OPERA - ESSAYS - 24 HRS MAGAZINE - 2000 - ii

As if in tardy recognition of the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Richard Strauss on 8 September 1949, his Electra and Capriccio have been performed in Australia. Humphrey McQueen weaves Strauss’s claim to be the leading opera composer of the twentieth century into this survey of performances and publications.

A hero’s commonplaces
In the wash-up of the cash for comment inquiry, the mass media questioned their acceptance of review tickets. For the record, I receive two free tickets for the operas discussed in these articles, sometimes with a complementary program and a sandwich at interval if I can reach a tray before the ravenous horde. I pay fares and accommodation to performances outside Canberra.

Given this paucity of perks, the arrival of The New Pocket Kobbe’s Opera Book, edited by The Earl of Harewood and Melbourne’s Michael Shmith, was as surprising as it was welcome. After the first edition of Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book in 1922, many an opera lover bought each of the eight editions that followed. By the 1980s, the price was deterring regular replacement and delaying beginners from an initial investment. The last edition came in 1987 as The Definitive Kobbe Opera Book and its 1400 pages are still worth their weight in front-row center balcony tickets. Then, a pocket version appeared in 1994 for travelers and the indigent. Its 1999 revision summarises the action of some 270 works, a few in less than a page, but others at close to the length in the Definitive. All the standard repertoires are covered without neglecting post-war creators, from John Adams to Bernd Alois Zimmermann. The musical theatre, such as Bernstein’s Candide and Weill’s Mahagonny, is included. Richard Strauss has twelve entries, second only to Verdi and equal with Britten. Even if one is saving up for the Grove Dictionary of Opera, this New Pocket Kobbe will give a life-time’s service.

My only criticism is an appeal for a companion volume which will lead listeners into the score and the singing. For instance, Kobbe’s outline of Strauss’s Electra recounts that, after she recognises her brother, ‘ferocity’ is ‘replaced by tenderness’. True enough, but her transformation is effected by the music far more than her words. Listeners need an analysis which goes deeper than noting that ‘the unremitting tension … gives way to lyricism’, an account of how that effect is achieved in the orchestration and the vocal line. For the present, the most accessible sources are the snippets to be garnered from guides to recorded opera, or one of the Web sites devoted to opera: try www.bassocantante.com, or Opera for Dummies.

Running down the contents page of The New Pocket Kobbe to check how many of the 270 works I had not experienced live, reminded me of how much Australians owe to Festivals for bringing us non-standard works. This year’s Adelaide Festival more than fulfilled that expectation by co-commissioning Writing to Vermeer, which had its world premiere in Amsterdam only three months earlier. Music theatre has been a concern of its Adelaide’s director Robyn Archer who also programmed two recent chamber operas by Australians, Andrew Ford’s Night and Dreams, about the last days of Sigmund Freud, sung by Gerald English, and The Ghost Wife by Jonathon Mills, with words by Dorothy Porter from a story by Barbara Baynton.

Adelaide in 2002 is being directed by Peter Sellars, whose own opera productions have been sensational. The prospects for the South Australian economy place a question mark over the long-term future of the Festival State. If the run-down of the Mitsubishi automobile plant proves to be only the first in a run of closures, securing the millions needed in corporate sponsorship will become tougher. In recent years, more of that money has come from semi-government instrumentalities. Adelaide’s success with the Ring cycle in 1998 and the promise of Parsifal in 2001 depend on the State government’s provision of funds. A contracting tax-base and added expenditure to meet the dislocation of factory closures are already making it difficult to underwrite culture as a tactic for attracting tourists. The CEO of Nestle, Helmut Maucher, was correct when he remarked, in 1993, that he had ‘nothing against culture and ethics, but we cannot live on that’. Economic impact statements in praise of Festivals are no more than public relations gimmicks because they do not measure costs against benefits. They merely guesstimate the impact. Without a radical rethinking, the Adelaide Festival may not be around to celebrate its golden jubilee in 2010. One thought is to look beyond Adelaide to gain more national and overseas sponsors. Telstra already holds the naming rights. How long will it bebefore we can enjoy Monsanto’s Salome or KPMG’s Ariadne, with music by a certain R. Strauss?

Richard Strauss gained a reputation for meanness by insisting on his fees. In his last opera, Capriccio, he had the impresario trumpet the creative role of commerce in the theatre, sidelining the claims of dance, poesy and music. Capriccio explores whether words or music should take the lead in opera. The rival arts are personified in a brother and sister, as well as in the poet and composer who vie for the latter’s favours during the celebration of her unspecified birthday. Melbourne’s opening night audience supplied two aspects of opera-making that Strauss, despite his fifty years experience in the theatre, had omitted, namely, chatter and coughing.

The fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death last year was marked by a brace of biographies. The one by the critic for the London Sunday Telegraph, Michael Kennedy, defended its subject against every charge of vulgarity, avarice and Nazism. Kennedy’s life is an easy read because it is shallow in its musical, psychological and political analyses. On the music, Norman Del Mar’s 1962-72 volumes remain essential for any Straussian prepared to deal with Percy Grainger’s 1917 assessment that Strauss’s scores were ‘full of dross, but equally full of godhead; lacking refinement, but not the supremer attributes; and uniquely able to roll forth some great uplifting message after gigantic preliminaries of boredom and inconsequentialities’. As for insights into the personality, one may as well go back to Henry Handel Richardson’s 1908 novel, Maurice Guest, for her characterisation of the Strauss-like Schilsky as expect Kennedy to illuminate his hero.

When dealing with Strauss as the public man, Kennedy assumes that, by demonstrating that Strauss was never political, he has acquitted him of any responsibility for the Nazi era. This plea evades the contribution that the conservatism inherent in the anti-political tradition among Germany’s middle-class made to greasing Hitler’s takeover. Strauss was but one of those who supposed that he could achieve his ambitions through Der Fuhrer without having to give anything in return.

This detachment from the European crisis appears in Strauss’s setting Capriccio in a chateau on the periphery of Paris in the 1780s. The text names no composer outside the eighteenth century while most of the musical jokes are pastiches of the rococo. Hence, director John Cox’s transfer of the action to an art deco salon around 1930 put the words and music in conflict with the décor. If Cox could not leave well alone, he might have dared give audiences something to worry about by pushing the events forward another decade to Capriccio’s first performance in October 1942 by which time the assembled artists and patrons would have been wearing swastikas or yellow triangles, as Strauss’s protectors, tormentors, friends and family were doing. While the creator of the silver rose enjoying his premiere in Munich, two of that city’s students organised a resistance cell, the White Rose, for which they were beheaded. If there were sound reasons why the composer could not join the opposition, his failure to keep silent, to become one of the internal exiles, shows that his anti-political stance did not prevent him from courting such benefits as his Nazi patrons would bestow.

Cox recognised that Capriccio is in danger of immobility as the principals lounge about discussing the significance of various art forms. His shift of the time period, like his use of a revolve to swing the same arrangement of furniture on and off center stage, contributed nothing to relieving the longueur or lesseninging the gemultlichkeit. Cox’s detailing of stage business, however, did enliven proceedings, and could have gone further by pointing up sexual liaisons between the brother and sister, the composer and the poet, and, more naughtily, even between the prompt and the major-domo.

As the female lead, Yvonne Kenny’s countess-cum-muse suffered patches of dryness which disappeared before her long solo finale. Elizabeth Campbell as the actress outsang the Italian soprano, Joanna Cole, who, in turn, took the prize for histrionics. Although it is hard to decide which of the male characters is supposed to be the lead, honours in this cast went to the impresario, whose fury aria is a set piece waiting for a bass to meld cantante with buffa, as Conal Coad did with distinction. Three of the other men - composer, count, and tenor - performed with dash. The fourth, Angus Wood, merits attention because, in his role as the poet, he continued his intelligent extension of his dramatic range and the careful development - from Papageno to Pelleas - of his ever reliable baritone. The octet of servants was drawn, not out of the chorus, but from the company’s second line of principals, including Karl Huml.

Capriccio flirts with several eighteenth-century musical conventions. One of its glories is a fugue, a form which is contra-operatic because it diminishes the importance of the aria. The long conclusion for soprano could be detached to supplement Strauss’s last songs. Strauss had conceived Capriccio as a curtain raiser but expanded it to two-hours. Despite a large string section, it opens and closes with an instrumental sextet. Strauss had hoped for a chamber-sized theatre, at the Salzburg Festival for instance, where the audience could enter into the intimacies of the theme and the intricacies of the debate, much of which is parlando. The economics of professional opera in Australia preclude the possibility of a 600-seat venue, except at the Conservatorium in Brisbane. The current production labours under two avoidable burdens. The acceptance of an interval makes the first part seem longer and even less engaging than it need be. The second mistake was to perform in German, which has much the same effect as delivering Gilbert’s patter songs in Dutch. The sparkle is lost. Yet, had the performance been in English, many in the audience would not have been able to catch much of its wit would because of the size of the hall. In addition, after a decade of surtitles, singers are less bothered by enunciation.

John Stoddard’s sets for Capriccio look like the foyer to one of the up-market department stores that have failed in Melbourne. Under the guidance of Robert Bryan, the lights that are part of that décor come on and go off when the servants flick the switches, a causality less common on Opera Australia stages than the laws of physics dictate. This utilitarian treatment enhanced the effectiveness of his mood lighting for the concluding moonlit sequence.

The State Orchestra of Victoria was in good form after their doldrums when they were threatened first with closure and then with a recommendation from the Nugent Inquiry to merge with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The Victorian government seems determined to keep its own band when it would not maintain an opera company. Melburnians, however, cannot forgive Sydney for taking in the twice bankrupted Victorian State Opera.

Strauss’s Electra has the qualities to match the conviction of Sydney Festival director Leo Schofield that opera must be the centerpiece of any Arts Festival. The ferocities in its score and the relentlessness of its tragedy cannot leave an audience unmoved as Strauss displays his fascination with the female voice across its registers. To these attributes, Schofield secured one of the world’s finest singers, Deborah Polaski, for the title role, whose presence alone was worth the price of admission. Klytamnestra was given by a true lady bass, Reinheld Rinkel. Lisa Gasteen as her other daughter, Chrysothemis, brought dignity to a role that risks insipidness. To show off these vocal splendours, Schofield had hired the Capitol theatre down by Central Railway, where the acoustic proved socialist so that even the least voices from the minor characters carried to the furthermost seats above an augmented Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, also performing with more assurance under Simone Young. Sydney, however, cannot rule finis under the long-standing joke about Australia’s having the world’s finest opera house – the outside in Sydney, the inside in Melbourne and the parking in Adelaide. The Capitol’s acoustic is uneven, while the rumble of trains below is ubiquitous.

The production had been imported from Berlin where audiences are accustomed to directors’ playing up its blood-and-lesbian aspects. This account was chaste, visually and dramatically, an approach which allowed the delicate moments to be savoured, notably when Electra finally recognises her brother Oreste. Understatement, however, made it harder for those coming to the work for the first time to follow why everyone, except Chrysothemis and the fifth maid, wanted to slaughter all and sundry. Klytamnestra and Electra are both wicked witches, the former usually weighed down with jewels as talismans and the latter dying after a dance which expresses an anguish too terrible for words. Neither of those features entered this production. The loss was the display of Polaski’s dramatic powers which are as formidable as her vocal dynamics.

If there is any truth to the rumour that Bizet’s Pearl Fishers is the piece that Opera Australia subscribers most wanted back in the repertoire, then governments may as well withdraw their subsidies and leave the stage free for a commercial company to supply confections and melodramas. One puzzle concerning the connection of genius to talent is how Bizet could write a stream of tunes for Carmen but only one and a bit melodies for Pearl Fishers. The popularity of the latter derives from its opening male duet. Torn from its operatic context, ‘In the depths of the Temple’, can sound as if the two men are infatuated with each other, instead of swearing not to compete for the hand of the woman they both adore. A homoerotic reading has attracted one strand of devotees and was given some credence in the current production by Ann-Margret Pettersson. She also tried to distance the plot from its Orientalism by framing the action as a remembered opera. The work does not deserve the intelligence that would be required to redeem it from its racism, say, by a restaging within the Tamil Tigers’ rebellion.

The young tenor imported from the United States, David Miller, possesses a wider compass than many of the locals thrust upon us as lyric leads, but he lacked surety of vocal placement and dramatic performance until Act Two by which time,  Michael Lewis as his rival - and in this account his would-be lover – had also settled into a forceful realisation. Ghillian Sullivan’s difficulty in coping with a divided interest from the men and her doubled role as princess and diva did not prevent her trilling. Budgets mean that this choice of the pearls-and-twinset will hang around for another twenty years. Lets hope that the Australian dollar does not slide so far that Opera Australia can never afford to import a tenor equal to the part.

Revivals with indifferent casts have diminished my wish to attend opera under any and all conditions. The sparse settings and minimal direction at Idomeneo’s 1994 premiere had left me with no desire ever to see this account again. So it was by chance that I accompanied a friend with a spare ticket to the opening night of its February return. Pondering how to stay alert for the next four hours, I decided to follow the bouncing ball of Mozart’s score, which was enough to carry me to the first interval. Despite having the martinet Christopher Hogwood on the podium, the orchestra demonstrated again that its fudged sounds are not all due to the limitations of the pit. The chorus sang with more unison than is common, but still shuffled about.

The delight came from the four principals. By Act II, their performances caught fire. Friends report that, on subsequent evenings, that breakthrough happened half-way through Act One. With John Mark Ainsley as Idomeneo, the company, this time, had a dependable tenor. A voice as technically accomplished as his makes one want perfection. The fluency of Deborah Riedel as Elettra foreshadowed the reserves that she drew on for the adornments. Kirsti Harms strode through her trouser role of Idamante while Emma Matthews as Ilia left me searching for an adjective - dulcet? -  to convey how her tone floated above sweetness. The conventions of opera seria gave these four stars no chance to sing against each other and thus lift each other to even greater heights. Nor were they helped by the staging which is barely more than a concert version. With all that splendid thunder, it was more disappointing than ever not to get so much as a glimpse of the monster that Idomeneo slays. After hours of pomposity, we deserved a panto dragon.

Writing to Vermeer shares one of the problems with Capriccio. Almost nothing happens. Even less action would have been offered had not the composer, Louis Andriessen, a Sixties radical, intervened to add the public events that upended Vermeer’s Netherlands around 1670. The result is that the opera proceeds on two levels: the domestic domain of the three women writing to Vermeer and the political realm of war. In stressing the calm in Vermeer’s imagery, librettist Peter Greenaway failed to notice the soldiers billeted in Vermeer’s sitting rooms, or to appreciate that household dwellings had doubled as counting houses and factories until around 1800. The separation of the personal from the political deprived the work of the tension that they represent in Vermeer’s canvases. The production team sought to distract attention from this absent drama by flooding film and fluids across the stage. The want of drama depleted the vocal lines so that the three women were almost indistinguishable, a failing which could be redressed by stronger casting of the two soprano parts. Beneath the flurry of visuals, Andriessen’s orchestration sustained delicacies deserving a worthier text, and repeated listening.

In terms of the debate in Capriccio, Writing to Vermeer gave the laurel to music but, more potently, supported the claims of the impresario that the genius of opera resides in a harmonising of all the arts. Even where this new work failed to reach that standard, it met the requirement that Festivals are funded to take risks.

Humphrey McQueen is a Canberra-based writer.