As the four hundredth anniversary of opera approaches, Australians have had opportunities to enjoy exemplars from each century: Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse; Handlel’s Ariodante; Verdi’s Falstaff, and Britten’s Billy Budd. Humphrey McQueen draws on this quartet to advance some general comments about the standards of production, performance and conducting.

The luck of the house
Poor Monteverdi. Although acclaimed as ‘the creator of modern music’, of his score of works for the stage all but three have been lost, and throughout more than two hundred years those survivors were rarely performed. From Arianna we have only an exquisite fragment. Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (1641) was not published until 1923 when doubts were cast over its authorship. Adding a flea bite to injury, the concluding paragraph of my previous survey of opera-going attributed his Ulisse to Gluck. Dr Johnson could plead ‘Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance’ when he defined a pastern as the knee of a horse, but I have to rely on stupidity because I had the Sydney Festival program beside me. Not that Monteverdi’s shade would be perturbed now that recordings of his Vespers and madrigals have re-established his reputation whereas his follower Cavalli remains virtually an unknown, although the South Australia Opera staged his L’Ormindo a month before the Victorian State Opera in its glory days presented Ulisse in June 1980. Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Orfeo have also received professional productions in the past twenty-five years.

Alexander Goehr has just composed his own ‘Monteverdi’s  Arianna’ as more than an extrapolation from its lament. Goehr’s creation, suffused with seriousness and wit, differs from the treatment that De Nederlandse Opera has given to Ulisse, though the distance from the originals is almost as great. The Nederlandse production cut out the gods, leaving only Minerva to keep the plot moving, which is like doing Midsummer Night’s Dream without the fairies, except Puck. Whether the conflict among the divinities had to go to save money or to achieve a performance time acceptable to contemporary audiences, the outcome was that we did not get Monteverdi’s Ulisse.

The staging was coherent, spare to the point of Classicism. The coups de theatre were effective, whether the eagle that opened its wings on cue or the sheets of flame that singed hairs in the back row. Stylish choreography from the singers could not compensate for dropping the ballets. The one feature that did conform to Monteverdi’s practice was the small band of strings and continuo, though, with more money, he would have called for the forces he had in his early Orfeo.The radicalism of the production came not from these aspects but from its approach to the structures of feeling in early seventeenth-century Venice. If you suppose that human nature is immutable then none of this will matter. Otherwise, because Monteverdi was a leader among the generation who made their settings express the text, a production which alters the emotional base risks severing the music from the drama.

The production style for these early operas is possible nowadays perhaps only on the screen. The closest I have experienced was the 1983 Paris Les Indes galantes in honour of Rameau’s tertracentenary. The score had been pruned of the overgrowth of nineteenth-century orchestration and was given on period instruments by a periwigged band. The occasion was less lavish than those under Louis XV, but the costs, shared with two other companies, would have rivalled the total budget for the Australian Opera that year. When the text mentioned a golden elephant or a volcano, one appeared for the requisite thirty seconds. If the most lavish of Zefferelli’s effects were bundled into one work they would still fall short of that national celebration. Although there is no point in lamenting that Royal patronage is no more, production teams must still decide what to do with the spectacles that made machine-makers in seventeenth-century Venice more of a draw card than many a composer. Those audiences were accustomed to public festivities and it took rare skill to balance the circus with human emotion. To diminish the coruscating is not just to scale down the extravagance. The emotional appeal is different.

Which period of the emotions did the De Nedlerlandse Opera think they were in? The realm of the mythical figures from Homer’s fictions? The time of one of the Homers? That of Monteverdi? Or the 1990s? Even after a director has dealt with those questions, a production has to place itself in relation to the competing creative forces at work in each of those moments. Writing in The Modern Age (1970), the art historian H. G. Evers observed that ‘we are always coming up against this view that in any one period only one kind of art can be the right one, and that this one kind forms “the style of the period”… It is almost enough to make one laugh if it were not serious’. Shortly after the premiere of Ulisse, Venice opened Europe’s second public opera house while the Puritans closed the theatres in London and Moliere initiated what became La Comedie Francaise in competition with the tragedies of Corneille. These institutional moves embodied contrary attitudes towards art as a moral, an emotional and a representational power. Ulisse itself is a layered work, with high drama and low comedy, appealing to a mixed audience drawn from beyond the merchant princes and grandees of Venice. With so many currents to channel, the excision of half the plot is a risky move.

Had some pot-boiler such as Tosca been subject to so radical a modernising,  the Sydney Morning Herald would have been besieged with letters about cultural vandalism inflicted by political correctness from directorial egomaniacs. Why did no such outcry follow Ulisse? First, the costumes looked antique. Had the suitors appeared in Versace suits and the shepherd by courtesy of R. M. Williams, Watermans would have been unsheathed all over Pymble, although the libretto itself  jibed at such primness when Ulisse asks Minerva, disguised as a shepherd:

Who would have believed?

A Deity clad in human garb.

Do these masquerades occur in heaven?

Homer’s Ulysses at this moment calls her the ‘mistress of disguises’. Furthermore, if Jove can go courting as a bull and a swan, who are OA subscribers to tell the gods not to tog up as the fancy takes them? The graver reason why we were spared a repeat of the huffing that followed Moshinsky’s 1995 Barber was because the Monteverdi has almost never been performed, and so its make-over could not upset prejudices formed in a first childhood.

Opera Australia’s staging of Falstaff was the third time for me, though with different principals. Twice in these pages I have complained about the naturalistic first two Acts and its risible forest scene, with the villagers cut off at the knees so that they cannot move and so cannot scare Falstaff. With financial pressure directing companies toward crowd pleasers, we are likely to sit out three revivals of this production before getting a chance to enjoy Salieri’s Falstaff or Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor.

Ariodante from Stopera on a summer evening in Canberra’s Commonwealth park brought me closer to Handel than any of his previous operas. Not all Handel sounds the same. A doorpost could tell the Largo from the entrance of the Queen of Sheba. My resistance to the craze for Handel stems from the likelihood that either or both of those pop tunes could serve in any of his operas, even Ariodante which is blessedly free of gods, goblins and great monsters. Thanks to patronage from the Lords of Telstra, David Branson’s staging was more spectacular than at Ulisse and would have diverted the British Philistine of Handel’s day – lots of visual effects such as the king of Scotland’s exiting in a self-propelled flying machine. Best of all were the goblins – well, yes, there were just a few – that peopled Ariodante’s nightmare as black vinyled creepy-crawlies. Oh, and, there were fireworks to wrap up. Branson’s engagements with Stopera are providing him opportunities to weld the fire-eating of his street theatre to the constraints of the opera stage. With fewer new productions from the surviving State companies, we must cherish these chances for newer talents.

Australian theatre has a long history of imports but Billy Budd is a case where an Australian team had developed a production with the Welsh National Opera before staging it in Sydney a year later. Andrew Porter’s review in the April 1998 issue of Opera has been quoted to show that the Australians could learn them Brits: ‘precise, impassioned and very “musical” production’, Porter wrote, ‘sensitively and intelligently staged’. Brian Thompson has set Budd on a platform that rises, falls, revolves and tilts, a contraption which becomes the star. Even a single revolve can relieve a director of the responsibility to energise performers. Here, the machinery destroyed thought. Its Luna Park of rides became algebraic symbols for the toss of the sea, the scales of justice and lurching emotions. To make matters worse, the device lost whatever force it had as metaphor or stage effect by overuse. Perhaps this accounts for why the chorus was sloppier than usual. They deserved to be flogged around the fleet. When they had to mime drawing in the hawser they seemed more concerned not to split a fingernail than to run a man-of-war. Such slovenliness is the fault of director Neil Armfield whose reputation had been tied to his movement of performers, a quality absent also from his Jenufa last year.

Armfield offered no interpretation beyond a trace of sexual politics, with too little of the affairs of state, and no success in welding them together to explain Vere’s failure to save Billy or Claggart’s determination to destroy him. In the wake of the naval mutinies of 1798, all of the fleet was a prison. The homoerotic is in Melville’s own life and Moby Dick as much as in Britten and his librettist, E. M. Forster, and so did not need to be grafted on, although Andrew Porter condemned Armfield’s ‘obtrusive addition’ of Claggart’s and Vere’s fondling Billy’s fancy neckerchief.  But Britten and Forster were also war resisters and so the deaths of the youths they admired was at once personal and political. As neither intelligence nor emotion crossed the footlights, my heart did not miss a single beat when Billy swung.

These six monthly surveys are too late to influence performers so that to point out that a tenor sustained a high Cwould sound flat. My working rule has been to praise the worthy and to give the crook a single slap before punishing them with the one thing I most want to hear from them, to wit, silence. With Opera Australia remaking itself in every department, it is appropriate to take up some continuing concerns about the standard of singing by reference to recent performances.

Had I been living in Sydney I would have returned to Ulisse. Had the performers been confined to chairs along the front of the stage, their voices alone would have been worth the price of a ticket. So large of cast of integrated voices is rare. Their quality also meant that the merest blemish stood out. A slight quake in Kenneth Cox’s entrance as the figure Time disappeared as his bass projected menace in his second role as the suitor Antinoo. Because that opening frailty was out of keeping with his performance, I was not surprised to learn that he had been battling an infection.

Anthony Rolfe Johnson in the title role was the weakest vocally and dramatically, shown up by the bluff determination of Adrian Thompson as his servant shepherd. Johnson’s Ulisse remained in the dream circle that Minerva had drawn around him and neither his being reunited with his son nor his slaughter of the suitors carried him to heroic stature. By contrast, Bernarda Fink conveyed the majesty and self-reliance that had sustained Penelope through the years of her husband’s absence. Deletion of the gods altered the significance of her refusal to take a new husband, and hence coloured her stage motivation. Without Nettuno’s curse, her reluctance to accept this stranger as her husband looks like some trait in her personality, a reorientation which gave her the sense of a woman pleased not to have to share her bed. The mood moved closer to one of Ibsen’s domestic tragedies. This frost marred only the concluding moments when her voice retained too much of restraint. Recognition of Ulisse should have unleashed more of the passions that she had been damming. Diana Montague as Minerva lavished her mezzo on the ornamentations to which a goddess is entitled, attainments which would have been even more striking had she had to pitch her floridness against that from Giove, Giunone and Nettuno. With only human beings as foils, her flights made her character sound a tad ridiculous.

The singing in Billy Budd was no better than the music deserves. Its folksy elements sound like choruses from a Boy Scouts Gang Show, with the shanties overblown  for orchestra, not reworked into a modern style of composition as in Janacek or Bartok, or in Britten’s own Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. In the title role, Peter Coleman-Wright was closer to an Albert Herring, a simpleton rather than a noble savage. As the master-at-arms, John Claggart, Stephen Bennett was right to eschew the bluster of a bully for cold calculation but he needed more than sneers to carry it off. Robert Tear as captain de Vere is past it, and was unable to move between the active captain and the retired gentleman, though he could be effective once he caught up with his stage self.

That the night need not belong to the principals or to the more appealing characters was brought home in Ulisse where no one engaged more empathy than Alexander Oliver as the gluttonous drone, Iro, as he pleaded, not for a kiss to remove his toadiness, but for death. Conal Coad as the old salt Dansker in Billy Budd took us beyond the brilliance of his comic repertoire into the bleak wisdom that resignation is the only response to implacable power. As Mistress Quickly in Falstaff, Irene Waugh’s contralto had the bottom to track Terfel’s bass baritone in their version of ‘Any note you can sing I can sing lower’. Waugh also has the acting skills to carry off that send-up, as did Ditta Ziza as the maidservant in Ariodante.

Our companies have no shortage of effective singers in their twenties as was highlighted by John Heuzenroeder as the novice in Budd and Michael Raymond Martin as Fenton in Falstaff. The task is to nurture them into the secondo tenors that we do lack. Miking does not help one know how good a voice is but it cannot conceal those who should not be allowed on any stage, of which there was only one in Ariodante. Those young principals, most in their post-graduate years, relaxed into their demanding roles, guided by Graeme Abbott who did all that could be hoped with the band. The cast of Iphis in Melbourne were splendid but deserved a less breezily monochromatic score and a libretto with tension in the first half when it relied on the cleverness of the dialogue which might have worked had more of the words been audible.

Bryn Terfel’s falsetto was proof positive of his baritone which did not thin as he went octaves high, a range equalled by his dramatics which were jovial without reducing Sir John to a poltroon. His manner though was not markedly distinct from that of  Jonathan Summers in Melbourne. Indeed, so alike have been the three Falstaffs in this travelling production that I wonder whether the costumes, especially the white one in which the knight goes awooing, could perform the part by themselves. Terfel’s reserves of both playfulness and power reminded us of what a world-class voice is like. As Angus Wood put it in these pages in June: ‘It’s inspiring and it’s humiliating’. Michael Lewis as Page in Brisbane confirmed the esteem that makes him one of our stars. Terfel’s presence lifted Lewis’s Sydney performance but the contrast also showed up some fraying. You knew that Terfel could go on giving, whereas Lewis had put himself at the extremity of his talents. Yvonne Kenny as Alice Ford presented the unprecedented pleasure of an underparted principal. The role does not require all her virtuosity, although Verdi advised that ‘the main character in Falstaff is not Falstaff but Alice’, and so Kenny would delighted him as much as she did us, and as did Rosemary Gunn as Meg Page.

The only musical disappointment at Falstaff came from the pit where Simone Young failed to spark the spontaneity needed to propel the action and to display the aural colourings underlined by the coordinated tonings in the costumes. Falstaff is a snare because the 1950 Toscanini mono recording from RCA not only set a standard for this work but for all of Verdi, and some would say for all opera recordings. Although it is neither appropriate nor fair, we now go to live performances with our heads pre-tuned by recordings - the magnificent, the horrendous and the indifferent. Whether or not a conductor relies on this or that effect from Toscanni is irrelevant. What counts is that Toscanni has impressed on us that Falstaff is rich fare where the drama continues in the orchestral score, much of which is worth hearing for its instrumentation. The concern is not that Young failed the Toscanni test but that she let Verdi down.

Young’s plans as Opera Australia’s artistic director are more encouraging. She has been auditioning players and choristers. She plans more concerts to showcase the orchestra, as is normal in German houses, and thereby raise its standard of performance for the theatre. She wants to extend the repertoire to include more East European works. She is thinking about how the Opera House pit can be re-engineered. As much as we can sympathise with anyone forced to work in that black hole, other conductors have secured sounds superior to her Falstaff, which was the third time I had heard her conduct. The first was at the 1996 Melbourne Festival with Richard Strauss’s Die Frau Ohne Shatten when rumour of conflicts with the players led me to postpone judgement. Last year, I attributed the woefulness of her Melbourne Tannhauser to the demoralised state of that orchestra after the absorption of the VSO. In August, she has another chance with Don Carlo.

Concern about Star City as a venue for the Monteverdi has been given about as a reason for poorer than hoped for ticket sales. But there is nothing unique in tying a Casino to an Opera House, as visitors to Wiesbaden well know, and Sydney’s Opera House was funded by a lottery. For Australians to object to attending high art in a casino when we live in a society governed by the stock exchange carries as much conviction as a brothel keeper’s complaint that a church has opened next door.