OPERA - ESSAYS - 24 HRS MAGAZINE - 1998 - ii
Australia fails to balance its budget with $14m. in governmental
subsidies, the Metropolitan Opera in New York is raising another $300m.
to top up its endowment. Against this contrast, Humphrey McQueen wonders
whether our national company can continue its innovative repertoire and
afford to import quality performers. If neither, should it exist?
In New York, the
Metropolitan performs throughout the year but is only beginning to dip
one little toe into pieces that Sydney and Adelaide take for granted
such as Janacek's Katya. The
Met is in the bind of having the money to expand its repertoire but
relying on sponsors who want works and productions with all the
aesthetic challenge of a warm bath. More adventurous is the less endowed
New York City Opera, which offered a set of US operas.
Perhaps the most
reasonable comparison for Sydney is with Chicago where the Lyric's
season is less than six months with eight offerings from across the
spectrums of time and taste: Gioconda,
Mourning becomes Electra, Ariadne,
Romeo and Juliet, Mahogony,
Mastersinger, Traviata and
Mefistofele. Sydney, meanwhile
dared new productions of Beatrice
and Benedict, Jenufa and Pelleas
in its spring season.
The situation in the US made me more grateful that Australia still has a permanent professional company. Is that achievement worthwhile without excellence in performance, a balanced repertoire and revelatory productions such as Ian Judge's Faust which finally got to Sydney, years after its Melbourne debut?
Given John Howard's
push to replace tax funding for the arts with tax-deductable corporate
sponsorships, how appropriate that, on Federal election night, Opera
Australia should premiere Claude Debussy's Pelleas
et Melisande, a work which conveys the pointlessness of human
Because Debussy set
Maeterlinck’s poetry to the patterns of an elevated but enervated
speech, the singers must be as concerned for their French accents as
they are with their pitch. Indeed, the former indicates the latter just
as the vocal line points up their stage directions.
Angus Wood as Pelleas
revealed resources not apparent in his comic triumphs, such as Papageno.
He matched a sadness in characterisation with a manly refinement of tone
and a fluidity of diction which carried him across the part's stretching
of his light baritone.
If Golaud's violence is dominant from his first notes then he risks becoming another of Maeterlinck’s ghost-puppets. Peter Coleman-Wright as Golaud was forceful from the start which made it harder for him to distinguish himself as the one character who resists fate. Judged on vocal grounds alone his singing was sterling stuff, though the accent developed a gander-like hooting in the voyeur scene. Claire Gormley as the childlike Melisande was comfortable in her middle range beyond which she is not asked to stray. Pascal Herington as the boy Yniold was as secure in his treble as any soprano could hope to be up there.
Maeterlinck's lead, the motifs in Debussy go nowhere.
As with Wagner, who
Debussy affected to reject, the drama is in orchestration but without
the Master's telic drive. Hence, the conductor in Pelleas must strive to sustain attention despite a lack of impact,
as if La Mer went on for two
interludes were given, as required, with the curtain closed and the
house in darkness. Australian audiences know better than to talk when
the soloists are singing but do not always appreciate that whispered
chatter can disrupt the mood established by the voiceless parts. They
had been settled down before interval.
as the exponent of symbolism gives no more than a lead to stage
designers. The other production I had experienced was by Yannis Kokkis
at Covent Garden where he had us view all the inaction as if peering
down the well at which Golaud discovers Melisande. Patrick Nolan's
version for Sydney was at once more literal and more reliant on the
conventions of Symbolism with ponderous portals and gloomy grottoes
against which the water motif makes its plangent way.
How can it be that
Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict
played to half-empty houses in Sydney? The plot is frothy and the music
melodious and witty. Was this a case of the audience's lack of
familiarity breeding contempt? Or was that word had gone out that the
company lacked the talents to match Berlioz’s genius? What is easy on
the ear is nonetheless demanding on the voices. Jamie Allen as Benedict
demonstrated the truth of Berlioz's acknowledgment of difficulties
'especially in the men's part'. The other principals strained less but
without sustaining a mellifluous bar between them. Emma Matthews had
more syllables than notes in several lines for her showpiece ?????.
Elijah Moshinsky's production lacked the attainments that established
his reputation. Lets hope that the Sydney Symphony concerts of Berlioz's
The Damnation of Faust in
October will create the audience for a staged production, completing the
trio after Les Troyens in 199
Australia’s current production of Leos Janacek’s Jenufa
could play to a single empty seat leaves one to wonder whether
Australians deserve a professional company. Australian Opera's account
in 1974 opened the path to a local demand for more works by the greatest
opera composer of our century. The current Jenufa
was the fourth in a quarter of Janacek productions to be directed by
Neil Armfield who moved the action from late nineteenth-century Central
Europe to a post-Soviet era, a decision which added nothing. This work
does not need to be updated in its look to be relevant since infanticide
is already central to our abortion debates. Its theme could be summed up
as 'It takes a village to murder a child'. That immediacy allows us to
believe six impossible things in forty minutes, as we do in the middle
act. Armfield's failure to depict the mill as the core metaphor could be
justified as an avoidance of algebraic symbolism. Details required his
attention: why were the holy pictures of Iberian saints and not the
Infant of Prague? His talents for choreographing action were evident
with individuals or small groups but deserted him once the chorus made
its entries. The villagers invade the apartment: they have not come for
a house warming. With Opera Australia signing off from the Janaceks, the
prospects for staging his remaining operas will revert to the chamber
ensembles such as Adelaide's New Opera which gave The
Excursions of Mr Broucek early in 1974.
Elizabeth Connell, the
one first-rank voice I heard in Australia last year, returned as the
Kostelnicka, the role that had launched her reputation here in 1974.
Every singer and actor in the country should sit at her feet and learn
how to articulate clearly in order to be understood, no matter how
softly the lines are whispered. No surtitles were necessary to follow
her English. Her body movements demonstrated as they had in Nabucco
that expressiveness is a matter of thoughtfulness, not dieting. That she
leaps octaves seems that least of her capacities. The roles for which
her voice is suited cannot make her the sweetheart of the stage but if
thoughtfulness, clarity, purity of tone and precision, allied to a
dramatic range, count for anything, Connell merits more adulation than a
covey of warblers and shriekers.
The tension that Barry
Ryan established for Laca was appropriately Hitchcockian, but if he
reached for the high B-flat at his Act II entrance he kept it to
himself. In the title role, Anke Hoppner's voice went missing on and off
in the first act when she needs to establish herself as a lighthearted
and lively lass in order to deepen the contrast of her loss of innocence
and later her getting of wisdom, both of which she managed. David
Collins-White was so convincing as the gutless lout, Steva, that he was
in danger of being hissed as his creation rather than applauded for his
characterisation. (For a revival, the company could agree on whether
Steva is pronounced Stay-va or Stee-va.)
Janacek never lowered
his sights to the fortissimosof
Puccini and Richard Strauss, turning instead to silence to drive in the
stakes of emotion. By attending to the melody in the quotidian speech of
Moravia, Janacek achieved lyricism and elegy through a prose libretto,
preceding Eliot and Pound in technical innovations for the language of
Modern poetry. Like them, he discovered new rhythms with which to
explore the meanings of humanity: 'I could see far deeper into the soul
of a man to whose speech I had listened through its speech melody'.
Throughout, the score is more musically intelligent than any mere
transcription of folk song, forest sounds and dialect could supply.
Melbourne's opera band
was much improved after the horrors with Cosi
and Tannhauser in the autumn
season. David Stanhope lead them through the demands of the Janacek
which counterposes joy with menace, tenderness and foreboding, in the
space of couple of bars, notably for the opening to the marriage scene
of the final act. The failure of the brass to achieve the transition
from stridency to what one Janacek biographer identified as the healing
of 'all wounds with a liberating, uplifting catharsis' would have been
less distressing had the quality of playing throughout the previous two
hours not been so satisfying.
earned the highest compliment that a critic can offer when I paid
to go again two nights later.
In the hope of hearing
a true Wagnerian tenor in the plenitude of his powers, I timed my six
weeks in the USA to attend Lohengrin
at the Metropolitan where the great hope is the Canadian Ben Heppner. My
highest expectations had been tempered by reports of his Tristan in
Seattle as a try out for the role in New York in 1999. Even with nine
minutes cut from the Act II duet he had had to struggle, the critics
said, though he came back in full voice for the Act III monologues. As a
performer, Heppner moved more like an Erik or an Eschenbach than the
swan prince. His voice proved more robust than agile, fearless more
often than heroic.
My dashed hopes for a
future Heldentenor were
revived by a baritone, Bo Skovhus, star at the Vienna Opera star, whom I
heard in a concert of Sibelius and Richard Strauss songs with the
Atlanta Symphony. His stage roles include Wozzeck, Billy Budd, Don
Giovanni and Count Almaviva, with that Mozart pair on recordings from
Telarc and DG respectively, with lieder recitals on Sony. Skovhus's
voice is blessed with colour; each note is enriched with shadings
without the least trace of fudge or waver. Perhaps the simplest way to
convey the impact is to say that it was like hearing Kathleen Ferrier
for the first time. If Skovhus can act half as well as he sings and
looks then any risks from lifting his range would be worth taking, as
they have proved for Domingo in a different repertoire. If that
transition is not possible, what a Wotan is in store for 2010.
The qualities absent
from Heppner were highlighted by the perfections of Karita Matilla as
Elsa who soared and swooned as if she were as artlessness of her
character. The intelligence behind Matilla's creation of naivety broke
through in her duet with Deborah Polaski's Ortrud whose malign craft
supplied the vocal and dramatic flexibilities wanting in Heppner. Later,
Polaski let fly with the fury and ferocity of a cornered sorceress just
as Matilla swelled through the perverseness of Elsa's virginity. Richard
Paul Fink as Telramund was a foil for Polaski, though both teetered on
the excessive in their personifications of Evil.
Although New York was
the centre for Abstract Art, its Metropolitan Opera has been among the
most backward for non-naturalistic opera stagings. When this production
of Lohengrin premiered in 1997, the first-nighters booed
designer-director Robert Wilson for a set based on the tonal delicacies
of Rothko's stained canvases. Did they expect beards and bearskins? At
the 1998 return, the boos had turned to cheers, perhaps because New
Yorkers had been to the Rothko retrospective at the Whitney.
Wilson gave the
singers Noh-like gestures which froze into stained-glass attitudes,
thereby focussing attention on the singing and the orchestra. The male
chorus was sublime, as delineated as were the orchestral sections under
James Levine. From the overture as a unified sweep of emotions to Elsa's
dying swoon, the theatre was filled with sounds, as mellifluous as they
were articulate, giving Lohegrin
the help it needs not to appear longer than an entire Ring. This orchestra sang.
Wilson failed to carry
through on his abstraction by retreating to a naturalistic wing for the
swan that carried Lohengrin; even worse was a stuffed seagull-like
creation drawn across the sky in the final moments when a Brancusi Bird
in Flight was needed. Meanwhile, fourteen blocks down Broadway,
Matthew Bourne's hilariously anti-Monarchist and ultimately poignant Swan
Lake was winging its homoerotic path. (When will the Australian
Ballet carry Graeme Murphy's no less innovative Nutcracker
into the world's musical theatres?)
Another British import
was Orfeo ed Euridice at the
New York City Opera, much talked about because of the nudity of the
ballet. Since Mayor Guiliani has turned New York into Minneapolis,
nakedness on stage is confined to high art. Far from being mere
sensationalism, the undressed segment worked because the slowness and
near coyness of the dancers stressed vulnerability and fragility in the
shepherds. In terms of movement throughout, Meryl Tankard's choreography
for Opera Australia was more effecting. As with Wilson's gauche swans,
the naturalistic rocks looked fake. Cubes would have more effective and
no less serviceable. The woebegone brass and galumphing strings had no
place to hide among the fineries of Gluck's score.
Orfeo has to sing most
of the night, placing no strain on Artur Stefanowicz's countertenor
which retained the tokay of a contralto across effortless high notes.
From being rarer than Heldentenors, countertenors are now cast so
regularly that audiences will start to discriminate among the qualities
that Graham Pushee will deliver in Rinaldo.
Among the contemporary
operas offered here in the second half of last year, the sole
full-length piece was Thomas Ades' 1995 Powder
Her Face at the Brisbane Festival in September with the composer
conducting. Only the last of the three scheduled performances was ready
and I had the luck to have booked for that night, whereas most reviewers
had to respond to a more or less dress rehearsal.
The storyline follows
the scandals of the Duchess of Argyll whose addiction to fellatio did
not end with the divorce case in 1955. The theme is typical of current
British television programs, all of which have something nasty and
frequently costive in the woodshed. The libretto tries to make us feel
sorry for her because the only people who had loved her had been paid to
do so, from her nurse to the Duke. Well, that is sad but in this world
our sympathies have keener calls. Of all the issues from the past
century of British life, why this trivia, unless it was code for
Princess Di? In the latter case, then again, why bother? Ades' distance
from the achievements of John Adams and Alice Goodman in their Nixon
in China or The Death of Klinghofer could not be more marked.
The libretto has none
of the bite necessary for a comedy of errors, and little verbal
scintillation. Would Noel Coward have been reduced to half-rhyming
duchess with clutches? Because the materials are so thin, the music
before interval is sound effects laid on a background of tangos and
crooning. The exception is the fellatio aria where the lead has to gag,
suck and blow with the vocal demands of the humming or spinning
choruses. I was reminded of the misprint that one had a soprano
swallowing her vibrator instead of her vibrato. The music grabs once the
judge's divorce verdict revealed that their honours rail against the
crimes to which they themselves are most tempted.
performances were better than the score with seventeen students from the
Australian National Academy of Music in the pit. The four soloists were
all young Australians, headed by a confident Toni Powell as the Duchess.
Felicity Baldock, Geoffrey Ashenden and Lionel Theunissen had to cover
minor parts as well, which they did with panache around a smart and
uncluttered set from Lili Thomas.
Her Face is available on CD and was reviewed by Martin Buzacott in
the November 24 Hours. But as
my companion remarked when he spotted the CDs for sale in the foyer:
'Imagine wanting to hear that again'.
As one of any number
of commemorations for the Brecht centenary, Canberra's Stopera combined
with Culturally Innovative Arts to present The
Threepenny Opera in an uncharacteristically staid production by
David Branson who put it back in the eighteenth century with John Gay's
beggars. Brecht's 1928 collaboration came during his proto-Marxist view
of capitalism and hence has no need for reverence about its location.
Rather it is vital to keep its anarchic politics to the fore, for
example, by relocating the action to Moscow in 1998 where capitalism is
as raw as it was for Gay. In place of the coronation, we could have the
internment of Czar Nicholas II. Mac the Knife would be Clinton who is in
the grip of sexual obsession.
Steve Reich's Hindenburg,
is part one of a three-section work on the dangers of technologies, to
be followed by the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests and Dolly cloning. In
truth, this composition is a cantata though labelled an opera. Beryl
Korot's video takes us through the building of the Zeppelin, with
throwbacks to Wagner's Nibelung, and covering Hindenberg's part in the
rise of Hitler. Her images are repeated but never tedious which is more
than can be said for Reich's score which lacks the subtleties of his
Atlanta gave a series
of opera briefs including Ned Rorem's Three
Sisters Who are not Sisters to lyrics by Gertrude Stein. That black
comedy would have been a more apt companion to the Graeme Koehne-Louis
Nowra Love Burns at Belvoir
Street than Bernstein's Trouble in
Tahiti, a dismissal of Fifties suburbia. Just as Betty Friedan had
needed more than disdain for tupperware parties to produce The
Feminine Mystique(1963), feminism and creativity cannot thrive on
snobbery. The razzle-dazzle of Lindy Hume's staging could not conceal
how the shallowness of Bernstein's attitudes had resulted in an
impoverished musical treatment.
Burns is nasty in its subject matter yet its empathy with the
murderers and their no more appealing victims produced tension that
allowed for musical excitement. Love
Burns has earned its place in the repertoire; indeed here is a work
to own on disc when one becomes available.
The cast of five
worked overtime on both sides of interval, with Gary Rowley and
Christine Douglas excelling in both leads and bit parts. The band, under
Warwick Stengards, kept to volumes that supported the voices, which is
not always the case in the confines of Belvoir Street.
Greatly as I enjoy
these smaller scale productions and look forward to Arts Festivals to
provide rare treats, such as Gluck's Return
of Ulysses in Sydney in January, such delights should remain an
addition to, not a substitute for fully staged mainstream operas. Rather
than patch up the OA's budgets and economise on its sets, a radical
rethink might prevent its death by downsizing. Hence, instead of
starting from where we have ended up after forty-two years of a fulltime
professional company, strategists could ask how they would establish one
here from scratch in 1999. That exercise might well suggest more lasting
reforms than any emergency rescue team rushed in to prevent a total
Of course, if
Maeterlinck was right about the pointlessness of human endeavour...
contributes a twice-yearly survey of his opera going.