OPERA - ESSAYS - 24 HRS MAGAZINE - 1999 - ii

The Nugent inquiry’s discussion paper on funding for Australia’s major performing companies has left the biggest question mark over opera because of its cost. Financial rationalisation would favour the State companies following the Victorian State Opera into the fold of Opera Australia. In his survey of recent opera-going, Humphrey McQueen shows why artistic excellence cannot be identified with one company.

Pleasures beyond measure
Were the future of Opera Australia to be decided on the second-cast performance and new production of La Boheme, the company would be closed at once. If funding is to be allocated by the excellence of a single work, that money would flow to the State Opera of South Australia for its Il trovatore. The ledger is less balanced. Queensland remounted its snappy 1992 production of The Barber but with over-parted young principals. In Canberra, Budget Opera’s The Turn of the Screw was marred by the clunk of stage machinery throughout the interludes but soared in Kent McIntosh’s Quint, a spellbinding realisation to match a voice with the attributes for which Britten had composed.

Despite brilliance here and emerging talent there, attention is more than ever focussed on the Opera Australia’s Sydney seasons as controversies flare about its dominance and its qualities. Days before the opening of Verdi’s Don Carlos in Sydney on 9 August, its director Elijah Moshinsky condemned both orchestra and chorus. The players responded by showing that their more usual fudge is the result of slovenliness, not incompetence. The rapturous applause before a note had been sounded means that the subscribers deserve no better. Until they learn when to boo, Simone Young will find it harder to learn how to lift the standards of a band content to blame its faults on its tools.

Moshinsky’s contribution to Don Carlos was more apparent in the pit than on stage. This production reached a new low from a director whose 1970s Boris Godunov had marshalled comparable forces for Grand Opera. This time he served up spectacle in place of detailed vision, providing no concept for penetrating the interplay between the personal and the political, whether of the imaginary characters, the historical personages or for human nature. Only in getting so many people on and off a stage notorious for its clipped wings did he demonstrate his craft. He botched significant details by sapping the power from spiritual majesty and the majesty from temporal power. A badminton scene in Act II began on the right foot with the ladies of the court immobilised in their hoop skirts while a page collected the shuttlecock every time they hit it out of play. But Moshinsky then allowed the queen to move towards her lady-in-waiting to comfort her after the king has expelled her for leaving her mistress unattended. What queen of Spain ever moved towards her subjects? This lese majeste later had Phillip step down into the crowd at the auto-da-fe. The staging of hierarchy reached its nadir when the king sat in the presence of the Grand Inquisitor so that visualisation of the church’s power over the throne was lost. The direction of the Grand Inquisitor could not have been more misguided as he turned to look at people when he spoke to them, thereby destroying the metaphoric point of his blindness.

Don Carlos demands five great male voices. This production had only one and that in the minor part of the monk where Karl Huml’s sepulchral bass left me looking forward to his Grand Inquisitor in a decade from now. For the moment he has the reward of winning the Australian division of the New York Metropolitan Opera Auditions. Conal Coad’s voice proved neither dark nor solemn enough to induce the terror of the Grand Inquisitor, a weakness which might have been concealed more had he not fidgeted to indicate annoyance. Arend Baumann, standing in as Phillip, delivered a wayward baritone, not even a has-been bass. Phillip is not as old as that. His Act IV lament -  Elle n’aime pas - was parched, depriving the monarch of his call on our sympathies as yet another prisoner in this demesne of intrigues.

In the title role, Vincent Cole showed no talent for dramatics. His singing was barely more distinguished. He was unmoved even at Posa’s death. Their peaen to freedom, Nous mourrons en nous aimant!, demands more than the simple-mindedness of the duet in Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, for Verdi follows Schiller in multiplying the sources of their friendship, including Posa’s physical attraction towards the feckless prince. Jeffrey Black as Posa therefore had to carry the scenes with Cole, just as Posa has to carry Carlos politically and emotionally, tasks beyond both the singer and his character. The love Posa declares for Carlos in his death aria thus appeared from nowhere. A graininess recurred in Black’s voice so that he failed to introduce the note of fanaticism to rival the dogmatics of the Grand Inquisitor.

The women did better. Bernadette Cullen possesses the richness of tone to make Eboli’s set pieces of evil and penitence convincing. Lisa Gasteen as the queen had to overcome the failings of Vincent Cole for her side of their affair to appear believable. Her voice was at its most attractive in passages suggesting filigree.

The third new production from Opera Australia was Rinaldo, yet another homage to Handel, promoted around the box office duo of Yvonne Kenny and Graham Pushee. Again we endured a production with insufficient principals. Three counter-tenors are not too many if they can sing. Instead, the screechings of the Saracen king, whose name charity forbids me to mention, made me put my fingers in my ears. The leader of the Christians, Christopher Josey, was soprano-esque, spritely when he was not sliding into what might have been Vietnamese. Pushee was sweeter but without punch. Against this rack, Kenny was never required to reach for her best. The other pity was that she did not step out of her role to take over Almirena’s Lascia ch’io pianga, since Emma Matthews brought neither the feeling nor the firmness to render that most plangent of Handelian laments.

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s sets would have got in the way had the chorus been required to do more than frieze. Only the expensive boat sequence visualised the meaning of the action. The rooftops of Jerusalem looked like a winner until the armour on the knights prevented their negotiating its steps and stairs for the battle climax. A huge crucifix never exited in time for the conversions from Christian to Moorish settings.

The spring season ended with Opera Australia’s premiere production Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, directed by Barry Kosky. I should acknowledge that I am struggling with my previous high regard for this 1920s piece, doubts which increase when I think of Janacek’s Katya and From the House of the Dead. Thus, I have to distinguish my growing suspicion that the score is a pastiche - interludes imported from Debussy mixed with the emotional shallowness of Richard Strauss, the omnivorousness of Mahlerian orchestration and the sound effects of a cinema organ - in short, the work of a duodecenic Puccini, as was alleged against Berg in his lifetime. That I came away far less convinced by these accusations is a tribute to the director, cast, players and crew.

Wozzeck is based on Georg Buchner’s 1835 excoriation of the power of money. Buchner deepened the radicalism of the poets who had supplied Schubert with the impassioned verses for Die Winterreisse. In Buchner’s even briefer life from 1813  to 1837, he proclaimed ‘Peace to the hamlet, War to the Palaces’. His fury against his own medical profession overlapped with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where the hubris of science also turned an innocent into a murderer by depriving him of love.

Without the politics, the story would be as shoddy a little shocker as Tosca. Barry Kosky found the key in Wozzeck’s repeated ‘We poor folk’, which he turns from excuse to accusation. The illegitimate child, carried off perfectly by Joseph Salvat, became the prism for our emotions as we watch his father being tormented and his mother murdered. By making us want to protect the child from what we know, the production directs its emotions back onto the stage action so that the protagonists are made sufferers, not slogans.

Wozzeck’s use of an axe instead of a phallic knife to murder Marie is justified by the text when he describes a stretch of road as ‘accursed’ because a human head rolls along it at dusk. Kosky also restored the earthiness that Berg had bowdlerised, before venting the theatricality of the original, in the beer hall debauch. The cut-out backings that flipped out of the floor became distractions when they teetered too far along their tracks; they were redundant when their imagery replicated what was blatant in the words, music and action, notably when the red fist pops up in case we miss the decapitation.

Better bands than OA’s have made a hash of Berg’s score. The placement of the enlarged orchestra at the back of the stage was inevitable and proved fine for the interludes and the sound effects. Despite the enlarged forces for which Berg wrote, he called Wozzeck’s mood ‘piano’. To get around the conflict between the volumes appropriate for the interludes and those of the vocal accompaniment, Berg also scored for two bands, one on stage and the other in the pit. Putting the main ensemble behind the action could not but unsettle this balance.

What notes should be sung divides the experts. Can Sprechgesang be more than a notion about the kinds of noises the composer would have liked? Some critics and singers insist on the precision expected in Mozart. For others, the vocal lines are a guide to improvisation. The latter group extrapolate Schonberg’s remark that, for some works, he had placed the notes of the speech-melody above or below a single line in order to differentiate ‘high’ from ‘low’. The cast combined both approaches, often from the same voice. Kosky allowed Jonathon Summers in the title role to be too violent too soon and so he had to struggle to regain the lyricism that the part requires. Elizabeth Whitehouse supplied the beautiful singing that Berg valued. As the mad doctor, Barry Mora rang true, metallic in his inhumanity, which found its counterpoint in the thicker bullying of The Captain, Richard Greager.

The chorus in Il trovatore on the night after Don Carlos was as slack as Moshinsky had alleged, while the orchestra did better, even under Bonynge. Elizabeth Campbell as Azucena had no chance of conveying why Verdi considered her the central character since Moshinsky’s direction over-compensated for the hysteria so often faked for the part by aiming at an implacable resignation that kept her immobilised in a chair.

As Manrico, the Canadian tenor Richard Marginson repeated the role he had performed at the Metropolitan in February when the New York Times described his voice as ‘vibrant and sizeable … with a bright ping in the top range. But he lacks subtlety’, which was true again in Sydney. He made more of the right sounds than he found appropriate movements, putting Arend Baumann as Ferrando and Michael Lewis as Count di Luna, more than on their mettle. Without Marginson, the performance would have been yet another ho-hum night with Opera Australia.

What a contrast in Adelaide two nights later when director Elke Neidhardt followed the magnificence of her 1997 Tannhauser for Opera Australia with a world-beating account of Il trovatore for State Opera of South Australia.

The baby-swapping plot requires more than ingenuity if the opera is to escape from Kobbe’s summary that throwing the wrong infant into the fire preserves the child ‘destined to grow up into a tenor with a voice high enough to sing Di quealla pira’, which Marginson had done with ease. The New York critic suggested that Marginson’s Manrico ‘doesn’t have much competition right now’. One contender is Badri Maisuradze whose top notes in Adelaide were as delicate as a flute’s and with comparable projection. His acting skills made the mummy’s boy into an impulsive teenager.

With the characters in Il trovatore so unreflective, the director and her associates had to supply the stage effects that allow us to suspend disbelief. In turning to Franco’s Spain, Neidhardt discovered real persons, for example, di Luna (Ian Vayne) with the vanities of a toreador, and Ferrando as the pistol-packing chaplain to the fascists. Leonora puts on her stockings as she sings of Manrico, which is as autoerotic as a Spanish maiden can be. Glory of glories, Azucena cradles her blanket roll as if it were her dead child, and stares into on-stage fires so that her mother’s immolation becomes part of the present, not just a fifteen-year old memory. Liane Keegan was grim and fiery in voice and manner. 

The production also got around the self-confidence of music which works against the despair of the plot. Graham Abbott steered the orchestra through Verdi’s representation of  passions in sound, as the music swings from the velvet of the Miserere to the clang of the military choruses, from the heartache of Azucena’s remembrance to the bravura of Manrico.

Score and story collide in the concluding minutes of furious action if the emotional basis for suffering that brings neither reward nor release has not been established. The staging by Michael Scott-Mitchell and lighting by Nick Schilipper solved this problem by the shock of delivering the principals from the dark into the blinding light of a death cell where fluorescent ferocity represented their heightened emotions, as in Dante’s Inferno where the final circle of hell is ice. Scott-Mitchell’s full-stage backdrop served multiple functions, from an iconostasis when the nuns opened their windows to becoming one wall of the town square. Light shone through its bomb-scars to create a crucifix over the wedding ceremony.

Scott-Mitchell’s sets were a revealing contrast to those at the revival of Sidney Nolan’s design for Opera Australia. Nolan’s canvas of candle-lit chiaroscuro is most effective when a scene opens, but contributes less as the drama bounds ahead. Here was a new reason to contemplate the difference between depiction and narrative. Handsome, elegant and courtly though the Nolan sets are, his vision is limited by a painter’s stasis against the stage director’s dramatics.

The production is to be given this year in Perth and Brisbane when the definition of an opera lover in those cities will be those who attend two or more performances. Devotees elsewhere should organise their travels around those dates. Opera Australia should buy it for Sydney and Melbourne seasons sooner than possible.

Opera Australia revived its 1996 Australian creation, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, for its Spring season and it will offer The Eighth Wonder for the Olympics Festival. Such recognition of Australian operas is welcome but a remounting by itself cannot contribute much to the development of either the work or its creators. The scores, libretti and productions of both operas were in need of improvement when premiered. Those initial runs should be looked upon as extended dress rehearsals. If Verdi reworked Simon Boccanegra, his twenty-first opera, then no Australian tyro need feel embarrassed at wanting a second chance.

A major rethinking will add to the cost. Parts have to be recopied. More rehearsals will be required than would be the case if the principals could pick up from they left off three or four years ago. If a work is worthy of being restaged then it is good enough to merit a subvention for its second coming. From where are those extra dollars to come?

The Federal Coalition’s prejudice in turning to corporate and private patronage rests on the comparison that its advocates draw with the situation in the United States. The sums provided there will never be available here, and not only because corporations give away profits in the USA that they have taken from us. The assumption that Australia can switch to the US system ignores the endowments that stand behind US museums and companies, relieving them of dependence on current income.

The gulf between patronage there and here is blatant in the financing of the new US American opera, A View from the Bridge, with music by William Bolcom and a libretto by Arnold Weinstein based on the 1955 play by Arthur Miller. In addition to salaries for the orchestra, chorus, stage crew and front of house, Chicago’s Lyric Opera spent over A$2m. for principals and sets. Commissions for composer, librettist and playwright came to at least A$250,000. To help out, a Chicago businessman put in A$200,000 and AT&T gave slightly more. By comparison, The Opera Company of South Australia prints the names of its $50 donors, and Opera Australia starts at $700. Welcome as every cent must be, these sums are no basis for main-stage productions.

World’s best practice will never be achieved by pretending that Opera Australia is the Met of the Southern hemisphere. That is like entering a sprinter for the marathon. Deluding ourselves about where we stand in relation to the world’s richest, means that we miss out those areas where we have the chance to excel.

More than lucre is needed. During 1999, the New York Times ran a series of articles on the development of A View from the Bridge, which was not being performed in New York. By contrast, the Adelaide Advertiser buried its favourable review of Il trovatore on its third last page, above the movie programs, of the Monday edition, when it deserved to lead the front page. Roger Knight’s critical yet thought-filled notice for the monthly Adelaide Review could not appear until after the final performance.

Funding decisions from the Nugent inquiry will not end disputes over the future of opera as managements everywhere attempt to win an audience under sixty and to hold on to older subscribers. The marketing that attracts the former to the commercial musical theatre can offend the latter. An electronic sound enhancement system has just been installed at the State Theater at the Lincoln Centre for the City Opera of New York. Can the miking of voices be far behind? Audiences at Portland Opera received scratch-and-sniff cards to use during The Love of Three Oranges. Surtitles have become accepted at the cost of distracting audiences from the music and the singers from enunciating the text. South Australia’s La Trovatore projected only scene outlines, not every word. Neidhardt expected her audiences to prepare themselves by reading at least the synopsis. Most did. No one can protect those first-nighters who mistook Verdi’s opening drum roll for the start of the national anthem and stood up.

Humphrey McQueen has been surveying the state of opera for 24 Hours since 1991.