16 April 2012

Victorian Opera: The Play of Daniel,

The Play of Daniel
Victorian Opera
15 April 2012

The last time I heard a bass (singer) on stage  that I liked was … um … well, yeah. Balthasar erupted into this opera with a voice that would be quite at home in Boris. But there he was, some distance in time and space from 13th century France where this liturgical drama was written. The Experimedia room of the State Library was just right for this street theatre production in the (270o) round. And Robert Campbell’s voice was rich and deep. He sang the part with authority.

Charlotte Betts-Dean as Balthasar’s queen was simply superb. It’s reasonable to expect a young voice such as hers to show weak attack, the result of the singer being nervous or over-awed, and to squeak on high notes. Not a bit! Hers is a lovely rich voice and it gave her the assurance and gravity the part demanded. Along with Tomas Dalton as the prince – and Redundant Resources Manager towards the end of the second act – these three dominated the opera. Until …

… enter Daniel (Tobias Glasner). This knock-out baritone was utterly at ease with this difficult part (but they all had hideously difficult parts to sing). There was no bravado here, no arrogance, just an ordinary Jewish slave, far from home, quietly secure in his trust his of his god – and his voice.

If that were not enough we had a range of minor parts who were by no means left-overs and a chorus who were disciplined within an inch of their young lives. The chorus, perhaps most of all the musicians in this production, gave the lie to the usual qualified praise, “They were very good for young people”. They weren’t good. They were superb.

I can’t remember hearing music that more effectively portrayed war than this score. The approach of Darius – confusion, horror, death – was painted first by the Nefes Ensemble in complex cross rhythms of percussion and strings then powerful cannon bursts centuries before gunpowder, or was it heads being split open? But when Darius did appear did he work? Thomas Kruyt was a 50 kg Mede devoid of the serious sword-wielding musculature expected of an ancestor of modern Iranians. The part was pitched somewhere between tenor and counter-tenor so casting a boofer with sculptured black beard would have been even more incongruous.

The Play of Daniel was a courageous choice – mediaeval, Middle Eastern, almost set-less, mostly in Latin and with a cast of young people – but its courage that we have come to expect of Richard Gill. And this opera – that was not the romantic Puccini or supra-dramatic Verdi or comedic Rossini that we are so used to – worked. The audience applause and the comments I heard around me and those to Mr Gill as the audience left said so.

05 April 2012

Firebird Trio: Brave New World

Brave New World
Firebird Trio
4 April 2012

So we rolled in expecting a nice quiet ride in Firebird’s vintage Bentley. Wrong! This was indeed brave new world stuff – for the Trio and for us.

Aaron Copland’s "Vitebsk for Piano Trio" had no hints of “Appalachian Spring”. It’s been described as ‘from the early "austere" period of the composer's development’. I can't say I liked it but I’d liked to hear it again, this time to look for the Jewish theme.

I decided Charles Ives had been to a State Fair to research his trio and stood outside the music tents. In one, a gospel choir, in the next negro spirituals, in anothert, a woman paying SATB hymns and folk songs - all playing at once. But his trio is more than randomised quotes. It is clever, biting, witty, dissonant, wonderful music. 

Wednesday night's crowd roared approval and I even called, sotto voce, “bravo” (f) – or should it be “brava” (m) or even “bravissima” (vg) because here Firebird were in absolute control and gave us spine-tingling music. But was it ok to laugh at Rock of Ages, for eg? The movement is labelled TSIAJ but it was clearly horrendous to play. Roger Jonsson couldn’t smile like the others. He just staggered off for a couple of shots of akvavit.

Benjamin Martin’s trio take of Stravinski’s Firebird was superbly written and superbly played This was not, like so many trios, piano with string continuo. Like the Ives that preceded it, the was no place for anyone of them to hide. Again, I was convinced they knew it, they loved it, the made it sing.

Beethoven Op. 1 No. 1 was the other piece they made sing. It was obviously BNW for the Viennese – not Hayden, not Mozart – but for us it is familiar. Firebird made it new again, and here too we heard all the lyrical - if acerbic - beauty.

The encore, at the beginning, was an erudite soliloquy by Dr Barry Jones (who else would do?) on the Huxley and associated dynasties.

Technically, Firebird were very much at home with the music as was Dr Jones with the history. And both were a joy to listen to. More! Bravo(a)!

01 April 2012

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra: Jupiter

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra
Sunday April 2 2012

MCO, aka Hennessy’s Lot, is simply superb. Today they were crisp clean and rich with the skill – and musicianship – to dim. the end of a phrase to that of a strand of gossamer: the Hennessy trademark.

How long has it been since The Marriage of Figaro overture made you sit up? The tapestry was all there.

And then some of Beethoven’s most magnificent writing matched by some of Melbourne’s most magnificent soloists: Katherine Lukey playing violin, Michelle Wood playing cello and Timothy Young playing piano. The two strings are core members of MCO and the piano from ANAM. So all three playing were superbly equipped to take us into the depths of Beethoven’s soul and to light the star shells that his darkness cannot contain.

Mr MCO has a policy, evidently, of giving the solo gigs to young people and it is wonderful to know that, should one of today’s lot have come down with the dreaded lurgi, there were others behind them who were eminently capable of stepping forward: Helen Ayres and Young Mister Dahlenberg to name but two. And for me the twin French horns – liquid gold – and twin bassoons – liquid dark chocolate – were stand-out performances; accurate, controlled, and restrained when needed. This was gasp-inducing stuff; music performance that grabbed me in the gut. The rest of the DameEMHall audience thought so to, bursting into applause at the end of the first movement. When a staid Melbourne audience defies Proper Concert Behaviour you know you’ve heard a winner. What next; a standing ovation? Shudder!

Then Mozart’s symphony no. 41, often called Jupiter but properly subtitled Tympani allenamento and John Arcaro was simply superb (to coin a cliché). The carpet of sound was produced by beautiful, beautiful playing; sensitive, powerful and, again, restrained so nothing of Mozart’s genius was lost in hurried phrases or mushy, twiddly bits (as they are known to us AMEB Grade 5 graduates).

The encore – the third movement, Minuet, of Mozart’s string quartet no. 15 – was carefully chosen to show off Mr MCO’s lot; their trademark string phrasing again.

Mr Hennessy’s violin is the only one I’ve ever seen that always takes a bow.

Victorian Opera: Albert Herring

Albert Herring (Benjamin Britten)
Victorian  Opera 
Saturday 23 June 2012

AH had a well-selected, evenly-matched cast – and that includes the kids – with superb voices. They produced wonderful depth of tone, great articulation and spine-tingling ensemble work, and that included the numbingly difficult stuff in the last scene. The direction was sensible and unobtrusive - and not clever -  so that the cast produced plausible acting. The innovative set painted the essentials of the scene and it worked. It was matched by equally clever lighting. And the associate artist, the “pit orchestra” (Orchestra Victoria) was sensitively directed by Tom Wood. Its playing was world class, as it its standard.

To my mind, Albert (Jacob Caine) was the stand-out performance: a wonderful, young tenor. I hope to hear more from him. He sang with skill, musicianship and assurance.

AH was another top notch VO performance - fine singing and wonderful staging. The whole affair left its up-itself competition ponderously lurching way back down the track.