NZSM Students’ operatic double bill moves and delights

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:
PURCELL – Dido and Aeneas
RAVEL – L’Enfant et les Sortilèges

Students and Staff of Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music,
Victoria University of Wellington

Casts and supporting musicians

PURCELL – Dido and Aeneas
Dido – Alicia Cadwgan / Aeneas – Declan Cudd / Belinda – Ester Leefe
Handmaidens – Hannah Jones/Rebecca Howie / Sorceress – Olivia Marshall
Spirit – Luana Howard / Witches – Shayna Tweed / Elyse Hemara
Sailor – Luka Venter / Covers – Olivia Sheat/Griffin Nicholl

Conductor: Donald Maurice

RAVEL – L’Enfant et les Sortileges
The child (Katherine McIndoe) – Cover (Pasquale Orchard)
The mother (Luana Howard) / The sofa, The cat (Daniel Sun)
The armchair, The shepherd (Emma Carpenter)
The clock (Luka Venter) / The teapot, The little old man (Declan Cudd)
The fire (Hannah Jones) / The Chinese cup, The shepherdess (Olivia Marshall)
The princess (Olivia Sheat) / The tree (Joseph Hadow) / The dragonfly (Olivia Marshall) The nightingale (Esther Leefe) / The bat (Shayna Tweed)
The squirrel (Rebecca Howie) / The frog (Griffin Nicol) / The owl (Elsa Hemara)
The footstool (Bethany Miller) / Cover (Julian Chu-Tan)

Conductor: Kenneth Young

Chorus: Julian Chu-Tan, Nicole Davey, Alexandra Gandionco, Sophia Gwynne-Robson, Joseph Haddow, Elizabeth Harré, Sally Haywood, Canada Hickey, Emma Cronshaw Hunt, William King, Eleanor McGechie, Bethany Miller, Griffin Nichol, Garth Norman, Pasquale Orchard, Nino Raphael, Karishma Thanawala

Musicians from Te Kōkī NZSM and guest players from the NZSO

Director: Frances Moore / Design: Alexandra Guillot / Talya Pilcher (lighting)

Memorial Theatre, Victoria University, Wellington

Thursday, 13th August, 2015

One has come to expect a high standard of performance, interpretation and artistic creativity from students at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music, based on the success of some of their recent activities. This latest production was, in effect, “double the pleasure”, as it  brought to the stage two works so utterly different as to turn our sensibilities on their heads, yet capture our sympathies as strongly in each case.

Beginning the programme was Henry Purcell’s most well-known work for the stage, Dido and Aeneas – a story featuring a whirlwind romance which ends in despair and death, one whose description sounds like verismo opera! Rather than seek to reinforce the “grim reality’ scenario with a companion-piece like, say, Puccini’s Il Tabarro, the School most enterprisingly went instead for Maurice Ravel and his setting of Colette’s whimsical tale-with-a-moral L’Enfant et les Sortilèges.

Each of the works had its own particular set of qualities and disciplines, making the choice of the two a happy one from both the performers’ and the audience’s point of view. Conductor and orchestral players were different but many of the singers appeared in both productions. Unlike Purcell’s work, which sported more-or-less full-blooded operatic characters, Ravel’s featured a single leading singer in tandem with a kind of “parade” of colourful characters, personifications of both animals and normally “inanimate” objects come to life.

From this point alone it could be gleaned that the experience for all of us across the two halves of the evening was different and wide-ranging on many counts, but for this listener at least, extremely satisfying. There were one or two moments which lacked sweetness and grace, mostly in the Purcell work, where at the Overture’s beginning the players’ determinedly vibrato-less tones were straightaway laid bare, and took time to generate warmth and ease. As well, there was a slight stage hiatus during Aeneas’s deer-hunt, later in the piece, those on stage seemingly “stranded” by the action – or rather, its disappearance – for a few moments.

Otherwise, the presentation throughout both works flowed hand-in-glove with the music, a state of things by no means a “given” in contemporary opera production, but one here fruitfully and organically upheld throughout. Director Frances Moore mentioned in a programme foreword the capacity of both operas to go beyond a naturalistic storytelling setting, and this was beautifully achieved by simple means – powerful, direct staging, ramps and platforms made in an instant into castle ramparts, assembly halls, forest glades, witches’ dens, child’s nurseries and scented gardens. Costumes, props and lighting also played their part in evoking these wide-ranging scenarios created by the stories and the music.

I thought the “girls’ school” origins of Purcell’s work nicely delineated by the production’s directness – simple, striking modern-day costumes of white, two handmaidens to the Queen “filled to the brim with girlish glee” in their movements and interactions , and Dido herself spectacularly clad in red, regal and dignified as befitted a monarch. In the best sense a student-ish enthusiasm informed the work of those on stage, exemplified not only by the singing but by lovely touches such as the aforementioned horseplay between the Queen’s handmaidens, and the endearing goofiness of one of the witches during the “coven” scenes. It all enhanced the presentation’s theatricality, both liberating and ensnaring our sensibilities and interest, and putting them all the more deeply at the service of the story.

Properly dominating the stage was the Dido of Alicia Cadwgan – right from her first, heartfelt protestations, her voice resonated with queenly sorrow, her character poised precariously between imperiousness and vulnerability. With both voice and “presence” she was able to bring out all of the character’s greatness of heart and implacable sense of truth unto herself, making her eventual betrayal by her suitor Aeneas the death-blow to her own existence. Her delivery of “Your Councel all is urged in vain” here threw Aeneas’s irresponsible protestations into boldly-exposed relief, making us truly believe that death, for her, was the only course, “the only refuge for the wretched left”. It was, for me, a beautifully-wrought portrayal, in every way.

No other character in the opera matches that of Dido’s in depth or breadth of utterance – but her serving-maid, Belinda, played by Esther Leefe, and the two handmaidens, Hannah Jones and Rebecca Howie, respectively, sang and acted with both spirit and sensitivity, the duet “Fear no danger to ensue” making a lovely sound, as well as amends for an earlier, slightly out-of-kilter “The greatest blessing Fate can give”. And Esther Leefe’s “Pursue thy Conquest, Love” made an excited, and not inappropriately breathless an impression, as Belinda urged her Queen towards her wooer, the Trojan hero, Aeneas.

Declan Cudd as Aeneas, the all-conquering hero, cut a very dapper figure in his dress coat and scarf, ready to charm the uncertain Dido with honeyed words. He sang accurately, if somewhat drily – one suspects his voice has yet to properly “bloom”, though having to be, as the role decrees, more politician than lover in utterance didn’t help him generate very much romantic feeling. It’s certainly not the most grateful of characters to play, and in the Second Act he’s reduced to “talking up” his pursuit and shooting of a deer to make the venture sound more heroic, though he made the most of the declamation “Yours be the blame, O Gods”, after being sent a bogus message, allegedly from Jove, to sail for Rome immediately, thus abandoning his recently-wooed Queen.

I liked the use of the theatre’s aisles to throw open the vistas of the hunting throughout the forest’s glades, and enjoyed the amusing, slightly tongue-in-cheek representations of Aeneas’s quarry, in stark contrast to the “Monster’s Head” which the hero makes a meal of describing. But even more fun with the space’s entrances and exits was had by the Witches who introduce the Second Act, the “Wayward Sisters” with their “dismal Ravens Crying”. Olivia Marshall made a gleefully nasty impression as the Sorceress, striking in appearance while bent upon evil, aided and abetted by a “Mutt-and-Jeff” pair of cohorts (Shayna Tweed and Elyse Hemara), one goofy, the other sharp and impatient, but each in their different ways nasty pieces of work. Together with the chorus assuming “coven camp-followers” roles, the grisly wraiths danced and cavorted throughout their ensembles, limbo-rocking beneath a piece of “infernal cloth” during “But ere we this perform”, and then using both stage and aisles for the wonderful echo effects throughout “In our deep-Vaulted” cell”, the reddish lighting backdrop appropriately suggesting the context of infernal forces.

Much was made of the contrast between the bustle and contented confusion of “Haste, haste to town” at the onset of rain, with the chorus sporting umbrellas and making a wonderful job of the pre-Handelian-like ensemble, immediately before the visiting of Aeneas by the spirit of Mercury. Both Luana Howard as the Spirit and Declan Cudd sang steadily and pointedly throughout, and managed to convey the essence of the exchange, involving Aeneas’s confusion and uncertainty, which resulted in his downfall. His plight and betrayal of Dido had already been rather cruelly lampooned in anticipation by the Sailor’s song (lustily delivered by Luka Venter), calling his shipmates to take their leave of their “nymphs” on the shore, promising them they will return though never intending to do so.

It remained for Aeneas to be sent packing by Dido amid all of his bluster, and for the latter to deliver perhaps baroque opera’s most famous farewell aria, “When I am laid in earth”. Again, Alicia Cadwgan was equal to the task, “pinging” her high notes thrillingly (the first a little more comfortably than the second, though, dramatically, the slight faltering on the later ascent wasn’t inappropriate!) and imbuing her more meditative lines with wonderful pathos and finality. By this time the orchestral playing had long “found” its voice, and the aria and final chorus was most sensitively and eloquently accompanied by the strings. Altogether an excellent performance of a great and difficult work, with the singing-lines everywhere exposed and merciless (a case of “only the very skilled need try this music”) – and these musicians brought enough skill and sensitivity to the task, working fruitfully with conductor Donald Maurice to produce a memorable result.

After this was a case of “vive la difference!”, even if Ravel’s delightful adaptation of Colette’s cautionary tale L’Enfant et les Sortilèges seemed, next to Purcell’s tragic masterpiece, more of a divertissement than usual. Of pleasure, however, there was no less, as the performers (this time with a different conductor, Ken Young, and a new set of instrumentalists) transformed the performing-spaces into a child’s world of wonderment, accompanied by those characteristically magical sonorities we associate with the composer of Ma Mere L’Oye and Daphnis et Chloe. All credit to director Frances Moore and designers Alexandra Guillot and Talya Pilcher for effecting such a convincing contrast between two very different kinds of realities.

Central to this child’s world is the character of THE child itself, the role here so very wholeheartedly acted and sung by Katherine McIndoe, and nowhere more touchingly than during those moments of “growth towards empathy” on the character’s part. After being scolded by its mother and rejected by its “first love”, the storybook heroine, the child seeks solace at being in the garden, but is traumatized by the fruits of previous misdeeds, which caused the tree’s “wounds” and the dragonfly’s loss of its mate, caught by the thoughtless miscreant and pinned to the wall. In the midst of the resulting melee of acrimony, the child finds itself almost involuntarily bandaging the wounded paw of a baby squirrel, an act which brings about its eventual rehabilitation.

From the willfulness of the opening exchanges with “Mama”, through the despoliation and subsequent recriminatory interaction with the objects in her world to her remorse and eventual rehabilitation, Katherine McIndoe fully engaged our imaginations, and, towards the end, our sympathies. She was supported by a series of brilliant character portrayals whose range and detailing provided constant and “rolling” entertainment on the way to bringing about the story’s “uncovering of the self” at the heart of the matter – in this case, the underlying human desire for love.

It would be unfair to single out individual performances of these roles, as, despite the “one-after-the-other” aspect of the interactions, the opera SEEMS an “ensemble piece”, due to the production’s pace and cumulative tensions, which drew the characters unswervingly together for the final denouement. Suffice to say that the characterisations brought the objects and animals readily to life, either with great tenderness and pathos or with plenty of bubbling, roaring energy. Throughout they were supported by conductor and orchestra with alert, on-the-spot instrumental detailings, augmented at certain points with great washes of ensemble sound – all told, a splendid achievement from all concerned.

With productions such as these to the School’s credit, one hopes for further operatic delights in the not-too-distant future – as well as invaluable performing experience for the students (of a kind our home-grown singers don’t get as readily as they might in certain quarters), these efforts, always eagerly awaited, bring to our local operatic scene some much-welcomed enterprise, in the form of repertoire that we wouldn’t otherwise get to see. More power to Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music!