La Traviata – postscript from the last night of the run

VERDI – La Traviata

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

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

St James Theatre, Wellington

16th July  2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the story Verdi wanted to tell us.

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

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

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

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

Opera in the time of Covid

Wellington Opera presents:
VERDI – La Traviata

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

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

St James Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 9 July (and until 16 July)

(Review by Steven Sedley and Anne French)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Queen’s Closet Artistic Director: Gordon Lehany

Foxglove Ballroom, 57 Customhouse Quay, Wellington

Sunday 20th February, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dramatic and innovative Haydn in the Church from Camerata with soprano Carleen Ebbs

Camerata – Haydn in the Church

HANDEL – Overture Berenice
HAYDN –  Scena di Berenice (from Metastatio’s “Antigono”)*
HAYDN – Symphony No. 14 in A Hob 1:14

*Carleen Ebbs (soprano)
Camerata
Anne Loeser (leader)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis-St
Wellington

Friday, 5th November 2021

At the end of a busy and distracted Friday I found myself headed for St.Peter’s-on-Willis-St Church for Camerata’s latest “Haydn in the Church” concert series, which I’d been looking forward to ever since attending and enjoying the last one, though on this occasion I’d not been as assiduous in my preparation for the evening’s music as per usual – I had seen the programme on-line a couple of days previously, and was, of course expecting the accustomed delight of an early Haydn symphony to match that readily afforded by others in the series thus far, but I found myself scratching all about my memory-banks to recall what else I’d glimpsed on the  items “list”. I definitely recalled a soprano’s name, and an operatic scene to do with “Berenice”, which I had always thought was a work by Handel! – so I think at that point I gave up the conscious struggle, and consoled myself at the thought of everything being “revealed” once I’d gotten into the church.

Even then I didn’t get my hands on an actual programme, but  did talk briefly with Greg Hill, who was sitting next to me in a socially-distanced sense, and who actually had written the programme notes for the concert – at the interval he was able to confirm that there had been both a Handel and a Haydn work, each with the name Berenice, on the items list! So I had been on the right track after all.

I knew the Menuetto from Handel’s “Berenice” as my parents had owned a 78rpm disc of the work which I’d often heard when a child, and still remembered. This was, however, the whole of the Overture, a sprightly beginning, with the dotted rhythms beautifully “sprung”, leading to an Allegro whose trajectory had a joyous kind of enlivening energy, the oboe attractively colouring the string textures. The Menuetto featured the oboe-and-string sound prominently at first, before the strings repeated the material, playing the concluding lines of the second part with a beautiful and graceful legato. A lively Gigue rounded off the Overture in suitably festive fashion.

The name of the soprano Carleen Ebbs was one to conjure with, as she had made a richly favourable impression on the one occasion I’d previously seen and heard her, as the nymph Calisto in Cavalli’s eponymous opera, performed in 2015 by Days Bay Opera – on that occasion I was moved to voice the opinion that “Ebbs’ is a voice to listen out for”. She’s now returned to New Zealand after being based in London for 15 years, training at the Guildhall in London and at the Cardiff International Voice Academy, and working with a variety of prestigious coaches and at the great UK Opera Houses.

On the strength of her performance this evening of Haydn’s 1795 Scena di  Berenice, that promise, evident in the Days Bay La Calisto, has been more than fulfilled – Ebbs took us right inside the character of Berenice’s plethora of moods from the outset, capturing our sympathies from the very opening recitative Berenice che fai?, in which she first bemoans her own fear and weakness at the prospect of her lover Demetrio’s death, then expresses a longing to die alongside her beloved, through to the first impassioned aria in which the singer begs to be allowed to “cross that river” with him; and, finally, in some kind of delirium, raging against the cruelty of the gods with a fiery vocal brilliance throughout a second recitative and aria, the music storming to a passionate (and virtuosic) conclusion – tremendous stuff!

It seems from her website information that Ebbs has commitments in the UK regarding ongoing tutelage, and has already made the most of freelancing opportunities with various UK companies, activities which would have established her as a “sought-after” performer, particularly with her avowed enthusiasm for Baroque and early classical repertoire – whatever the uncertainties of the present situation world-wide regarding opportunities for performing musicians, one hopes for her continued successes, including, wherever possible, more appearances back here in New Zealand.

While all eyes (and ears) were on the singer during the drama of Haydn’s “scena”, the ensemble again became the centre of focus for the performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 14, the latest in Camerata’s exploration of the composer’s early symphonies. I note that, in a diverting on-line Classic FM post which featured a music critic asked to numerically “rank” the qualities of ALL of these  works, the hapless commentator gave this Symphony No.14 a high rating, after according some of the other “early” works what I thought were some unduly harsh verdicts regarding their “quality” – this A  Major work Hob 1:14 was actually placed 35th, ahead of many other “tried-and-true” works such as the “Military”, the “Farewell” and the “Surprise” symphonies – doubtless a case of “chacun a son goût” with the choices, as much as any other considerations!

This work’s high-spirited opening featured a repeated octave descent, followed afterwards by an even more vertiginous downward leap of a 10th (I think!), giving the music an attractively energetic character underpinned by the unrelenting bass line – I loved the horns’ ascents into high-wire material,  the oboes providing a less strenuous “echo” effect with their material, joining forces with the horns to great effect in the development, before the energetic rhythms marshalled their forces, the splendid playing driving the music to a part festive, part rustic conclusion.

The Andante moves a dignified but characterful processional along its course, the striding aspect of the melody augmented with graceful decorative notes upon repetition, the strings alone supplying the melodic interest. More fun was to be had from the Minuet (Menuetto)  with its ceremonial horns and chuckling winds, though the oboe introduced a sombre note with its minor-key melody in the trio – all very pastoral, with its hunting-horn ambiences and touches of out-of-doors melancholy!

The finale builds its material almost entirely on a descending figure (the reason for the aforementioned “critic” rating the work’s cleverness and innovation so highly), giving the whole movement a festive, bell-like atmosphere. Here the playing imparted a real sense of “schwung”, the musicians seeming to make their instruments dance to the joyous strains of the figurations, alternating delicacy with delight, and grace with energy. As is often the case with delectable pleasures, it all seemed over in a trice – so it was a good thing that Anne Loeser bade us remain for an “encore”, one which happened to continue the concert’s connection with the story from which Haydn’s scena had been taken. This was an excerpt from Gluck’s Overture to his opera seria Antigono, one which again featured the character of Berenice, the Egyptian princess in love with Demetrio, son of the King of Macedonia, to which monarch Berenice had been “promised” in marriage. Being Gluck, the music had a lyrical “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” quality, the two flutes adding to the ethereal character of the string-writing, and the sensitive accompaniments similarly transported, the whole given a resonant “music of the spheres” kind of sonority, which continued to enchant the senses long after the sounds had ceased.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Wellington Opera House
Tuesday 20th April, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Opera in a Days Bay Garden

La Sonnambula (Bellini)

Conductor: Mark Carter; producer and director: Rhona Fraser

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

Canna House, Days Bay, Wellington

Friday 12 February, 5:30 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camus’s La Peste … our Covid-19 … the sterility of opera … and …

Camus’s novel La Peste: the production in Oran, Algeria, of Gluck’s Orphée. A metaphor for the static, morbid condition of opera … and of our civilisation?

I subscribe to Opera News, the magazine published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, New York. It is the United States’ principal opera magazine.

The August 2020 issue is, unsurprisingly, short on articles on forthcoming operas and reviews of new productions across the States and elsewhere. But there is a number of articles on people and issues connected with opera which make the current issue a very good read.

One of the unusually interesting articles, inspired in various ways by the pandemic, is by David J Baker.

Here is the article:

‘It may surprise people to learn that Albert Camus once wrote about opera – in his definitive novel about a twentieth century epidemic. La Peste (The Plague) includes a bizarre, disturbing scene in an opera house. Seventy-five years after its publication, the novel can still speak to us about such a plague, and even more about opera.

‘Yet Camus describes a very different epidemic from ours. Social distancing, let alone the use of masks or a shut-down of stores and other public places, is never mentioned or practised in the novel; instead, the Algerian city of Oran, where the novel takes place, is ‘distanced’ – cut off entirely from the outside world for almost a year.

‘A touring opera troupe, trapped in Oran by the quarantine, has decided to continue to perform Gluck’s Orphée, which makes up its entire touring repertoire. They have presented it every Friday evening for the duration of the plague. The opera is always the same; yet the house is sold out each time. Like the overcrowded restaurants, bars and cinemas described in the novel – such a contrast to our recently vacant cities – the plague city’s municipal opera house has helped to satisfy the citizens craze for distraction from the mortal threat they face.

‘An anomaly in Camus’s plague is that people are satisfied with watching, over and over again, the same film or play or opera, because no new material is coming into the city. In Camus’s hands, this restricted repertoire, and audiences’ acceptance of it, becomes an especially apt way to typify one effect of the epidemic – limited choices, repetitive behaviour, numbing distractions, the sense, familiar today as well, of living on a treadmill, in a closed circle.

‘But why select Gluck’s Orphée as the one opera played weekly throughout the long months of the Oran plague? Orpheus is one of the most symbolic of all mythological figures: in Western aesthetics and consciousness; he epitomises the power of art (specifically music), a power stronger than death. In operas by Monteverdi, Gluck and others, his lyre and his voice work the miracle of rescuing his wife from Hades – from death itself.

‘Attending one of Oran’s weekly performances, Jean Tarrou (one of the narrators) is intrigued by the posh audience as couples begin to file in ostentatiously, well-dressed, mingling and clearly regaining some of their habitual (pre-plague) assurance. During the performance, Tarrou begins to notice something unusual on stage. The Act I ‘ariettes’, we are told, are sing by principals and chorus with “facility” and “grace”. Then, almost imperceptibly, the Orphée (a male singer, as was traditionally more common with French performances) “inserted tremolos” that were not part of his Act II aria and, “with a slight excess of pathos, beseeched the master of Hell to heed his pleas. Certain jerky gestures escaping him seemed, to the more savvy spectators, a stylistic effect that added appreciably to the singer’s interpretation”.

‘Only during the duet in Act III, “the point where Eurydice escaped Orphée” does the audience begin to react. And, “as if these noises from the audience confirmed the singer in what he was feeling, at the moment he advanced to the footlights, Grotesquely, stretching his arms and legs in his antiquarian costume, and collapsed,” overturning scenery in his fall. The orchestra falls silent, and the audience begins to leave the theatre “at first discreetly (as they would leave a church, or a funeral) and then in a desperate, disorderly rush”.

‘The narrator and his companion are left alone, confronted with an image “of what their life had become: the plague onstage in the form of a contorted tragedian and, in the hall, signs of luxury now useless … forgotten opera glasses, and lace garments discarded against the crimson upholstered seats”. Art – like its more frivolous accessories among the elite audience – falls prey to the ravages of the epidemic.

‘Opera audiences in 2020 are being spared such dreadful scenes, thanks to the precautions taken during “our” pandemic. We are also deprived of live opera altogether. How significant is this aesthetic and social loss in the greater scheme of the pandemic? Should we complain about the plight of the opera world when we appreciate the mortal risk of the coronavirus – which, in a small distortion of a word used by Sartre and Camus, we can call an “existential threat”?

‘At the end, when normal life returns, one minor character says: “What does the plague really matter? It’s life, that’s all”. Afflicted for years with tuberculosis, and starting this novel during the war, Camus saw life as struggle and resistance, a response to our “absurd” condition. In a less momentous sense, this philosopher, novelist and playwright may have seen opera, too, as not without absurdity. Perhaps, in presenting a company and a theatre with a repertoire of just one opera, he was presciently suggesting one of the weaknesses of this art form as it is practised  and marketed today; the opera scene in La peste could be taken as parody, as a metaphor for opera’s basically fixed, unchanging repertoire. Few new works keep the repertoire alive and growing; what we see on stage, as in Camus’s scene, is a form of death.

‘When the curtain goes up again – on our cities, and in our opera houses – we can hope that it’s not just a return to business as usual. Our pandemic has brought painful reminders of social disparities, prompting calls for reform. What remains to be seen is how our plague will affect arts institutions. Will we return to the opera marketplace as Camus depicted it so starkly, in his exaggerated dramatization – as a shrinking repertoire, a moribund institution, a privilege for the few?’

The author is identified thus: David J Baker, whose translations of the Camus excerpts appear here, taught La Peste and other novels to undergraduates while preparing his PhD in French.

Opera News is a relatively low-priced opera magazine. New Zealanders can subscribe for US$69.99 per annum, for 12 issues. It was the price that first attracted me about 30 years ago and I have been a subscriber ever since.
Opera News has for many years been much more than simply a newsletter for well-healed ‘Friends’; it offers a fair view of the surprising extent of opera in the United States and Canada (there are about 150 professional opera companies, members of Opera America), as well as some news and reviews from elsewhere.

Apart from the injury currently being inflicted on the performing arts world-wide, opera is flourishing in terms of the numbers of opera companies. The wretched condition of opera in New Zealand is not typical of its extent elsewhere. 

Lindis Taylor

The composer of Kopernikus, Claude Vivier: interview with conductor Vladimir Jurowski

Why Quebec composer Claude Vivier was ahead of his time

In the absence of real concerts that Middle C can review, why not publish things of musical interest that might in small part make up for the deprivations we all suffer at present? 

Here is an article that appeared in 2018 in the Montreal Globe and Mail that might interest those who saw Claude Vivier’s opera, Kopernikus, at the recent festival in Wellington. I came across a reference to Vivier in the French magazine, Opéra Magazine: a concert performance of Vivier’s Hiérophanie, scheduled for performance at the Paris Philharmonie (the city’s brilliant new concert hall) in September last.

See Middle C review at https://middle-c.org/2020/03/festival-stages-remarkable-eccentric-opera-by-canadian-claude-vivier/)

In seeking information about Hiérophanie, I found this interview/article. 

Article by Catherine Kustanczy

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published April 13, 2018

This article was published more than 1 year ago. Some information in it may no longer be current.

Many things can be said about the music of Claude Vivier, but one thing is certain: No one who hears it is quite the same afterward. Vivier, who would have turned 70 on April 14th, is a unique figure in music. Orphaned as a baby, he attended Catholic boarding school and later the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal, before studying composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne. A boisterous figure known for his distinct laugh and an omnipresent sheepskin coat, Vivier’s works, largely biographical, were, as British musicologist Bob Gilmore has written, a way of “confronting loneliness, darkness, terror; of negotiating a relationship with God; of voicing an insatiable longing for acceptance and for love.”

His music combines voice, rhythm and instrumental textures, in French, German, and even imaginary languages. Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Do you believe in the immortality of the soul), his final, unfinished work, concerns a narrator (named Claude) meeting a young man and being fatally stabbed; Vivier would perish in this exact way on March 8, 1983.

An interview with conductor Vladimir Jurowski: his views about Vivier

There have been numerous tributes to Vivier over the past year, with Canadian outlets Soundstreams, Against the Grain Theatre and Esprit Orchestra (the latter being long-time supporters) presenting work. But if the old Canadian trope holds true about foreign recognition being a litmus test for success, then Vivier passes, with flying colors.

One notable tribute unfolded in Berlin in late February. Presented by contemporary classical group ensemble unitedberlin (who have previously explored Vivier’s work), the concert saw Russian conductor and artistic adviser Vladimir Jurowski exercising his music talents and theatrical instincts with equal zeal, particularly during Hiérophanie (1970-71), in which he played a stern priest/judge, directing members of the ensemble through shouts, shuffles and prostrations, in a performance faithful to Vivier’s animated instructions.

Days later, Jurowski led the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester (Radio Symphony Orchestra) Berlin, where he is chief conductor and artistic director, in a harrowing performance of works by Berg, Shostakovich and contemporary Australian composer Brett Dean, whose operatic adaptation of Hamlet was given its world premiere at the Glyndebourne opera festival last summer, with Jurowski on the podium.

As well as being principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, he holds a directorship in Moscow and keeps a busy schedule of dates across Europe. Building creative programs, especially ones featuring 20th-century work, is his specialty, and in the case of Vivier, he notes that “the further away we’re getting from him physically, the more important he becomes spiritually and artistically.”

In 2021, Jurowski begins duties as general music director of the Bavarian State Opera and has indicated that Munich audiences can anticipate lesser-known works alongside opera hits. Will that include Vivier’s 1980 opera Kopernikus? Only Jurowski knows for sure.

Why Vivier in 2018?

He was, in many ways, ahead of his time, and he was beyond time and space. Some people who were very much in their time, like [Karlheinz] Stockhausen or [Pierre] Boulez, made their time, made it an epoch – an era – and in some of their aspects, remain timeless, but in other aspects sound extremely dated. For instance, Stockhausen, who Vivier studied with, a lot of his work sounds incredibly dated today. Vivier, because he was creating his style from scratch, precreated something which came into full effect only after he departed. So now, of course, we can only imagine what he could have developed had he lived any longer.

When did you first hear the work of Vivier?

My personal route was via [French composer] Gérard Grisey . I discovered his last piece, which he also tragically left unfinished, because he died – Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold – and that piece was, in its initial stages, connected to Vivier’s death. So Grisey was trying to pay tribute to his friend, and they were near-contemporaries. I somehow instinctively felt that in the case of Vivier, we have one of those rare, highly romantic cases where the life of a composer and the work of a composer become one thing. In my head, Vivier is sitting up there with people like Gustav Mahler and Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Franz Schubert, those people for whom an artistic expression became an existentialist act which could be life-changing, life-saving or life-annihilating. So without having any facts at hand to prove the case, I am convinced, more than I am convinced about anything else, that Vivier had initiated and planned and nearly, could say, staged, his departure.

You think so?

I’m convinced. Having composed this imaginary death, he felt he had to oblige his own artistic imagination, and go. It’s like one of the traditional Japanese beliefs, that if you cannot change the world and strongly dislike it, you’re supposed to leave the world to its karma and leave. For someone like Vivier, who’d been strongly connected to all sorts of Oriental spiritual beliefs and practices, that was the most natural thing to do. The unnatural aspect of course is the form of death.

So his passing was his final artistic act?

That’s exactly what I feel about it.

What’s it been like to be so involved with a work that demands more as a conductor?

I think that’s to do with me generally being some kind of, I call it bat syndrome, a bat in the sense of it being an animal which has left the world of mammals but hasn’t quite reached the world of birds. I am flying between the worlds.

So you don’t want to be a traditional conductor?

No, it’s boring. There’s a whole new generation, people like Teodor Currentzis – he also goes over borders stylistically – we are very different, but still I think it’s a genuine interest for not just one direction in the music. For me, the predominant points of my artistic being are symphonic music, early music, contemporary music and music theatre. And sometimes I’m even allowed to combine all of them in one.

 

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

NZ Opera presents
EIGHT SONGS FOR A MAD KING

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

The King: Robert Tucker

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

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

RNZB Dance Centre, Wellington

Monday 2nd March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Festival stages remarkable, eccentric opera by Canadian, Claude Vivier

New Zealand Festival of the Arts
Kopernikus: Opéra – rituel de mort by Claude Vivier

Directed by Peter Sellars and curated by Lemi Ponifasio
Singers: Roomful of Teeth
Instrumentalists: Ensemble l’instant donné

Opera House, Wellington

Sunday 1 March, 7 pm

It hasn’t been hard to have missed references in the international musical press to a very unusual opera by an unorthodox, fairly obscure composer.

Think again if you imagined you would be presented with a kind of operatic biography of the great astronomer, for he is merely one of a number of disparate historical and fictional figures that feature in Canadian composer Claude Vivier’s work. A work that that is dominated by the contemplation of death, subtitled: the Ritual of Death.

It was composed in 1978/79 and premiered on 9 May 1980 at the University of Montreal where it has had several subsequent productions. Vivier was killed, apparently in a homosexual encounter in Paris in 1983.

Peter Sellars directed its first United States production in 2016 at the Ojay Music Festival in California, in the production that has since been seen in various places including Bilbao, New York, Paris … and finally in Wellington. The work seems not to have been much revived, if at all, through the 1990s apart from in Canada, but has more recently seen several productions, which I enlarge on in an Appendix. One of the co-production names, apart from the Paris Autumn Festival at the Théâtre de la ville, is the KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen, in Hanover.

The richest variety of reactions have emerged from critics and the general audience, about Kopernikus. It’s been described as a transition from life to death, transcendental, mystical, disorientating, atmospheric, ethereally beautiful, immersive, stirring, mesmerizing, evocative.

Were he alive, Vivier would claim that complaints about the obscurity and the disorientating impact of the work miss the point. It is not perhaps incoherent; but to take a sympathetic view of it, very unusual in its context, its style and language. Its subject matter which can be felt as philosophically and intellectually pretentious, suggest the sort of creation that a gifted undergraduate might produce to show a wide-ranging though recent familiarity with disparate eras and aspects of philosophical, religious notions; a juxtaposition of science, orthodox philosophical ideas laced with varieties of mysticism such as in the role of Agni, the Vedic god of fire.

The words and the music 
One unusual, though plain element arises with Copernicus whose then-revolutionary findings about the movement of the planets and the sun is delivered in normal speech. Vivier suggests that “as he transformed understanding of the universe, death changes our understanding of our lives”.

Similarly pertinent, are later brief references to major philosophers, from Thales and Plato, through Averroes in the 12th century, to Copernicus himself.

We are not confronted however, by music that is problematic. There is nothing wildly dissonant and incoherent such as was favoured by the avant-garde through the latter years of the century. The character of the vocal and instrumental music is unusual, original, even bizarre, yet it has an emotional impact that marks it as genuinely imaginative. It arouses curiosity and much of it can be listened to with simple pleasure. Harmonies are usually conventional though employed in strange ways.

One review from Canada described it as ‘…a surreal experience for the audience’. And continued: ‘The work’s intimate power, manifest weirdness, sublimely sonic harmonies, meditative incandescence and above all, ritualistic remembrance of all universes past and future’.
Yes.

The ‘staging’ was a curious matter; need it really have been in an opera house? For it didn’t use the pit, and the disposition of players and singers was simply functional, influenced by whoever was performing from time to time. Players mingled with singers, and they all moved about, not in a way that suggested a plot or actual events, but simply to position themselves for their next individual offering. That casualness contributed to the agreeable impression that the entire performance generated.

And there’s a dead man lying on a slab in the centre of the stage; at one point he is spoken to directly, “Eternity comes to speak to us and we must listen; sublime revelation is the voice of time…”    He rises miraculously at the beginning of the second part. It wasn’t clear to me whether he then took a particular part or even spoke or sang at all.

Singers and instrumentalists
Both singers and instrumentalists have worked with Sellars elsewhere. All are dressed in white and are together on a partially raised stage with no sets other than chairs and a bed on which a dead man lies.

The seven singers, Roomful of Teeth, cover the full range from coloratura soprano to bass; they each have conspicuous roles and displayed remarkable sympathy with the music, both its coherence and its incoherence. For the most part they sing individually, but there are occasional ensembles that reveal interesting, engaging harmonies, which might technically be dissonances, but they are so beautifully used that they are heard as good examples of intelligent dissonance with genuine artistic purpose. The singers take roles: Copernicus himself and his mother, Lewis Carroll, Merlin, a witch, Mozart and the Queen of the Night, Tristan and Isolde, and a central character: Agni. But the programme notes spell out a great number of subsidiary roles taken by each singer, drawn from Vivier.

Much of the singing is in Vivier’s made-up language and most of the rest is in French and surtitles covered the latter. But it was rarely possible in a single hearing, to identify singers of individual roles, nor is there a story line to create any semblance of a normal opera.

The seven orchestral players the Ensemble l’instant donné comprise a violin, 3 clarinets – – one doubled on a bass clarinet, an oboe, trumpet – not usually visible, and trombone, and there’s a collection of percussion. It was a lively, always energising performance by these seven musicians, conspiring brilliantly with the singers throughout.

Also included in a well balanced programme book, is an excellent, short essay by Clarissa Dunn (of ‘Concert FM’, at least for the moment).

A New York Times review commented: “The best Vivier performances capture his delirious, jewelled grandeur but also his modesty — the earnest intensity of his desire to communicate, even through nonsense syllables.”

 

Appendix
Earlier productions
After its initial performances in Montreal it has been revived there in 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1989; in London in 1985 at the Almeida Festival, in Paris in 1989, and in Vancouver in 1990.

It’s remarkable that it had taken 41 years for it to be heard in New York, and 38 years for the United States generally (at the Ojai Music Festival in California in 2016); but does that say something about relations between the US and Canada, and even more with Quebec: not least about the cultural condition of a country where opera, and classical music generally, are in the hands of the private sector rather than of enlightened state institutions.

It’s fared better in Europe. In Amsterdam in 2014; in 2018 it was performed in the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse; at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin, in January 2019. And as remarked above, this production was shared with KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen, in Hanover. While it’s now, perhaps as a result of its espousal by a director as famous as Sellars, being seen more widely, it has clearly not been eagerly taken up by any of the major opera houses. Its first appearance in New York, last year, was at a minor Brooklyn theatre, the production have been premiered in a planetarium in Buenos Aires; in Paris it was at the normally non-music Théâtre de la ville, which is opposite the major operatic, Châtelet theatre.

A review of a 2001 performance in Montreal in London’s Opera magazine commented that Kopernikus had become Canada’s most frequently performed opera. And it remarked that the performance seen in Montreal came at the end of a cross-country run of performances by Toronto’s Autumn Leaf Productions.

It was that production that ran in Huddersfield in 2000, and was reviewed by Opera magazine’s editor John Allison in February 2001. His very measured review included this observation: “It could easily irritate even the mildest of sceptics, and the compelling grip of this performance was thanks in part to the simple and poetic staging by the Toronto-based Autumn Leaf Performance company”.

It was the simplicity and unpretentiousness of the Sellars’ production in Wellington that moderated the degree of scepticism that I too felt about the ‘story’ aspect of the work.

And I found myself somewhat, by no means entirely, in sympathy with critic Robert Markow’s remark in Opera magazine about the Toronto performance:
Kopernikus is rich in potential, yet the opera is maddeningly unfulfilling. Beyond the score’s obviously imaginative and original instrumental sound-world, a giant leap of faith is required to connect with Vivier’s autobiographical display of self-indulgence masquerading as a universal initiation myth.”

And I do not share a peremptory dismissal such as this: “Yet within three minutes of the 70-minute ‘opera-ritual of death’, it was evident that Mr. Vivier’s inspiration came from a senseless jumble of eclectic paraphernalia.”

By the way, the name has become an EU issue. There has been a move to change the spelling of the name to the German version, which is as spelt in Vivier’s opera (though in French it’s Copernic). Poland has protested; it is Kopernik in Polish. Copernicus was born Torun which is now in Poland but which over the centuries has been in either Poland or Prussia. One Polish authority has recommended a compromise using the Latin spelling which is Copernicus, which if course has long been the international name.