Offenbach’s anniversary year: Jewish, German, and essentially French; painstaking emergence and eventual triumph

Offenbach turns 200 today, Thursday 20 June.

If you look hard enough, interesting anniversaries generally show up every year. But few recent years have been as interesting as this, especially for one who ranks the two best-known, French birthday celebrants right at the top of their class.

It’s the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death (on 8 March this year); and the 200th anniversary of the birth of two of the most successful composers of light opera, or comic opera, or operetta, or opera-bouffe – take your pick – in mid 19th century: Franz von Suppé and Jacques Offenbach. Outside Germany and Austria, Suppé is today known almost only for half a dozen sparkling overtures to his forty or so operettas: Die schöne Galathée, Boccaccio, Fatinitza, Die Banditenstreiche, Poet and Peasant, Morning, Noon and Night and Light Cavallery. There are, naturally, similarities between Offenbach and Suppé, but the greatest difference is in the survival of much of the huge quantity of stage works by the one and virtual disappearance of the works of the other.

As I was putting this article together, I was delighted to hear RNZ Concert advertising its week-long plan to celebrate Offenbach, although so far the pickings have been rather scrappy and insignificant. Given the typically breathless hype with which forthcoming programmes are announced, I’d rather expected something substantial every day: a scene or more from three or four of his best opéras-bouffes as well as a decent chunk of The Tales of Hoffmann – the Antonia act is the richest for me; and several of the overtures and samples of his compositions for cello; his very successful ballet Le Papillon – only half an hour or so long – or a suite from the brilliant pastiche ballet, Gaité Parisienne which used to be featured often on 2YC’s dinner music programme in my teens….. There were a few gems however, though I missed most of them. One that intrigued me was excerpts from Fées du Rhin, on Eva Radich’s midday programme. It was originally called Rheinnixen, one of the few he wrote for German audiences – Vienna – in 1864. I’m sure I had never heard any of Rheinnixen before, but the waltz was very familiar, and I thought it was perhaps from his ballet Le Papillon which he’d written a few years earlier. And my copy of Alexander Faris’s biography of Offenbach confirmed that borrowing; indeed, it’s from Le Papillon.

England v. France in comic opera
In the English speaking world Offenbach has till recently, been generally denigrated, certainly given a lower ranking than Sullivan; and given credit, reluctantly, for only The Tales of Hoffmann. But the criteria for assessing the musics of countries as artistically different as Britain and France simply make comparisons dangerous. Offenbach’s theatre works have conventionally been regarded, in Britain anyway, as insubstantial, licentious, clumsy burlesque, in comparison to Gilbert and Sullivan.

That’s reflected in English books about opera. For example, The Viking Opera Guide lists 23 works by Sullivan compared with only seven by Offenbach; a curious view, given that Sullivan’s 23 are his entire stage output while Offenbach produced around a hundred (no one pretends they are all masterpieces!). Inevitably, there are points of similarity since they were roughly contemporaneous: Offenbach’s productive operetta years were from 1855 to 1880, while Sullivan’s were from about 1870 to 1900.

Looking at Offenbach’s references in my own books on opera, ignoring him seems a national passion.
The following shows date of publication and the numbers of operas by 1) Offenach and 2) others.

J Cuthbert Hadden; Favourite Operas (1910)   None out of 57
Leo Melitz: The Opera Goer’s Complete Guide (1914)  4 out of 227
Gustave Kobbé: The Complete Opera Book (1922)  A cursory reference to Hoffmann out of 197
R A Streatfiled: The Opera (1925) Only Hoffmann out of c 320.
The Gramophone Company: Opera at Home (1925) only Hoffmann out of about 170
Ernest Newman: Opera Nights (1943)  None out of 29
Earl of Harewood (ed): Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book (1987)  4 out of over 300
The Viking Opera Guide (1993) 6 out of around 2000
Denis Forman: The Good Opera Guide (1994) none out of 84
Earl of Harewood and Antony Peattie: The New Kobbé’s Opera Book (1997) 6 out of nearly 500 (Sullivan – nil)
Amanda Holden: The New Penguin Opera Guide (2001)  (a major updating of the Viking Opera Guide) 6 out of 2000

Things were very different in New Zealand

A glance at Adrienne Simpson’s splendid history of opera in New Zealand, Opera’s Farthest Frontier, is very interesting. While her references don’t allow a count of actual performances she does list all the traceable operas produced in New Zealand till 1970.

By then, Offenbach was the most performed opera composer in New Zealand – 14 different works had been seen here. Next came Sullivan with 11, Verdi, Mozart and Donizetti with 7 each and Puccini, Planquette and Lecocq at 5 each. That reflects the huge popularity of comic opera in New Zealand edging out major, main-stream opera from the 1870s. A little later the Sullivans and Offenbach’s were being replaced by more ephemeral works, by composers whose names are generally quite forgotten today (Leo Fall, Victor Herbert, Audran, Oscar Straus, and Planquette and Lecocq (mentioned above), After the turn of the century, even they were being replaced by musical comedy.

And after the First World War Offenbach was being bypassed by more mainstream opera, by the far fewer visiting opera companies that came to New Zealand from then.

The Offenbach pieces seen in New Zealand by 1970 were: Barbe-Bleu, La belle Hélène, The Brigands, La fille du Tambour-Major, Fortunio’s Song, Geneviève de Brabant (the one with the famous ‘Gendarmes Duet’), The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, Madame Favart, Madame l’Archiduc, Orpheus in the Underworld, La Périchole, The Princess of Trebizonde, Monsieur Choufleur restera chez lui (RSVP), The Tales of Hoffmann.

Offenbach’s origins
Though Offenbach was a genuinely French composer in both style and spirit, he was born of Jewish parents in Cologne. His father led a peripatetic life as a musician – a cantor in various synagogues, finally settling in Cologne.

Jacques (born Jakob) Offenbach displayed the usual musical precocity of most great composers. Exposed first to the violin he soon fastened on to the cello and it was his playing the cello to Paris Conservatoire Director Luigi Cherubini that won him a place in 1833, aged 14. He abandoned the Conservatoire after a year and soon became a cellist in the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique and also won notoriety as a cello virtuoso in Paris salons, and elsewhere. But the urge to compose took root early although he found no opportunities to compose other than instrumental or theatre music.

However, his mixture of conspicuous talent, engaging charm, wit, and an ability to make friends with certain conspicuous conductors, singers, musicians and composers like Flotow, Halévy, Adolph Adam provided him with constant musical activity. He became well known in the salons of society hostesses where his gifts and personality made a real mark. Biographer James Harding wrote: “His skill at the cello, his lively chatter, entertained people; his accent amused them and gave piquancy to what he said. He was quick and ready in conversation and the presence of smartly dressed men and women stimulated him. He loved the atmosphere of wealth and fashion. His friend, composer Friedrich von Flotow wrote: ‘My friend scored a great success and soon he became a favourite in the salon of the comtesse de Vaux’.”

Cellist as social butterfly
But try as he might his efforts to compose for the Opéra-comique led nowhere, as he seemed to have found an enemy in the shape of its director. Through the late 1830s and early 40s he led a comfortable, but for him, an unfulfilled existence as a popular cello teacher, an accomplished musician, very popular in fashionable society, composing ballads and arrangements of opera arias. At the age of 20 he was invited to compose a vaudeville, Pascal et Chambord, but it sank without trace. He gave his first public concert a couple of years later in a fashionable, new recital hall and that was not a success; another, this time with a well-known singer, was more successful.

Then there was a tour to London in 1844 and a critic wrote after one concert that “He is on the violoncello what Paganini is on the violin”.  He played at Windsor Castle before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

But still an invitation to compose for the Opéra-Comique didn’t arrive. When it looked as if his luck was changing as Adolphe Adam proposed staging a one-act opéra-comique by Offenbach, Alcôve, at Adam’s newly established Théâtre-Lyrique, the 1848 Revolution broke out and everything froze. He fled to Cologne.

All changes
After a year in Cologne, Offenbach returned to Paris and chanced to meet the man who had just become director of the Comédie-Française (France’s principal national theatre company) and was determined to revive its flagging reputation; he knew about Offenbach and asked him to take charge of the music. Even though it was not opera, it offered Offenbach the chance to compose and arrange incidental music, to manage musicians and build up the orchestra and enhance his reputation in the theatre world.

He flourished and it gave him confidence to set up his own theatre. The early 1850s slowly evolved in Offenbach’s favour. By 1853 his experience at the Comédie-Française was yielding opportunities and contacts that saw the first couple of successful one-act opéras-comiques. He was inspired by the enterprise of another young composer, Hervé, who had successfully set up his own theatre in an unpropitious part of Paris. Offenbach spotted a small run-down theatre near the Champs-Élysées; he recognised the potential of a lively theatre near the forthcoming 1855 Universal Exposition; and finally, he met the recent founder of the great French daily Le Figaro, Henri de Villemessant who recognised Offenbach’s talents, and his energy and agreed to fund the enterprise.

Thereupon, Offenbach threw himself into the huge task of refurbishing the theatre, recruiting singers and musicians, engaging librettists and writing his own music for the four one-act opéras-bouffes that were to be presented on 5 July 1855 at the launch of the Bouffes-Parisiens.

The money poured in and in a few months Offenbach had found another, larger, more suitable theatre on rue Monsigny, that backed onto the Passage Choiseul in the fashionable 2nd Arrondissement. His theatre became the Bouffes-Parisiens, Choiseul. He spent lavishly on its furnishings and amenities and moved there before the end of 1855.

It was the start of Offenbach’s astonishing 25 year career during which a new genre of comic opera, strong on satire and irreverence was created. It brought him into the limelight at once , gave him financial security (though, no matter how much he flourished, his extravagant spending on productions and his own life-style made life always precarious).

The revival of the obscure and neglected
Palazetto Bru-Zane: Centre de musique romantique française
In recent years there has been a remarkable revival of interest in the forgotten and misjudged music of earlier eras. It has moved from a concentration on the Renaissance and Baroque periods to an effort to repair the neglect of the music of ‘second-tier’ composers, of the late 18th and 19th centuries whose music has been forgotten; mainly because of the emergence of an admittedly great composer who has left all others in the shade. It’s a sad commentary on the tendency of most people to confine their attention simply to the most famous figures in an era – life is simpler like that.

In the past ten years, neglected French opera, and its various lesser genres, has been subjected to resuscitation. It has been led by the Venice-based organisation called Palazetto Bru-Zane: Centre de musique romantique française. Based in a palace of an ancient, rich Venetian family, Zane, it has been funded and vigorously supported by a Swiss pharmaceutical company, Bru, which has for ten years poured funds into the production of neglected French operas. They are premiered in the small Venetian theatre and then seen in several co-productions with French opera companies. It is part of a broader aim to reinterpret the meaning of Romanticism in France, to explore the period before the Revolution (operas such as Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), Salieri’s Les Danaïdes (1784) and Sacchini’s Œdipe à Colone (1786), as well as to revive interest in orchestral works including symphonies by Gossec and Méhul.

The project has also awakened interest in the overlooked works of the post-Revolution period; in particular drawing attention to the creation of several important ‘Romantic’ works around 1830 and the time of the July Revolution that ended Charles X’s reign and launched that of Louis-Philippe (the July Monarchy). Great works of art, literature and music – essentially ‘Romantic’ in character – appeared as if the conservative atmosphere of the post-Napoleonic monarchy had finally gone: Victor Hugo’s Hernani and Notre Dame de Paris, Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir, Delacroix’s La Mort de Sardanapale, Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, Adolphe Adam’s ballet Giselle, Rossini’s (by now a Frenchman) William Tell, and the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz.

Their activities have been prodigious: look up:

And this year, naturally, it’s Offenbach. See:

Admirably staged and sung opera and music theatre excerpts from the school of music

“Collision”: Opera Scenes 2016
New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University

Musical director: Mark Dorrell; Director: Jon Hunter
Performance tutor: Maaike Christie-Beekman

Memorial Theatre, Victoria University

Sunday 11 September, 2:30 pm (earlier performances on 9 and 10 September)

The school of music’s once annual opera productions have in recent years fallen back to biennial events. In the between years, students create a series of scenes from opera, against a background of elementary sets and a few props that can, with a bit of imagination, be used in various settings.

This production employed around sixteen singers, though the photo gallery in the printed programme contained 23 faces which included first-year students and two guest singers who were not individually listed, but contributed to the chorus; many took part in two or three scenes.

The scenes from eleven works were divided between opera proper and various sub-categories that go by a variety of definitions like operetta, comic opera, musicals, musical theatre. The excerpts from heartland opera came first while the various kinds of musical theatre were in the second half.

As a generalized comment, the quality of singing, acting, energy level, and spirit of enthusiasm and enjoyment were very high, and at moments where musical or story quality limped, the dynamism that invested the whole show carried it.

The marvellous discovery scene from Act 3 of The Marriage of Figaro made a hilarious and fast-paced beginning: Marcellina and Bartolo are revealed as Figaro’s real parents, and their portrayals were vocally strong (Katrina Brougham and William King), as was the devil-may-care Figaro of Joseph Haddow.,with Alexandra Gandionco as Susanna.

Donizetti’s Tudor opera Anna Bolena handles the revelation to Henry VIII’s Queen, Anne Boleyn, of her unwilling rival, Jane Seymour. It exposed Shayna Tweed’s (the Queen’s) voice at the start, but it gained strength and individuality alongside Olivia Sheat’s vivid depiction of Seymour, as the latter’s uncomfortable role is exposed.

Britten’s comedy Albert Herring which may not have had a professional production in New Zealand since the 1960s, is not easy to bring comfortably to life; its humour can seem naïve. Before the opening scene, four singers set the spirit of the piece with a ball game, from later in the first act. A village meeting in the first scene decides to replace the annual Queen of the May contest (no girl is seen as virtuous enough) by a King of the May – and the chosen boy is the simple, but virtuous Albert Herring. Several earlier singers consolidated their talents here, plus the Lady Billows of Elyse Hemara, who assumed the role of patroness and village matriarch, in a spirited scene.

The card scene from Carmen and the mutual disclosure of Falstaff’s identical letters to Alice and Meg were further opera excerpts between operetta and musical in the second half. In the card scene, Frasquita and Mercedes (Olivia Sheat and Pasquale Orchard) study their fates in the cards before the light-hearted tone suddenly vanishes with Carmen’s arrival. There was a somewhat nervous vibrato in Sally Haywood’s voice which may coincidentally have matched the revelation of her fate.

Both Sheat and Haywood reappeared in the famous scene from Falstaff in which the two ladies discover Falstaff’s foolish ploy and decide to play along. Elizabeth Harré, who had sung the spoiler’s role of Florence in Albert Herring, took another strong character role as Mistress Quickly. (How I’d have loved it if the Nannetta, Alexandra Gandionco, had sung that magical ‘Sul fil d’un soffio etesio’ in the last scene – Angela Gheorghiu totally undid me with her recording).

The Broadway musicals included the 1975 satire on police corruption, Chicago, with the highlight scene, ‘Cell Block Tango’, for six prison inmates who celebrate their achievements in punishing errant husbands: a hilarious, if alarming scene that was splendidly carried off.  All have been mentioned elsewhere, except for Nicole Davey: and all that needs be said is that there was no weakness among the six.

Then Sondheim’s Into the Woods, one of his most successful near-musicals, in which Garth Norman and William King vividly illuminated the two fairy-tale princes to Cinderella and to the Grimm tale, Rapunzel, in the scene, ‘Agony’.

Fiddler on the Roof originated as a Yiddish story from Russia, and its most famous number, ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’, again characterized in genuine Broadway style, though only subtly satirizing the practice of arranged marriages; the three daughters: Eleanor McGechie, Emma Cronshaw-Hunt and Karishma Thanawala.

Les Misérables was the only one of the musicals that did not originate in New York (Paris, though its real success came after its English adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London). It offered yet another kind of love dilemma, ‘In my life’ and ‘A heart full of love’, with Karishma Thanawala (after her Chava in ‘Matchmaker’), here sang Eponine, grief-stricken at giving up Marius (Julian Chu-Tan) to Pasquale Orchard’s Cosette.

Three scenes from The Pirates of Penzance brought the show to a close. They began with ‘When a felon’s not engaged in his employment’, which is near the end, led by the Sergeant (Haddow), and inserted ‘Dry the glistening tear’, from Mabel (Sheat) and the female chorus, which actually opens Act II.

I could understand the reason for departing from the order of the three numbers, to put the most rambunctious at the end: ‘When the foeman bares his steel’. (Though I have to confess my greater love of Offenbach, and in this context the Gendarmes Duet, or ‘Couplets des deux hommes d’armes’ from Geneviève de Brabant). The slightly problematic ‘baring of steel’ march number held no fears for the final ensemble of Mabel, Edith (Elyse Hemara), Sergeant, and choruses of policemen and daughters).

Throughout one admired the often virtuosic performance at the piano by Mark Dorrell, especially in the well-rehearsed table lamp episode, always carefully secondary to the singers, but the more admirable for that. And the production team, the movement tutor (is that short for ‘choreographer’?) Lyne Pringle; and most importantly vocal tutors Margaret Medlyn, Richard Greager, James Clayton, Jenny Wollerman and Lisa Harper-Brown.

One looks forward to a main-stage, full opera production in 2017.

Wellington G&S with another hit in funny, well-sung The Gondoliers

Wellington G & S Light Opera Company

The Gondoliers by Arthur Sullivan and William Gilbert
Musical director: Hugh McMillan; stage director: Wayne Morris; producer: Stuart Gordon

Lead singers: William McElwee, Orene Tiai, Laura Loach, Charlotte Gartrell, John Goddard, Malinda Di Leva, Georgia Jamieson Emms, Mark Bobb, Chris Whelan,

The Opera House

Saturday 19 September, 7:30 pm

G&S goes on and on. Hard to think of another composer whose music in a certain genre has acquired such a single-minded following from so many, and of those, one suspects, some don’t particularly enjoy any other kind of opera or musical theatre, or even any other kind of classical music. Offenbach has no comparable cult status in France; nor Lehár or Kálmán in Austria; nor any one composer of zarzuela in Spain. Though in all cases, the relevant numbers of operettas is considerably larger than the usual
canon of G&S.

The G&S repertoire is rather small after all. Out of the total of fourteen operettas on which the two men collaborated, only about eight can be regarded as being in the standard repertory. Compare with the far greater number from each of the many prominent operetta composers of France, Austria, Germany. The number of extant zarzuelas is reputed to exceed 1000.

The Gondoliers, which was the last successful collaboration between composer and librettist, was well chosen for its contemporary New Zealand relevance. It deals with one unusual issue – the novelty of the introduction of the limited liability law – but also normal social issues of class, the nobility, honours, republicanism, the question of equality – everything but the flag; perhaps the flag controversy can be seen hovering just below the balustrade. As important for the success of the piece, apart from the full ration of splendid tunes, was the conventionally contrived plot involving misalliances, a missing heir to a Ruritanian throne, which is temporarily shared, giving Gilbert’s legal background rein for mockery; by shifting the setting for gentle satire of English royal and parliamentary institutions to Venice and an obscure, mythical central European state, they avoided censorship dangers.

The interpretation, staging and design were presumably the collaborative work of producer Stuart Gordon and stage director Wayne Morris.

After the overture that offered assurance that the players, mostly from Orchestra Wellington, would support the singers pretty professionally, the chorus confirmed a well-coached ensemble. And the chorus remained a delight throughout the evening, even taking account of moments later on when the voices of men and women of the chorus parted company. Under musical director Hugh McMillan, balances between orchestra, chorus and soloists were conspicuously comfortable, and the pace and expressive character remained lively and sensitive.

The stage revealed an expansive grand canal with stylized buildings, hinting rather shyly at Venice, rising from it. Some of the solo singing at the beginning showed a little uneasiness; but William McElwee and Orene Tiai as gondoliers Marco and Giuseppe, grew steadily into their roles… as did the two maidens, Gianetta and Tessa (Laura Loach and Charlotte Gartrell) to whom they would shortly be betrothed. The four sometimes operated better as a quartet than separately, for example in the ‘Then one of us will be a queen’.

The entry of the visiting Spanish Duke and Duchess (John Goddard and Malinda Di Leva) with their lovely daughter Casilda (Georgia Jamieson Emms) soon embedded the story in serious improbability, and this was a strength that enlivened the performance in the true spirit of absurdity; Goddard’s early vocal unevenness settled after a little while.

The farcical element helped obscure weaknesses in the singing by the less experienced singers; on the other hand none of the nonsense obscured the fact that there were excellent performances, by Emms, and by McElwee and Tiai, who found themselves sharing the job of temporary monarch. The important role of the Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra, was splendidly carried by Chris Whelan, without excessive overacting, displayed brilliantly in his ‘I stole the prince … no possible doubt whatever’, which reveals the crux of the problem that dominates the drama.

The denouement sees the temporary dual-king(s) deposed, to their great relief, and the heir to the Baratarian throne, is revealed as Luiz, tenor Mark Bobb, a recent arrival in New Zealand. One of the most vivid figures on the stage, he sang excellently with a fast, disciplined vibrato. In the first act he had acted as ducal orchestra, displaying finesse on the side-drum to herald the Duke’s arrival. He and Emms – lovers, unaware of how things will evolve – sang a charming duet, ‘There was a time’.

The stage scene at Act II is the interior of the royal Barataria palace, quite an imposing affair with grand staircase set to a curious perspective. Giuseppe’s amusing solo about the troubles of a king, up-dated, had the edge on Marco’s ‘Take a pair of sparkling eyes’, pretty as that was.

The action proceeds with an energetic Spanish dance and then the Grand Inquisitor’s (Chris Whelan) classic show-stopper, ‘There lived a king’, showing how equality and republicanism are quite absurd. These moments are usually furnished with localised political lyrics, this time by the singer himself, which I have permission to reproduce here. The singing was accompanied by a series of pertinent illustrations of many of the leading comic figures involved in the following narrative.

In southern oceans far away
A strange perversion once took sway
The people wanted greater say
And MMP resulted

It meant that none could rule alone
Without some partners on the throne
And compromise would be the tone
At least that was the theory.

Soon parties formed in every hue
Of red and blue and yellow too
So every wretched fellow knew
Their interests were cared for.

But parties needed ways to share
The power so that all seemed fair
So to the top of every tree
Promoted everybody

Now it is clear and plain to see
That ranking colleagues equally
Will put an end to rivalry,
Promoting everybody.    

Soon ministers were everywhere
With rank and perks in equal share
But trade and finance ranked the same
As arts and social housing

Like Judith Collins some were bad
Or Gerry Brownlee slightly mad
Though voter faith did gently sag
The PM seemed delighted.

The coalition held its course.
Dave Seymore was a trifling force
And Peter Dunne was a resource
Among the minor minions.

So party leaders you might meet
In twos and threes in every street,
Professing with no little heat
Their various opinions.

Now that’s a sight you couldn’t beat
Two party spokesmen in each street,
Professing with no little heat
Their various opinions.

The end can easily be guessed,
When skill no longer is the test
Soon personality was best
For getting voter traction

The voters favoured charm and wit
And ranked good hair above true grit
Soon one emerged that seemed to fit
In Southland and Kaitaia

The voters turned to one who seemed
Averse to baubles though he preened
Through spluttering indignant schemes,
Was Winston made kingmaker.

In short whoever you may be
To this conclusion you’ll agree
When everyone is somebodee,
Soon no one’s anybody.

Now that’s as plain as plain can be,
To this conclusion we agree:
When everyone is somebodee,
Soon no one’s anybody.

And there were various references to current political scandals scattered through the score, for example the ennoblement of The Duke of Plaza-Toro dotcom.

While the build-up to the denouement goes along nicely, as the former nurse is finally persuaded to tell the court that neither of the joint-temporary kings is the heir, no imperishable musical hits are to be found in the last scenes, apart from a reprise of the big dance scene.

The costumes were elaborate, the sets ingenious and appropriate, and the direction generally lively and credible, paying some attention to the traditions of 1880s comic opera, and today’s tendency sometimes to do violence to the original conception and to impose our own interpretation. There was nothing at which one could take offence in this.

It had been see already in Lower Hutt, Kapiti and Whanganui, so that any teething troubles would have been sorted out and word spread of its virtues. Thus there was a good audience at the Opera House.


Source of innocent merriment – Wellington G&S Society’s “The Mikado”

Wellington G & S Light Opera presents:
Libretto by W.S.Gilbert / Music by Arthur Sullivan
Stage Director: Gillian Jerome
Musical Director: Hugh McMillan

Cast:  The Mikado, Emperor of Japan (Derek Miller)
Nanki-Poo, His Son (Jamie Young)
Ko-Ko, Lord High Executioner (John Goddard)
Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else (Orene Tiai)
Pish-Tush, A Noble Lord (Kevin O’Kane)
Go-To, A Noble Lord (Lindsay Groves)
Yum-Yum, a Ward of Ko-Ko (Pasquale Orchard)
Pitti-Sing, a Ward of Ko-Ko (Michelle Harrison)
Peep-Bo, a Ward of Ko-Ko (Marion Wilson)
Katisha, an elderly Lady, betrothed to Nanki-Poo (Jody Orgias)

Chorus and Orchestra of the G & S Light Opera Company
Opera House, Wellington,

Saturday 6th September, 2014

Those of us who know and love the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas confidently expect that, despite the swings and roundabouts of popular taste and fashion, they will continue to delight, charm and entertain – in short, endure as classics. Though uniquely of their time they still express relevant commentaries regarding equivalents among individuals and circumstances in contemporary life. Perhaps first and foremost of them, and probably still the most popular, is “The Mikado”.

From the moment that the Japanese ornamental sword fell off the wall of W.S.Gilbert’s study, giving the author the idea for a libretto which would be set in Japan, but would mercilessly lampoon the British bureaucracy, “The Mikado” has commandeered a position of on-going success among the “Savoy” Operas, one which its fellows, even the well-known “HMS Pinafore” and “The Pirates of Penzance” haven’t quite emulated. No other G & S operetta casts its satirical net so widely, nor pulls in such a memorable catch. And as Jonathan Miller’s legendary, though disconcertingly not-so-recent, production update of the work at the English National Opera demonstrated, “The Mikado” lends itself readily to modernization, provided  that it’s done creatively and intelligently.

Wellington G & S Light Opera’s recent production of  the show (which Gilbert adroitly sub-titled “The Town of Titipu”) played its modest part in following the “updating” tradition via references to recent “Down Under” events. The opportunities for interpolation occur mostly in two songs, firstly Ko-Ko’s famous “Ive got a little list” in which the Lord High Executioner informs us of the most likely candidates for pending decapitation, and secondly, the Mikado”s equally well-known “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime”, also a list, detailing the fate of certain types of miscreants, each in a manner that befits the original offence. Standard performance practice, really, and hardly ground-breaking – but the updates always have the effect of to some extent revitalizing the performance/listening process, and so it proved here.

In fact I was expecting rather more “input” considering the plethora of politically poisonous goings-on of late in our normally po-faced little country – but I thought Ko-Ko’s song the more imaginatively “doctored” of the two efforts, the best contemporary reference being to Nicky Hager’s recent book, the line containing the “dirty politicist” phrase bringing the house down! By comparison, the Mikado’s best in situ reference in his song was the punishment for the window-pane scribbler in railway carriages, having to “ride on a buffer on Hutt and Johnsonville trains”, though there was also a side-swipe at list MPs which caused an amused rustle. Still, the important thing was that the updated interpolations were done and duly enjoyed.

At the opera’s beginning we noted the traditional cut of the Japanese costumes, elaborate enough without being cumbersome, and sufficient to suggest the orientalism of the operetta’s original inspiration. The chorus’s singing throughout was excellent, even if their stage movements sometimes lacked the rhythmic snap and verve suggested by the music – the opening “If you want to know who we are” looked marvellous in tableau, but I felt it still needed more theatrical energy and dynamism in both movement and attitude.

The gentler, very different character of the women’s choruses created their own worlds of expression, although I noticed a tendency to adopt tempi in some of the music that didn’t allow the melodies to bloom – no heeding of the plea “fleeting moment prithee stay!” when the women intoned “Comes a train of little ladies”, and even more disappointingly, “Braid the raven hair”, both of whose lovely tunes seemed to me subjected to something of a hustling, “come along, now!” treatment that I felt compromised their soaring, lyrical qualities. However, I did like the feistiness of tone with which the women sang throughout – not especially beautiful a sound, but very schoolgirlish and convincing!

So, the choruses gave a lot of pleasure both in appearance and in vocal terms. But where I thought some members could have been profitably deployed was in assisting both of the “imperial” entrances, both of which seemed too bare and exposed, wanting in theatricality and gravitas. Firstly, I expected there would have been a short, sharp whirlwind of a disturbance with the vengeful arrival in Titipu of Katisha, the Mikado’s daughter-in-law elect, to reclaim her fugitive fiancee, Nanki-Poo. As Katisha, Jodi Orgias seemed, at her entrance, strangely unattended as befitted her station, apart from two rather impassive imperial guards – could we not have had, for example, a quartet of attendants drawn from the onstage chorus (I’m certain there’d none of them be missed!) quickly running in and prostrating themselves in terror by way of announcing her arrival?

The Mikado’s entrance was similarly underwhelming – there was no sense of any imperial retinue indicating the character’s majesty and overweening importance – I would have thought it simply needed half-a-dozen or so of the chorus “redeployed” as attendants to the Monarch – in fact none of the men’s chorus was required on stage in Act Two up to that point, so a transformation from Titipu citizen to royal attendant would have been a relatively easy thing to achieve. Any number would have made a more ceremonial and worshipful impression than did just the same two guards as came with Katisha.

Both men’s and women’s choruses, as I’ve said, made splendid noises, as, by and large, did the principals, the singing discreetly aided by some amplification – I found it a shade aurally confusing at first, until I worked out just how it was being done (though one is opposed in principle, one can put up with it when, as here, it’s unobtrusively handled).

As Nanki-Poo, tenor Jamie Young fearlessly attacked his lines with enthusiastic, ringing tones, characterizing his delivery most adroitly in the different stanzas of “A Wand’ring Minstrel I” – and while the voice wasn’t entirely easeful and elegant in places, what he did always sounded wholehearted. Kevin O’Kane’s Pish-Tush was smartly and stylishly presented, able to put across “Our Great Mikado” with some relish, amid the appropriate stuffiness. And I liked the pompous cut of Orene Tiai’s Pooh-Bah, who seemed to savor his every utterance with a fine sense of his own puffed-up importance (including at one point a “Minister of Maori Affairs” reference – or words to that effect – to add to his list of portfolios!). And his little vocal cadenza at “Long life to you!” was an especially delicious moment.

Both Jody Orgias as Katisha and Derek Miller as the Mikado did their best to convey a sense of imperial gravitas. We also got Katisha’s vulnerable, soft-hearted side from Jody Orgias – I was moved by her “The hour of gladness”, and in the second act her distress at the tale of the fate of the “little tom-tit” who died for love gave an additional dimension to the ferocity of her duet with Ko-Ko, “There is beauty in the bellow of the Blast”, though neither her nor her duetting partner, John Goddard as Ko-Ko, managed at the conductor’s speeds to REALLY point and get across to us the deliciousness of those words: “……but to him who’s scientific there is nothing that’s terrific in the falling of a flight of thunderbolts!”.

I wanted some more interplay between the Mikado and Katisha just after their first entrance, with the “Daughter-in-law-elect” making it quite clear that she intended to rule the roost in the Royal Household! – oddly enough a publicity photo in the programme of this scene in rehearsal conveyed much more sense of this happening than I thought we actually got on stage! And, whether Derek Miller’s “A more humane Mikado” was deliberately cut or whether there was some kind of mishap I don’t rightly know – but having re-established the “running order” of the song, he gave a good account of the rest of it, even if the interpolations weren’t quite up to those in wit and sting written for and sung by Ko-Ko in his “little list” song.

The “Three Little Maids from School” invariably score a hit, and the winsome trio of Pasquale Orchard (Yum-Yum), MIchelle Harrison (Pitti-Sing) and Marion Wilson (Peep-Bo) brought off their “signature tune” with wit, gaiety and appealing freshness – though again I felt they were unnecessarily overtaxed by the tempi adopted for the following  “So Please you Sir, we must regret”, as was Pooh-Bah, in reply. While Pasquale Orchard’s appealing Yum-Yum properly dominated, with a performance that sparkled and glittered with ripples of surface delight upon oceans of character, Michelle Harrison’s grainer, more circumspect Pitti-Sing was the perfect foil, a kind of “Despina” to her sister’s “rolled-into-one-Fioridiligi/Dorabella”, making an all-too-convincing job of her description of the unfortunate Nanki-Poo’s bogus execution!

I’ve left John Goddard’s portrayal of Ko-Ko, the hapless Lord High Executioner, to the end because his was a pivotal performance – he “owned” the stage and consistently “placed” his character just where it should have been. His timing of the words in his songs, as with his dialogue, was exemplary, and he made the most of his set of topical interpolations. His character seemed alive to possibility at all times, rather like a musician who thinks about and fairly places every single note in the score – nothing gave the impression of being mechanical or by rote, but was instead lived and relished. Along with Michelle Harrison and Orene Tiai, he played his part in bringing into grisly focus “The Criminal cried”, one of the performance’s highlights.

Apart from a slightly uncertain beginning to the Overture, and a tendency in places to push the music a tad too hastily, music director Hugh McMillan kept the performance securely on the rails, drawing some lovely solos from his orchestral players, led by Orchestra Wellington’s Slava Fainitski, along with some deliciously deft ensemble sequences, as well as plenty of energy in appropriate places. As with other recent G&S Light Opera productions there was much to enjoy during the course of the evening, the splendour of the tried-and-true classic in places shining forth with enough warmth to stimulate and satisfy our pleasure.


Pirates, policemen and patriotic persuasion in, er, Penzance? – no, Wellington!

Wellington G&S Society presents:

GILBERT AND SULLIVAN – The Pirates of Penzance

Cast :  Colin Eade (Major-General Stanley) / Derek Miller (The Pirate King) / Keith Hobden (Samuel, his lieutenant) / Jamie Young (Frederic) /  Lindsay Groves (Police Sergeant) / Tania Parker-Dreaver (Ruth, a piratical Maid) / Hannah Jones (Mabel) / Megan McCarthy (Edith) / Laura Dawson (Kate) / Pasquale Orchard (Isabel)

Choruses – Pirates, Policemen, General Stanley’s other daughters.

Music Director: Matthew Ross

G&S Orchestra and Chorus

Chorus Master: Hugh McMillan

Stage Director: Gillian Jerome

Wellington Opera House

Wednesday 12th September, 2012

It wasn’t the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last – the thought “what terrific tunes these are” struck me freshly with resounding force as I listened to the Wellington Gilbert and Sullivan Society Orchestra’s neat and stylish playing of “The Pirates of Penzance” Overture, which began one of the season’s performances of the work in the Wellington Opera House.

As with all great music, one never seems to tire of hearing those melodies, in this case expertly brought into being by the orchestra under their Music Director Matthew Ross.  I remember being impressed with his direction of last year’s “HMS Pinafore” by the Society, and hearing “Pirates” this time round confirmed the impression I got that musically, at any rate, these performances were in reliable, well-considered hands.  The opening Pirates’ chorus went with a swing, as did Keith Hobden’s enthusiastic singing as Samuel, the pirate lieutenant, an occasional approximately-pitched note notwithstanding.

Tanya Parker-Dreaver made a characterful Ruth, her diction in particular an absolute delight throughout her tale of woe relating to her confusing the words “pilot” and “pirate”. Other characters such as Jamie Young’s Frederic and Derek Miller’s Pirate King looked impressive, but sounded happier and more at ease during their songs than with the dialogue, which in places came across as rather too sing-song. However, considering that Frederic was supposed to be “the Slave of Duty”, Jamie Young’s engagingly whole-hearted delivery of his dialogue fitted the ingenuousness of the character, even if his post-bevy-of-beauties dismissal of Ruth’s claims upon his affections could have been put across with a bit more Verdian gusto.

The agents of Frederic’s initiation regarding truly feminine charms – the Major-General’s beautiful daughters – were themselves delightful, moving and singing with engaging girlishness (I particularly liked the sound of Laura Dawson’s Kate), though a disappointment at the conclusion of “Climbing over Rocky Mountain” was the loss of intertwining-melody at the end, where we expected to hear the opening tune counterpointing with “Let us Gaily Tread the Measure” – I could only hear the latter, admittedly sounding forth splendidly and sonorously.

Though Frederic needed a bit more spunk when first confronting the girls, his appeal to their hearts for love was nicely sung, apart from some strain at the song’s highest notes – the sudden arrival of Mabel, the eldest daughter, was well managed, Hannah Jones properly owning the stage and her part on it, despite a soubrettish tone that hardened whenever she pushed her voice – her soft singing was simply lovely.

From the sudden arrival of the pirates, intending to kidnap the girls, through the Major General’s own entrance and patter-song, up to the pirates releasing the girls in response to their father’s falsely-constituted plea for mercy, the action went with a hiss and a roar. Particularly impressive was the Major-General, Colin Eade, whose energy, focus, delivery and general bearing associated with the character compelled attention from his first entry. His near sotto-voce reprise of the famous patter-song, prompted by the Pirate King, caused much merriment, innocent and otherwise!

But director Gillian Jerome’s stagings whirled the story along nicely as the end of the Act loomed, the often/orphan sequences amusingly dealt with, and the Major-General’s “orphan-boy” song filled with Victorian pathos, the perfect foil to the “I’m telling a terrible story” asides. The ritualistic splendor of “Hail, Poetry!” made its proper impact, and the final ensemble conveyed a happy amalgam of exuberance and relief.  Again, only Ruth’s final dismissal by Frederic lacked sufficient sting, an important exchange in view of Act Two’s change in Frederic’s fortunes.

Act Two’s “ruined chapel” scenario I thought could have been used more theatrically in places, especially the frequent comings-and-goings of both pirates and policemen leading towards the story’s would-be murderous climax – I thought some entrances and exits too literally applied, with opportunities for amusing juxtapositionings of the adversaries not really taken – when the police sang, towards the end, “Yes, we are here, though hitherto concealed!” one did something of a head-scratch, as they had been in full view for some time. Lacking weight of numbers the Policemen were somewhat disadvantaged right from the beginning, though vocally they made a good fist of their “We cannot understand it at all” recitatives. And, as the Police Sergeant, Lindsay Groves led his constables with nicely equivocal authority, readily displaying a soft-hearted interior, and a none-too-convincing bravado.

In places throughout the Second Act I thought music director Matthew Ross’s tempi a tad hasty, denying the characters the chance to fill out their tones and fully savour their words – The Pirate King’s and Mabel’s vengeful “Away, away!” upon hearing of Major-General Stanley’s deception I thought too rushed throughout the “Tonight he dies” sequences, the words gabbled instead of being spat out vividly – somehow the murderous intent of Sullivan’s grand-opera parody at that point was lost in the urgency. As well, the on/off stage exchanges between pirates and policemen at “A rollicking band of pirates, we…” were pushed too hard to my ears, the words suffering as a consequence – we lost something of the delicious antiphonal perspectives of “We seek a penalty – fifty-fold…” And I thought the Major-General’s paean of praise to nature “Sighing softly to the river” ought to have been more expansive, allowing the pirates to make their ironic interjections such as “through the trees” really tell.

Production-wise as well, the whole on/offstage interaction between pirates and policemen that dominates this Act didn’t for me have quite enough dynamic spark – I wanted more knife-edged comings and goings between the adversaries in the lead-up to the final conflict – more “shared” entrances with appropriate “double-takes” and sudden surges of adrenalin. And the “moment of truth” for the pirates, the Police Chief’s appeal to their loyalty to Queen Victoria, cried out for something cathartic, some kind of patriotic knife-thrust or body-blow! – perhaps with the police at that point baring their chests superman-style to reveal Queen Victoria t-shirts? – well something along those lines. The outrage of the appeal required some outward sign, similarly outrageous, for the sequence’s climax to really strike home.

Both hero and heroine grew in stature in this Act, Hannah Jones’s Mabel truly affecting in “Ah, leave me not to pine”, and with plenty of youthful exuberance in the superb “O, here is love”. And while Jamie Young couldn’t quite nail Frederic’s highest notes, his wonderfully sappy response to Mabel’s entreaties warmed all audience hearts, creating a truly “Brief Encounter”-like moment of frisson before the lovers’ parting. Another pair whose stage-presence took on deeper dimensions were Ruth and the Pirate King, whose “Paradox” song was delivered with wonderfully cat-and-mouse relish, to the bemusement of their intended victim, Frederic.

So – if not quite as consistently satisfying as last year’s “Pinafore”, this “Pirates” properly entertained, with generally high musical values, some vivid character assumptions and a number of memorable moments – the people I managed to speak with afterwards all reckoned they’d had a jolly good evening in the theatre.

Leonard Bernstein’s CANDIDE – the best of all possible whirls?

Leonard Bernstein – CANDIDE

Cast: Cameron Barclay (Candide) / Barbara Graham (Cunegonde) / Bianca Andrew (Paquette) / Kieran Rayner (Maximilian / Nick Dunbar (Pangloss/Martin) / Helen Medlyn (Old Lady) / Richard Greager (Grand Inquisitor et al.) / Thomas Atkins (Archbishop et al.)

Narrator: Ray Henwood

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington

The Vector Wellington Orchestra

Conducted by Mark W.Dorrell

Directed by Sara Brodie

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday, 28th July 2012

Pity the poor music-theatre historian charged with the task of drawing together the different strands of creative impulse that have, at various times, produced successive versions of Leonard Bernstein’s amazingly durable stage-work Candide. To read of the different productions and seemingly endless revisions, complete revampings included, is to be made to feel as though one’s head has been spun in a kind of Voltairesque whirl. Forget the fraught operatic gestations and accompanying thrills and spills of works such as Bizet’s Carmen, Verdi’s Don Carlos or Britten’s Gloriana – Lenny’s Candide beats them all!

Basically, the work began its public life in 1956 with Lilian Hellman’s adaptation of Voltaire’s classic novella/satire, and with additional lyrics by luminaries such as Dorothy Parker, all set to music by Bernstein. When the show didn’t last past seventy-odd performances, Hellman’s book bore most of the blame – too serious and weighty, said the critics. It wasn’t until 1973 that another attempt was made with Hal Prince’s idea of a stripped-down, racier version, with an entirely new book written by Hugh Wheeler. A lot of the original music was cut and the orchestration drastically reduced. Though clocking up over seven hundred performances, it just wasn’t the Candide that its composer had originally envisaged, and really wanted to see.

Rehabilitation of the original’s style and spirit came with conductor John Mauceri’s reconstruction (with the composer’s imprimatur) for a 1988 staging in Glasgow, and also with Bernstein’s own 1989 recording, largely of what Mauceri and writer John Wells (of “Yes Minister” fame) had achieved (incidentally, this evening’s conductor Mark Dorrell remembers being involved as repetiteur of the 1988 production at Scottish Opera to which Bernstein came and actually conducted a rehearsal – a treasurable experience!).

So, what we got on Saturday evening was largely this latter version that Bernstein himself recorded, but with further reworkings based on an even later London production, as “authorized” an edition as could be gleaned from the work’s history of comings and goings – the best of all possible solutions, of course! And what a riot, what a firecracker, what a sizzler of a performance we got from conductor, choir and orchestra, and with Ray Henwood’s wonderfully mordant delivery as narrator illuminating every twist and turn of the fantastical array of improbable events.

I thought the Orpheus Choir astonishing wonderful – its members were the out-and-out heroes of the evening, with Mark Dorrell as their inspirational general. Sara Brodie’s direction all but completely transcended any sense of “chorus convention” by treating the choir as a “character” in its own right, one all too willing to express its views of the proceedings by whatever means at its disposal – gesture and movement as well as voices (including a “Mexican wave” at one point, and some wonderfully nonchalant bottom-swaying accompanying the insouciant “What’s the Use” Waltz in Act Two!). It all worked brilliantly, inestimably aided by the choir’s superb diction, delivering the words with focus and energy throughout.

The orchestra was almost as good, strings, winds and percussion particularly nimble-fingered, and with only an occasional sluggishness from the brass in places during Act One to pick up their cues (a bit more spunk needed from them in the overture for example) detracting from an otherwise brilliant evening’s playing. Conductor and players “caught” so well the atmosphere and rhythmic character of episodes like the “Paris Waltz” and the “I Am Easily Assimilated” Tango, even if during the latter Helen Medlyn, like the other soloists most of the time, sounded inexplicably underpowered, leaving the chorus to supply the necessary vocal fabric of the sinuous melody.

Enjoying as we did these instrumental and vocal splendors from orchestra and chorus, it was disappointing to find that almost all the solo singers were hard to hear at various times, rendering the all-important words mostly inaudible – or at least from where I was sitting in the hall. I wasn’t the only “hard-of-hearing” audience member, as a number of people I spoke with both at the interval and subsequent to the show confirmed my impression. What seemed to be needed was either subtitles, or (wash my mouth out with soap and water!) discreet microphonic assistance, perhaps? Considering that the voice of the narrator, Ray Henwood, was resplendently and sonorously miked, it may well have been appropriate for other solo voices to have been thus augmented.

Of the soloists, Richard Greager (as The Grand Inquisitor and a number of other cameo roles) consistently gave much pleasure, putting his words across with the expected verve and focus, something I was also anticipating from Helen Medlyn (whose work I’ve always greatly admired), only to find myself straining to catch what she was singing a lot of the time. Before people start to accuse me of making a meal out of this, I ought to point out that, if ever music-theatre words ought to be heard and savored, those of “Candide” ought to be – and the loss is considerable if they’re not coming across. I should also add that I thought the acting of every one of the singers characterful and engaging, thanks to both their individual talents and director Sara Brodie’s skills at using the semi-staged environment to its best advantage.

As Candide, Cameron Barclay caught the essential sweetness and naivety of the character, his voice clearer in the more lyrical numbers such as “It Must Be So”, beautiful and touching in the “It must be Me” reprise, introduced by the full orchestra. His partnership with the appealing Cunegonde of Barbara Graham brought similar lovely moments, culminating in the almost Mahlerian “Make Our Garden Grow” at the very end of the work. Projecting similar innocence, with touches of characterful pizzazz, Barbara Graham’s much-violated but remarkably enduring heroine displayed plenty of beauty and spunk throughout, her words perhaps not consistently projected with the required focus, but her voice making the most of those displays of coloratura in “Glitter and Be Gay”.

A great moment for both Cunegonde and The Old Lady was their Act Two duet “We Are Women”, Graham and Medlyn both relishing their words, “We’ve necks like swans, and, oh, such sexily legs / We’re so light-footed we could dance on eggs”, and putting across all the sex appeal one could want in the process. Plenty of libidinous impulse was generated also by Bianca Andrew’s sultry servant-girl Paquette, who didn’t have a great deal to sing solo, but whose voice and provocative deportment added inestimably to sequences such as Act One’s “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, and the glorious “What’s the Use?” in Act Two’s casino scene. As with Bianca Andrew, Thomas Atkins, singing the Archbishop and other cameo characters, also had enough vocal heft to make his few solo lines properly tell.

Both Kieran Raynor’s Maximilian (the King’s son) and Nick Dunbar’s Dr.Pangloss were characterizations fleshed-out with confident, physically well-projected stage-presence. Kieran Rayner’s words I could hear most of the time (a pity that his “Life Is Happiness Indeed” verse was pushed along a notch or so too speedily for the words to really make their point), but I had the utmost difficulty with Nick Dunbar’s ennunciations – most of his utterances as the Royal Tutor in “The Best of All Possible Worlds” seemed as if too low for him, so that the voice lacked sufficient girth to properly project the words. Again (I hate myself for suggesting this!), in the interests of getting across the message, perhaps microphones (discreetly employed) would have helped?

So, that caveat registered, the rest I thought a marvellous achievement from all concerned – I loved watching Mark Dorrell sitting down at the end on the conductor’s podium, obviously exhausted, having given his all! Above all, very great credit to the Orpheus Choir, its energy and commitment to the presentation surpassing all expectations and producing a truly memorable result.





Boutique Opera does “the Jones boy” proud

Edward German: Tom Jones

Boutique Opera

Directed by Alison Hodge

Arranger and Musical Director, Michael  Vinten

Wellington High School Hall,

15 October, 7.30pm

Apparently there were five different scores for German’s light opera, premiered in Manchester in 1907.  Since it became so popular, it was performed frequently, the last version being from 1913; a concert version for performance by choral societies (sung by the Orpheus Choir’s predecessor in the Hutt Valley in 1953 and 1957).

Michael Vinten has taken the music from various versions of  Tom Jones, including film and television versions, introducing situations from Henry Fielding’s novel of 1749, which were not included in German’s work.  He has done a great job!

The result was a seamless, fast-moving entertainment, involving both speaking (some with music in the background) and singing.  Though there was no set, and little in the way of props, the costumes were excellent, and the whole production gave evidence of much rehearsal and learning.  However, mention must be made of the delightful hobby-horses used in the second Act.

A seven-piece orchestra, including piano, worked hard and played well, though occasionally too loud for the singers, or more particularly the speakers, especially when the latter were at the orchestra end of the performing space.  The pianist was Ken Ryan, whom I recently heard performing at the other end of the musical spectrum, as a baritone soloist with The Tudor Consort.

The hall’s stage was virtually not used, the action taking place ‘in the round’, with rows of chairs (hard plastic school chairs, not designed for sitting on for two and a half hours) on each side, the rear ones raised on platforms.

Described as “A Musical Farce in Two Acts”, this was a considerable undertaking for the producers, Lesley and Ian Graham.  There was a cast of seven main characters and a chorus of 16, many of whom undertook minor solo roles also.

There was a lot of intrigue, sub-plot and counter-plot for the audience to keep track of; programme notes under the headings ‘The Plot’ and ‘The Music’, plus a list of the songs and a cast list, helped a lot.

The show commenced with talking (sometimes with musical background), the cast explaining the situation and the roles – all in character as they did this.  Finally, Roger Wilson began the singing, with chorus.  As Squire Western, father of Sophia, the heroine (Rose Blake) he was, as always, characterful and convincing, with an English country accent appropriate to Somerset, where the story was set.

We then met the ‘West Country Lad’, Tom Jones, sung by Jonathan Abernethy.  He has a well-produced, smooth and most attractive voice, and invariably sang convincingly in this, the main role in the show.  He was confident and had good stage presence.

With 28 songs, most relatively short, there was a lot of singing going on.  The chorus was very accurate, and each was fully involved in their roles.  Words came over well, on the whole; the singing was good, and cohesive.

Next up of the soloists was Rose Blake.  Her singing was excellent, although occasionally a little too operatic in style for a farce.  However, her acting was certainly appropriate to this show.  The trio that followed, ‘Festina Lente’ with Sophie, Honour (mezzo Natalie Williams) was very successfully sung and acted.

Blifil (Michael Miller) was not so satisfactory vocally, although he looked and acted his anti-hero part well enough.  The sextet ‘The Barley Mow’ was quite a highlight – a drinking song, sung very robustly.

Charles Wilson made the most of his role as Benjamin Partridge, his acting exactly fitting for a farce, and raising many a smile.  Vocally, too, he was more than adequate, characterising his voice appropriately.

Tom’s next appearance was to sing ‘A Foundling Boy’, a suitably touching aria that Abernethy sang beautifully, as did Rose Blake in ‘By Night and Day’, though there was a tendency for her voice to be a little shrill at the top of her range.

Such were the affaires in which Tom Jones was involved, it was at times a little tricky to keep track of who was who amongst the women.  Mrs. Fitzpatrick (Maline Di Leva) was one such.  She had a lovely voice, but it was not always quite strong enough in the rather unsympathetic acoustic.  As to intonation, she was utterly accurate.

At the end of Act 1, the chorus was briefly ‘out of synch’, but this did not occur elsewhere in the show.

Following the introduction to Act 2, there was the ‘Gavotte’ scene.  If not a perfect gavotte as to steps, it was nevertheless beautifully done (and sung) in the rather confined space available.

The ‘Playhouse Riot’ was very effective.  Rose Blake acted the frightened country girl superbly, while the men made the most of their chorus.  Natalie Williams (Honour, which she tried to preserve in others as well as herself) followed with one of her several fine contralto arias and ensembles, this one, ‘As the maids and I one day’, being very reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan, as indeed were other numbers in the show.  And indeed, Lerner and Loewe may have learned something from Edward German.

An attractive ‘Barcarolle’ from the chorus was followed by ‘Waltz’, engagingly sung by Sophia and chorus.  This was the only song in the show that I knew, having attempted many years ago to accompany a singer performing it.  The following four-part ‘Madrigal’ again had echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan

Tom’s solo ‘If Love’s Content’ was quite lovely, and his sustained high note very fine.  This was followed by the jolly ‘Back to Somersetshire’, with the horses, and then the dénouement, in which paternity and maternity issues are sorted out, and Roger Wilson, as Western, in one of the funniest moments, has an exceedingly rapid change of heart as to the suitability of Tom as a husband for his daughter Sophie.

All is sorted, and the sizeable audience applauded heartily, in the knowledge that they had got their money’s worth and were thoroughly entertained by an innovative and lively production.  All responsible should give themselves a good pat on the back.

How fortunate we are to have, on the same day, an orchestra playing Brahms superbly well, and musicians and singers putting on a capable, first-class performance of Tom Jones!

The season continues in the Otaki Civic Theatre on Saturday, 22 October at 7.30pm, and at Expressions, Upper Hutt, Sunday 23 October at 2pm.


Gilbert and Sullivan double bill a delight…..

W.S.GILBERT / ARTHUR SULLIVAN – Trial By Jury / H.M.S.Pinafore

Wellington Gilbert and Sullivan Light Opera Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra

Music Director – Matthew Ross / Stage Director – Gillian Jerome

Wellington Opera House

Thursday 30th June 2011

“I do my best to satisfy you all” sings Captain Corcoran to the crew of H.M.S.Pinafore – and we in the audience at Wellington ‘s Opera House could well have, at the end of the evening, echoed the crew’s reply, regarding the production, “And with you we’re quite content!” For this was a rollicking good night in the theatre – the stage spectacle entertaining and colourful, and the music elegant and captivating. To be sure, in the wake of previous encounters with this company, one came fully prepared to make certain allowances regarding the quality of the solo singing and fluency of the stage production, but any such discrepancies had little debilitating effect on the evening’s pleasure and delight. Having heard neither “Trial By Jury” nor “Pinafore” for some time, I was delighted to have my enthusiasm for Sullivan’s music and Gilbert’s elegant and witty satires reawakened so wholeheartedly.

Pivotal to the success of the evening throughout both productions were chorus and orchestra, and in each case there was a strong and secure focus, with many felicitous touches. This was particularly so in “Trial By Jury” where the choruses are positively Greek-like in character, declaiming as one, but with the added strength and persuasion of numbers, and often interacting with individuals as such themselves. Particularly telling were the jurymen’s rapid mood-swings, ranging from utter besottment with the female plaintiff ‘s allure to savage condemnation of her ex-partner the defendant, depending upon whichever protagonist was in their immediate sights. Both jurymen and spectators in the courtroom were, in fact, splendid in every way, the singing and acting strong and purposeful.

In “Pinafore” which followed, both groups, as sailors on board the ship, and as the First Lord of the Admiralty’s accompanying bevy of “sisters, cousins and aunts”, again relished their roles, though I thought the sailors every now and then too static and deck-bound, needing to respond with more energy to what the music was doing, as with the work’s opening chorus, “We sail the ocean blue”. The First Lord, Sir Joseph Porter’s “sister’s, cousins and aunts” were nicely “contained”, bubbling onto the ship’s deck like eager schoolgirls on a Bank Holiday outing, and amusingly irritating their illustrious benefactor and patron with their attentions. Musically, though, each group put across its music with great vim and conviction, and things came together nicely in places such as the “conspirators” scene, at the end of the first act, with stage movement and vocal energy strongly conveying the scene’s power and purpose – an amusing touch was the unexpected despatching of the rogue sailor Dick Deadeye overboard, with a Goon-Show cry of “He’s fallen in the water!”

Throughout, I was much taken with the work of the music director, Matthew Ross, in a role I hadn’t seen him perform before. Apart from a mix-up during “Pinafore” between stage and pit over Sir Joseph Porter’s pointed hesitations for his refrain, “I thought so little – they rewarded me…” this was a nicely spic-and-span orchestral realization, by turns spirited and sensitive throughout both operettas, the playing so often mirroring the theatrical action aptly and vividly. Ross couldn’t keep the solo voices ideally together during the near-polyphonic strains of “A British Tar…” but in tutti things fairly crackled along. I would have insisted on a bigger NOISE from everybody, on-stage and off with each whiplash disturbance of the lovers’ intended flight, allowing the “Goodness me…..why, what was that?” interjections to have more hushed point and menace. But in general things were beautiful judged and nicely paced, the “For he is an Englishman” having plenty of proper Victorian gravitas (with a touch of colonial humor spicing the comparisons – “…or perhaps Aus-tray-li-yan!” which brought a ripple of laughter from the stalls).

The leading roles in both works were all nicely characterized, one or two vocal insufficiencies hardly mattering in the context of the whole, even if one did long for more honeyed tenor tones in places from both lead tenors, Peter King’s somewhat papery-voiced, if charmingly-acted Defendant, and Christopher Berentson’s effortful but commendably whole-hearted Ralph Rackstraw. And David Skinner’s Learned Judge was also notable more for his compelling stage presence than clearly-focused voice production, though his portrayals by turns of bastion of justice, raconteur and opportunist all rolled into one were amusing and convincing. John Goddard as Captain Corcoran survived an awkward first entrance as a prelude to his “My gallant crew! – good morning!” – which was surely written to be declaimed from the top deck, or at the very least, the quarter-deck, instead of from somebody crowded in on the same level as his crew right from the time he opened his cabin door. He seemed more comfortable with the jollier, more robust aspects of his role, though his understanding of the poignancy of his Serenade to the moon was evident enough.

His rapport with Stephanie Gartrell’s Little Buttercup was heartwarming, to say the least. Hers was a rich and beautifully-delivered assumption, warm and sympathetic as her boat-woman character, but able to suggest by gesture and expression sufficient exotic mystery to make good her prophetic words to the Captain, “There is a change in store for you!”. Their duet “Things are seldom what they seem” was a highlight of the evening. Malinda di Leva’s Josephine was suitably bright-toned of voice and nicely poised of aspect, ready to suggest and activate the character’s depth of feeling beneath the reserve – her wholeheartedness made a marvellous contrast with the attractive kittenish vacuity of Lynley Snelling’s dolly-bird Plaintiff in “Trial”, nicely plausible and beautifully sung. Two tenors who each took to the law, with markedly different outcomes, were Kevin O’Kane, eloquent and pleasing as Counsel for the Plaintiff, and in “Pinafore” Colin Eade as the shamelessly opportunistic First Lord of the Admiralty, a colourful and successful portrayal. Derek Miller also impressed right from the outset with his sonorous tones as the Usher in “Trial” and his gift for characterization without caricature as the unfortunate sailor, Dick Deadeye.

So, with talent enough among the performers to burn, the traditional double-bill was a great success, reminding one of a number of things – the genius of the work’s creators (too readily taken for granted), the renewability of great music (able to enchant at each hearing), the excitement of live performance (with attendant thrills and spills), and the stunning clarity of the Wellington Opera House’s stage acoustic (every word sung with good diction as clear as a bell – such a joy!). The G&S Society can, in my opinion, be proud of their “latest” – moments in time well worth the shared enjoyment!

Ruth Armishaw sings about songbirds and divas at St Andrew’s final concert

From Sondheim to Swann; songs by Victor Herbert, Sondheim, Jonathan Larsen, A L Webber, Christine McVie, Bock and Harnick, David and Arthurs, Bizet, Puccini, Flanders and Swann 


Ruth Armishaw (soprano) with Jonathan Berkahn (piano)


St Andrew’s on The Terrace


Wednesday 8 December 12.15pm 


For the last concert of the St Andrew’s free lunchtime series, a departure from the strict canon of classical music might be permitted. This time it proved especially permissible because of the polish and style that singer and pianist brought to the job.


Nevertheless, it’s not easy to bring off songs conceived for smoky bars, cabarets or even musical theatre in the severity of a well-lit church on a bright mid-day, with a stone-cold sober audience. Ruth Armishaw did extremely well.


Many critics and music lovers cherish an almost automatic aversion to anything that smells of ‘cross-over’, in both directions, and operating with particular PC force where ethnic music is concerned – in that case, condemnation is one-way, applying solely to the white presuming to sing black or brown music. Ruth Armishaw did not risk that censure.


She began with a song made famous by Kiri – ‘Art is calling for me’ from The Enchantress by Victor Herbert. With its feet firmly in the land of operetta, this splendid song suited her operatic voice perfectly and her self-confidence carried its story effortlessly. Its rhythm and infectious, hyperbolic lyrics were vigorously yet subtly backed by Jonathan Berkahn whose contribution Ruth called attention to, jazz or pop music style, half way through the concert. It’s one of the traditions that the classical world could usefully borrow.


Though I find Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (musical? operetta?) singularly distasteful, ‘Green finch and linnet bird’ lies charmingly without being besmirched by the gruesome story and Armishaw sang it in a way that made clear Sondheim’s affinity with Menotti rather than Andrew Lloyd Webber.


The next three songs came from a range of musical theatre pieces for which she reached for the microphone; her voice, the entire atmosphere, was transformed, not necessarily for the worse, though it’s salutary to recall that till the 1950s Broadway and West End singers sang properly, without amplification. This was crooning.  ‘Come to your senses’ from a show called Tick, Tick, BOOM!, which I’d never heard of, became her rather affectingly; though I could understand few of the words and thus the repetitiveness of the music somewhat outlasted its interest.


Andrew Lloyd Webber does little for me, apart from the two or three favourites and so the song from Sunset Boulevard was an empty exercise in pseudo melody, handling trivial emotions: no reflection on the singer!  


Her voice in ‘Songbird’ from a Fleetwood Mac album suffered through a too obtrusive piano part.


She put aside the microphone for the rest of the programme starting with a song from a 1960s musical called The Apple Tree, unfamiliar to me, but look it up in Wikipedia – sounds attractive. The song was gorgeous, reminding me of my belief that the musical hardly survived beyond the 1960s when rock and the microphone destroyed its charm, musicality, its ability to characterise and tell real stories.


After that came the successor song to the Victor Herbert at the beginning: a lovely waltz song from 1912 called ‘I want to sing in opera’ by David and Arthurs (whom, again, I’d not heard of) in which Armishaw’s real operatic voice came through again, rather impressively.


That reintroduced opera, naturally, and she sang the Habanera from Carmen and ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca. They were well projected, attractively sung with good dramatic character, first sultry, then piously self-pitying (well, isn’t it?).


Finally came a number that surprised me – a Flanders and Swan song I didn’t know! – ‘A word in your ear’. It was another little ironical, singer’s song, this time from one who is aware of her shortcomings, to wit, inability to remember the tune, with carefully faulty pitch to prove it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t catch enough of the words, a pity in the case of a song by that inimitable English pair of the 1950/60s.


’Twas a delightful way to end the St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts for 2010 which have again been particularly enjoyable, varied and simply excellent: Wellington is greatly indebted to the church’s generous cooperation and to the unflagging, entirely voluntary efforts of organiser Marjan van Waardenberg.



Die Fledermaus – quintessential operetta

Wellington G&S Light Opera


Operetta in Three Acts

Director: David Skinner

Cast:  Malinda Di Leva (Adele) /  Helen Lear (Rosalinde) / Jonathan Abernethy (Alfredo) / Chris Berentson (Eisenstein) / Kieran Rayner (Dr Falke) / Kevin O’Kane (Dr.Blind) / Derek Miller (Frank) / Megan McCarthy (Ida) / Alison Hodge (Prince Orlofsky) / John Goddard (Frosch)

WGSLO Chorus and Orchestra

Hugh McMillan (conductor)

Wellington Opera House

Thursday 19th August 2010

Mention the word “operetta” to most members of the theatre- and concert-going public, and probably one of two works will most readily come to mind, either Johann Strauss Jnr’s “Die Fledermaus” (The Bat), or Franz Lehar’s “Die Lustige Witwe” (The Merry Widow). None of the Savoy operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan can match their Viennese counterparts for charm, glamour and romance, and of the French equivalents, only Jacques Offenbach’s “Orphée aux enfers” (Orpheus in the Underworld) has made a comparable impact on the English-speaking world. For general all-round appeal, and an attractive musical style which occasionally suggests “grander” opera, the two Viennese classics are certainly hard to beat.

All credit, then, to the Wellington G&S Light Opera for presenting “Die Fledermaus”, the younger Strauss’s light-hearted and affectionate “take” on the finer points and foibles of Viennese society, a production whose musical virtues carried the day, even if some of the acting and stage business was occasionally somewhat pedestrian (Act One suffered the most in this respect, with the characters often slow to take up their cues, or indulging in too much unfocused movement). Best in terms of dramatic impact was the Second Act, the party at Prince Orlofsky’s, where the chorus work diverted our theatrical sensibilities, and the superbly-projected “presence” of the Orlovsky, mezzo-soprano Alison Hodge, commanded the stage with a worldly-wise delivery of her imperiously droll directive “Chacun au son gout!”. Another star turn (non-singing) was the scene-stealing tipsiness of Frosch, the drunken jailer, played by John Goddard, whose monologues at the beginning of Act Three in the town jail were richly fortified with comic timing and an engaging plausibility.

In general, though, it was the singing and orchestral playing which better-defined the ebb and flow of the story and the interaction between the characters – thus the opening scenes between Helen Lear’s Rosalinde, Jonathan Abernathy’s Alfredo and Malinda Di Leva’s Adele truly sparkled when they were singing, each having the ability to use the energised quality of their voices to give force and complusion to the drama. Helen Lear’s Rosalinde was attractive, and alternately vivacious and winsome, while her would-be lover Jonathan Abernathy used what sounded like a lovely lyric tenor voice to mellifluous effect. And Malinda Di Leva’s Adele made an initially lovely vocal impression during that opening scene (a gorgeously-delivered duet between her and Helen Lear), even if, in the Third Act’s “Talent” aria her tone seemed to slightly harden in places, though she was never less than accurate and musical. Both Chris Berentson as Eisenstein and Kieran Rayner as Dr.Falke, though generally seeming less at ease dramatically, were again able to flesh out their characters via their singing (making a creditable job of their “plotting” duet), even if their dialogue and stage movements didn’t have sufficient liquid flow for the comedy of their intrigue to properly ignite.

Of the others, Kevin O’Kane acquitted himself with appropriate bluster and energy as the incompetent lawyer Dr. Blind, while Derek Miller’s jail governor Frank spoke, sang and acted with spirit and character (the energetic “leave-taking” trio was superbly sung by the bogus husband, distracted wife and bemused prison governor!) Again, the stage business, both dramatic and technical, didn’t have the sweep and elan to match the singing – the “farewell kiss” was somewhat inconsequential, and the end-of-act curtain was much too slow in falling! Things improved markedly during Act Two, as the Chorus provided a well-rounded focus with their singing and deportment, and the principals taking part in the opening exchanges gave their characters plenty of energy and projection – great acting from both Malinda Di Leva and Megan McCarthy as none-too-affectionate sisters at a society party, got the Act away to a spirited start, and of course Alison Hodge as Orlovsky was a tower of strength. As well, Adele’s famous “Laughing Song” was delivered by Malinda Di Leva with just the right amount of corresponding control and panache – a nice perfomance.

I did think Helen Lear less characterful as the “Hungarian Countess” both singing and acting-wise, than in the First Act, which surprised me – I thought she might have brought more theatrical sultriness to the deception, instead of the relative inertia which overtook both her and Chris Berentson in the watch-seduction scene, one that needed far more life and sparkle between the characters. Fortunately, there was plenty of spirit in the salute to the efficacies of King Champagne, with both Adele and Eisenstein bringing energy and gaiety to their contributions; while Kieran Rayner’s Falke came into his own with a confident, and tenderly-phrased “Brother dear, and Sister sweet”, the ensemble bringing some lovely nuances and colourings to their delivery of the vocal lines.

Act Three’s opening was very properly dominated by John Goddard’s comical Frosch, the drunken jailer. Malinda di Leva, despite a touch of stridency here and there, made a fine job of Adele’s “talent” song, and, as the characters arrived in various states of compromise, both Helen Lear’s Rosalinde and Chris Berentson’s Eisenstein moved up dramatic notches from the Second Act in the denouments of each deception which followed. Spirited singing from the company brought the show to a proper whirlwind of a conclusion.

Despite the occasional unevennesses of pace, moments of non-synchronised theatrical interaction, and some lack of polish to detail, there was sufficient impetus generated on stage for the story to hold together, generated largely by singing and orchestral playing that provided a focus and an undertow of movement which helped energise people. Director David Skinner may not have replicated quite the frisson of theatrical delight he witnessed in Vienna in 1970 (a well-told story among the programme notes), but he was able to generate plenty of enthusiasm among his company, which, along with energy and purpose from the orchestral players and conductor Hugh McMillan, was enough for the show to be an evening’s worthwhile entertainment.