Opera Australia – Poetry in motion

July 18, 2009

Winter Season 2009, “Baroque Masterpieces”

Conductor, Antony Walker; Director, Patrick Nolan; Designer, Gabriela Tylesova; Lighting, Nigel Levings; Video, Mic Gruchy; Choreography, Lucy Guerin. Asst Choreography, Anton; Asst Conductor, Christopher van Tuinen; Asst Director, Michal Imielski.

Handel, Acis & Galatea. Galatea, Taryn Fiebig; Acis, Henry Choo; Damon, Kanen Breen; Polyphemus, Shane Lowrencev.

I knew I was in perfectly good hands with Antony Walker and the Orchestra of the Antipodes when the rich bass lines came through clearly during the overture; not dominated by the melody of the violins, all the parts treated equally like a viol consort. The conducting throughout was totally distracting – I could watch this man conduct the whole time if I let myself. His conducting is mesmerising in the extreme, poetic and expressive but above all informative – I found myself constantly checking what he wanted from the orchestra/singers at crucial moments; the fingers and the tilt of the head indicate so well ahead of time what’s required or demanded. I see from the programme that he’s made 25 CDs and DVDs – I could happily watch him conduct forever (and certainly book a seat at Pinchgut Opera at a sufficiently high level so I can watch his conducting).

The seated pose adopted by Galatea at the beginning, in front of the veiled-off ‘public’ area use of the cocktail bar (or private party), reflected the demigoddess’ state: separate from the ‘real’ world’, world-weary but not overly pensive or indulgently preoccupied with herself. The opening lighting of the cigarette writ large in the video on the veil behind her was an important metaphor for the volatility and sensuality of the drama to follow. Meanwhile the solo ‘go-go’ dancer behind the veil suggested a different volatility in that part of the world during the overture – a useful foil to the entry of the party guests.

What struck me immediately was Galatea’s black dress, the only one present dressed in black (to be specific, black overtopped with a white veil); the design reminded me of a Japanese temari rose-garden motif (but of course I realised over the opera’s duration it became more of the single ‘eye’ of Polyphemus). Her black dress constrasted with the super-bright light of her downstage area and I grew very conscious of her stepping ‘over the line’ at regular intervals into the black floor (with white-clad chorus) beyond the veil, beyond her private space. Acis appears in charcoal grey, neither black nor white, neither of the party nor of Galatea’s world, but moving between. So it was like looking into a white chocolate box with a black satin bottom. The cocktail bar or party setting was not nearly as involved and attention-seeking as I’d been led to believe by the publicity: this was not some Elijah Moshinsky-type set design were there was so much going on you could barely cope with the visual overload (Rossini’s Barber). The chorus area was cleaner than expected, with touches of pink, and white movement.

The first few arias were dominated by the orchestra and it became very obvious to me why this particular music was apparently so popular in its day; it was so ‘typically Handel’, a particular sound which I imagined translated into the same popularity then that we associate with his Messiah today. But the balance between orchestra and vocals was beginning to sound so out, that I really started to worry. Galatea’s start to ther “Hush!” aria was a good dramatic ‘jolt to the system’ but it wasn’t till “Happy we!” that the balance righted itself. Suddenly Acis and Galatea matched the orchestral ‘blast’. Of course this marks a significant change in the drama, with so much effort having been placed up until then on setting the pastoral theme musically. Not that I couldn’t have listened forever to the strong orchestra, it’s just that I was starting to have doubts about the vocal power of the principals. I began to think that perhaps this was deliberate in the sense that I was being asked to consider the principals as cherubic or infantile or under-developed in this “thick grass” of wonderful orchestral music. I should mention at this point and say that my use of the term ‘orchestral’ is somewhat mis-leading, since it was far from the ‘full orchestra’ we’ve come to know in later opera. We’re talking about a stupendously clear and bright sound from little more than 15 players – there was none of the wooliness associated with instrumentalists deep in the orchestra pit. Very often it seemed there were few more than one or two instruments, three at most, on any one part at a time.  

I found the Damon aria, complete with erotic choreography, extremely good. It’s amazing what you can get away with on an opera stage, compared to just about any other art form around. The choreography contributed without detracting from the vocal presence. I need to say that Kanen Breen exhibited wonderful diction and total vocal control, while others up until this point seemed to be relying overly on their lung capacity to get those notes to the back of the house, whereas the vocal style seems to require more on most of the work being done at the beginning of the note. But of course then you realise (with the help of opera glasses) how much stamina and determination and sheer physical work is required by Acis and Galatea onstage: unlike more ‘formal’ operas, there are no isolated da capo arias in A&G where principals can come on and off for their one or two set pieces in each Act with nice long breaks in between. Poor A & G are singing their lungs out more or less without a break throughout – little wonder they were building slowly to the drama associated with Polyphemus. There was one niggle I had with the da capo parts of the solo arias – the poor singers were moving around too much at these critical points – poor Henry had to lean up against the stage wall awkwardly during one of his; I just reckon the second half of these arias, with their ornamentation on full display, really doesn’t require so much physical movement. They are supposed to be arresting; they’re so integral to our being put in touch with music of the period that I’d prefer the singers were less kinetic.  But that’s just a personal observation.

Meanwhile the video clips are working overtime – I liked the Suddenly Last Summer touches of the water imagery. The video clips were never domineering, providing lovely shades of grey around the principals in their bright-white ‘cage’.  There was none of the distracting special effects as used in previous Handel productions, nothing to upstage the singers.

For a week before the performance, I’ve been agonizing over this business of the bullying, monstrous Polyphemus via the bass voice reconciled with the highest instrumental tessitura possible – a sopranino recorder. It just seemed to me such an impossible musical challenge. The tempo too can easily be too slow (because you’re aiming for the lumbering oversized god’s movements) or the expresion too nasty and rough or simply too lyrical and lovely. The range of videos on YouTube attests to the possibilities. In any case, there was here in this performance a very great deal made here of introducing Polyphemus through the words (and silences to articulate those words) from the chorus. Despite the langorous cocktail bar setting, we were clearly warned of a major tsunami-type threat in the making.  The extraordinarily high-heeled menace was absolutely brilliant visually and vocally! Lowrencev strode around masterfully like some blue meanie out of Yellow Submarine; he perfectly teased, annoyed and bullied the diminutive Acis, who barely reached his shoulder. There was a lovely restraint in Galatea’s choreography at this point too – she remained her own woman throughout; she didn’t fall to pieces or crack up. So Ruddier than the Cherry was completely and perfectly articulated – it’s a duet of struggle where Acis is silent, not a lone Polyphemus on a desolate stage. Similarly, the ‘taking aside’ of Polyphemus by Damon was beautifully choreographed and executed as well.

I thought the use of the Brancusi-type sculpture as the murderous blunt instrument a masterstroke – the seed of destruction within the cocktail bar (almost the binge-drinking incident inside, rather than out on the footpath). It was so unexpected – this quiet piece of interior decor just innocently sitting on its plinth…

By this stage, the brilliant choral work reached its climax. And Walker elicits the most wonderful music from choruses, especially in the fragmenting fugal motifs. And Walker totally understands the Handellian (fugual) ‘waves’ and the (triumphalist) ‘throbs’ required to make this music so very moving.

And we end up with Acis back in her world-weary pose, as at the beginning.

I was totally moved. I’m not so much into these arguments about it being staged as a masque; in the current environment, we repackage ‘originals’ into all manner of new formats that it scarcely makes much difference. Similarly, that Pinchgut performs acted-out oratorios doesn’t put me off at all. I think both works on offer here fall out of the convenient framework of ‘opera’ as we know it certainly, but the important thing is that they are presented and become vehicles – in this case – for long-time members of OA singers and for the ‘next generation’. The young’uns need to get Mozart and Handel roles under their belts; the old’uns need to show audiences the beauty of well-honed skills over the long careers. 

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Henry Purcell, Dido And Aeneas

Dido, Yvonne Kenny; Belinda, Taryn Fiebig; Second Lady, Amy Wilkinson; Aeneas, Luke Gabbedy; Sorceror, Kanen Breen; First Wtich, Teresa La Rocca; Second Witch, Rachael Cunningham; The Spirit, Margaret Plummer; Sailor, Warren Fisher, Dancers, Sarah-Jayne Howard and Timothy Ohl.

Okay, so I didn’t get my viols. But that’s okay. What I did get though was the first bars of the overture done as a viol consort – just the four string principals – later joined in by the rest of the players, including recorder. Brilliant and innovative and informative! It had the effect of a seed-like kicking-off point, as if he’d just finished one of his gamba consorts and begun another, only to blossom into a chamber opera-drama instead. Fiebig was striking because she had so completely adopted a totally different role, physically, movement-wise and vocally in Belinda. And Belinda isn’t some middle-aged spinster confidant, but a sort of radiant purveyor of Truth. For me, she embodies what is true, compared to the confusion and falsehood of the other characters. And it makes sense that someone has to tell the truth openly. Kenny brilliantly threw us in to Dido’s turmoil vocally. From where I was sitting, she seemed to have been told to use the black lecturn-type object nearby as a prop: a prop I didn’t think she needed. Iny case she was able to move quickly to the other side of the stage and assert herself in a more physical open space which was far more pleasing to the eye. I thought the use of dreadlocks an excellent touch.

The problem with D&A is that it’s over in a flash; there’s barely time to take anything in – it’s such a romp and so given over to dance. As Roger Covell in the programme essay mentions, it is just so full of dance. Certainly this was taking up with the very effective formal baroque dance of Dido and Aeneas, which of course quickly descends into the carnal as protrayed by the superb sorcerer scene, complete with marionettes imitating a dancing duo – brilliantly conceived and executed!

I got my baroque hand movements as well – the chorus needed to move somehow and the hand movements supported the ritual implied in the lyrics. And I liked very much Timothy Ohl’s hand movements during A&G.

Aeneas visually looked as he should – somewhat stiff, fixed in his resolve, completely out of touch with anything other than himself and his career. The choreography associated with the ‘false’ Mercury was excellent: it has to entice the audience as much as it leads Aeneas astray.

The Sorceror was completely memorable. What struck me most (apart from his splendid choreography) was the vocal range deployed here – it was an unearthly portrayal, with notes never seemingly to be entirely set in any one range – he seemed to rise and fall from bass to counter tenor continually, through baritone and tenor. Wonderful, spine-chilling singing!

Silence, used so effectively at the key dramatic moments in A&G, was again used to perfection here.

Similarly, there was this wonderful instrumental colour, toing-and-froing, between theorbo and baroque guitar.

But I really wasn’t at all prepared for the theorbo in the final moments of Dido. I was totally unprepared for the unravelling of Dido via the theorbo plucks – we literally heard Dido’s heart break. The strings breaking not once, but over and over, one by one. There is nothing like the evocation of death and drama associated with the bass strings of the theorbo. And at one point, a little before this, a seering single extended note from the organ.

I mentioned how the overture seemed to blossom out of a viol consort ‘quartet’. Walker ingeniously developed, as the opera progressed, the idea of noise or din; he must have got the instrumentalists at key points to hold certain notes beyond their full value to get this excruciatingly dramatic sense of aural torment. These moments are quickly contrasted with either the bumptious sailors or chorus dancing episodes (with baroque guitar) or the brilliantly finished French sound of the overture to the final Act. The dotted notes must have been brilliantly extended to produce the most gorgeous polished French sound at this point. I can understand why European products frame their D&As with very French sound overtures throughout – Walker intriguingly and perceptively started with a much more ‘English’ first overture developing into stronger ‘French’ style overtures further in.

The arioso and lament are what it’s all about, and apart from the use of theorbo, Kenny kept pushing those notes well to the back of the house. Apart from her obvious gravitas and vocal power, there is something incredibly light about Kenny and her performances as well: it’s quite indefinable. I see it as something Australian, since Fiebig and others have it too. It’s not bright yang sunlight by any means, but there is a very reassuring non-European over-heaviness about her presence.

I found the choreography of the final chorus very moving, the individuals breaking away into the dark beyond. The chorus lineups were at once very formal and initially uncomfortable, but their position there is designed to show them off vocally and to show too that they are not simply support acts to the soloists: their physical position at times in both operas underlines their importance for both Handel and Purcell in giving them top-quality music for us.

The investigation of private and public space was thorough and thought-provoking. As was private yearning and public duty. In the current environment, I also liked the casting of the younger and older female singers; not that age per se, is at issue here – it’s more about how the voices and acting ability can inform the roles. Singers, after all, go down in history for the quality of their voices at the time, not how many years they had been on the planet. Lighting and choreography have to be the special additional elements here – since both could be performed as chamber works with no sets at all – and given the importance of dance, especially in the Purcell, they both succeeded splendidly. Poetry in motion.

One Response to “Opera Australia – Poetry in motion”


  1. Many of guys blog about this matter but you said some true words.


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