhuman noise” (as Alan Jay Lerner wrote in “My Fair Lady” in a somewhat different context) – was superbly and sonorously delivered, though it was disconcerting how, for me, the advent of the dancers (members of “Ballet Collective Aotearoa”) radically changed the focus of my attention to the visual drama (the result of having previously “immersed” myself in the music via recordings).

Each of the clarinet solos depicting the girl’s “luring” of prospective clients to be robbed by her cohorts was superbly wrought as was the orchestral support, given that the visual aspect constantly took one’s focus away from what one was “hearing” to that which was being “watched”. Bartok’s evocation of relative “innocence” in the case of the young boy was touching, as was the girl’s response to him, a situation brusquely ended by the ruffians (who, at one stage seemed to morph as a group into a quartet rather than the original trio).

The dancers conveyed what they could of the different scenarios, hampered as they were by the lack of space which a proper stage would have otherwise afforded. Dramatically, the most effective moment  was the appearance of the Mandarin, who emerged from a trapdoor centre-stage, dressed in a red robe and bathed in bright light. That, and the impact of  the sickly green light which illuminated the Mandarin’s transfixed form after his stabbing by the ruffians were theatrical highlights of the presentation – I only wish someone had thought of deploying an additional light upon the mandarin after he had “embraced” the girl and “satisfied” his desires, at which point his wounds begin to bleed, and he dies – a blood-red spotlight would have provided an apt contrast to the colours that had been previously used.

In all, I thought the presentation was a great success, and especially from the orchestral point of view, in which the flow of the story, the drama and the tension never let up. The Orpheus Choir, too, sonorously and atmospherically played its part, beautifully accompanied by the orchestral violas as the voices gathered intensity, helping to breathe life back into the Mandarin so as to fulfil his destiny with the girl – musically, a scalp-pricking moment, even if hardly the visual embodiment of erotic consummation of desire we had been “threatened with” at the outset.

A definite “feather in the cap” of Orchestra Wellington, then – and the success of “The Miraculous Mandarin” left me longing for the point at which Marc Taddei and his players might again enlist some dancers and give us Ravel’s complete “Daphnis et Chloe” – just a thought, but meant as a compliment for all concerned.

 

 

Lucia di Lammermoor – desperate people do desperate things……

Wellington Opera presents:
Gaetano DONIZETTI – Lucia di Lammermoor (1835)

(Libretto by Salvadore Canmmarano after Sir Walter Scott’s “The Bride of Lammermoor”

Conductor: Tobias Ringborg
Wellington Opera Chorus
Orchestra Wellington
Director: Sara Brodie
Cast: Normanno (Jordan Fonoti-Fulmaono)
Enrico (Phillip Rhodes)
Raimondo (Samson Setu)
Lucia (Emma Pearson)
Alisa (Hannah Ashford-Beck)
Edgardo (Oliver Sewell)
Arturo (Emmanuel Fonoti-Fulmaono
Assistant Director: Waitahi Aniwaniwa McGee
Set Design: Marc McIntyre
Costume Design: Tony DeGoldi
Lighting Design: Rowan McShane
Chorusmaster: Michael Vinten
Bridget Carpenter – Stage Director
Theresa May Adams – Production Director

St.James Theatre, Wellington,
Saturday, 25th March, 2023

Gaetano Donizetti’s opera “Lucia di Lammermoor” is one of the most famous of all musical stage creations on account of a single sequence in the work, the memorable “Mad Scene” which takes place midway through Act Three. It’s an on-stage happening whose haunting, chilling impact can’t help but dominate the average audience member’s memory and overall impression of the entire opera. On this count alone, Wellington Opera’s latest production at the capital’s resplendent St.James Theatre over a week of performances would have almost certainly satisfied and thrilled every audience member, from the wide-eyed opera-beginner to the most avid opera-goer alike.

The scene depicts in effect the aftermath of an enforced marriage, that of the opera’s heroine, Lucia (Emma Pearson), to a man she does not love, Arturo (Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono) – at the height of the post-nuptial celebrations among the wedding-guests, the new bride appears at the doorway of the banqueting hall covered with the blood of the husband she has just murdered in their chamber with a knife. She is in a delirium, imagining that she can see the man she really loves waiting for her, so she can join him at the altar, before reliving her rejection by him and her feelings of imminent death, and finally telling him she will wait for him in Heaven. The onlookers are awe-struck, while those directly responsible for enforcing the marriage are overcome with grief and guilt. No operatic scene in the entire repertoire surpasses this one in depth of feeling; and this performance certainly doesn’t disappoint in terms of its sheer impact, visual, aural and emotional.

Part of what gives the scene such poignancy is the near-visceral involvement of everybody else in the story with Lucia’s situation – in fact even her lover, Edgardo (Oliver Sewell), who so brutally rejected her in a previous scene is a “presence” here, foremost in her delirium and to the exclusion of everybody else in her mind, apart from a brief reference to the ghostly fountain-phantom of the story’s Act One and the “cruel brother” of Act Two. Director Sara Brodie had obviously marshalled her forces here to a nicety, a kind of acme of dramatic potency, the peak of which was expressed by soprano Emma Pearson’s masterly performance as the deranged Lucia (I still remember the latter’s similarly heart-rending, if differently constituted “Gilda” from a “Rigoletto” some years ago at the St.James with NZ Opera). Her “Lucia” was one whose overall focus and care for detail across the spectrum of characterisation was near-impeccable (as was the orchestral playing which via conductor Thomas Ringborg’s direction and Karen Batten’s flute-playing gave us constant pleasure) – and if Pearson’s most stratospheric top notes lacked the ultimate amplitude, the sense of a character abandoning all caution and reaching for the heights was nevertheless thrilling.

Though I thought nowhere else in the production so surely reached those same heights, a certain determined unanimity of purpose played its part in the stage action scaling those lower slopes that led up to the opera’s aforementioned climax.  I noted a mention in one of the programme’s foreword presentations that this production was set in “our own country’s Scottish-influenced Southland”, but couldn’t for the life of me equate any on-stage happening with such a location. And the set struck me as being a fairly utilitarian affair, a quality which straddled various of the story locations – castle grounds, a fountain, various rooms, a great hall, ruins, a graveyard – and with different lighting providing various contrasts, though again, hardly evoking any kinds of specific proximity to places such as Gore, Winton or Balclutha.

The supporting characters fit all the more readily into these all-purpose scenarios, with both the already-mentioned Oliver Sewell’s Edgardo, and the character of his chief adversary, Lucy’s brother Enrico (Philip Rhodes) creating suitably strong and purposeful figures central to the storyline. I thought Sewell brought an appealing tenderness to his character’s love for Lucia, making an effective contrast with his hostility towards the latter’s family, in particular Enrico, and adding the extra ballast of his fury at believing that Lucia had spurned him for another! Central to this Machiavellian plot is, of course, Enrico, with Philip Rhodes brilliantly amalgamating his character’s desperation at the state of the family fortunes with his hatred of Edgardo and his marriage-designs upon Lucia! What fertile soil in which to sow the musical seeds of an operatic plot!

Just occasionally I found both of their characters’ stage movements a trifle unmotivated, wanting them to move less at times and let their voices go more with the music to express their emotions and motivations and their faces “engage” the audience more readily –  there wasn’t much menace between Sewell’s Edgardo and Philip Rhodes’ Enrico in the marriage contract confrontation scene, just noise and bluster, though the first Act Three scene in the Wolf‘s Crag ruins generated rather more deadly intent. As with all the characters, their individual focus seemed to sharpen more noticeably as the evening proceeded.

The singers in smaller roles fulfilled their functions more than adequately, seeming to me to “fill out” their personas as the drama evolved – I came to really like Samson Setu’s Raimondo, especially his stirring warning to the guests in the Banquet Hall concerning the imminent and shocking arrival of Lucia. Because I wasn’t sitting especially close to the action I confused the two brothers Jordan (Normanno) and Emmanuel (Arturo) Fonoti Fuimaono when the latter arrived on stage as Lucia’s prospective husband in the opera’s second act! Each brother sang so splendidly in his role, I doubt whether either would be offended at this mix-up on my part. Another reliable vocal presence throughout, and an imposing figure in the drama was Hannah Ashford-Beck who sang the role of Alisa, Lucia’s nurse.

The chorus was another group whose contribution for me “grew” in intensity throughout the evening – they survived a moment of shaky ensemble early on, getting ahead of the conductor’s beat for a measure or two, at “Come vinti da stanchezza” (during their “reporting back” to Enrico on catching sight of an intruder in the grounds, in the opening scene). Easily their best singing and stage presence was during the famous “Mad Scene”, where their support of the singer and their contribution to the situation couldn’t be faulted.

I wasn’t at all surprised at the excellence of Orchestra Wellington’s response to the music of the drama throughout the evening, with conductor Tobias Ringborg getting playing of a high class, throughout, by turns dramatic, lyrical and atmospheric (I’ve already mentioned Karen Batten’s flute solos) – however, I was pleasantly surprised to see NZ String Quartet violinist Monique Lapins’s name as the orchestra leader on this occasion (what one might term luxury substitution – with, of course, no reflection upon the equally wonderful Amalia Hall, I hasten to emphasise!)….

In conclusion, congratulations to director Sara Brodie, in particular for being the presiding genius in enabling us opera-goers such a gripping first-hand experience of that unforgettable Act Three scene, the description of which I began this review with – a precious recollection!

 

 

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!