OPERA - ESSAYS - 24 HRS MAGAZINE - 1998 - ii

As Opera 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?

Divas and dollars
The worries that many opera devotees have about the survival of professional productions in Australia were deepened for by a visit to the USA. Boston no longer supports a company and those cities that do, such as Dallas, play only for the winter and incline to the box-office end of the repertoire. The two most popular expansions are towards Handel and  Ring Cycles, which Dallas is completing by 2001, not importing as at Adelaide.

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 action.

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.

Following 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 hours.

The orchestral 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.

Maeterlinck's standing 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 .

That Opera 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.

Despite blemishes, this Jenufa  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.

Thankfully, the 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.

Powder 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 earlier minimalism.

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.

Love 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 closure.

Of course, if Maeterlinck was right about the pointlessness of human endeavour...

Humphrey McQueen contributes a twice-yearly survey of his opera going.