09 October 2014

Victorian Opera: The Play of Herod

Victorian Opera
Newman College
Friday 2 October 2014

Newman College chapel is about as far removed from The Big Opera Theatres as you can get. The Play of Herod is about as far from The Two Big Money Spinners – Verdi and Puccini – as you can get. For this production they both – the space and the opera – worked and worked spectacularly well.

Victorian Youth Opera The Play of Herod Nativity

The hard stone walls of the long, narrow, high ceilinged chapel loved the trombones and trumpets (it really was a day for trombones). The walls loved Elizabeth Barrow’s assertive Archangel. They also loved the grand organ, the panic-stricken piano and glockenspiel. They loved the divided voices and orchestra – part at the front, part high in the choir loft at the back – and surrounded us with powerful (in every sense of the word) sound that placed us firmly in the centre of The Play.

The Play of Herod is the gutsy, risk-taking, iconoclastic stuff of the sort that is giving VO a valuable reputation as being as far from Sniffy North Shore opera practice as it could get. It’s as if The Play was designed to consume money (but not much) not make it; the chapel holds only a few hundred people. If you want to mount extravagant AO-type sets you need to pander to the matrons whose hubbies hold the cheque book. If your set consists of a red cloth on a stick (to hide the slaughter of innocents) you can ignore the need to find funds sufficient to re-run Aida with elephants and mount something with style and class. We got both: style and class.

The mostly student-age voices from Victorian Youth Opera were superb (or superbly cast) with the magi – including a stunning bass – at the top of the list. Jacob Lawrence’s tenor suited the proto-evil Archelaus as well as it suits his usual Scots Church repertoire and Shajeda Kalitzki-Abedin gave us a controlled, agonising Rachel. All the kids could sing and they sang well, most superbly.

Victorian Youth Opera The Play of Herod.
Jacob Lawrence (Archelaus) Kiran Rajasingam (Herod)
 But for my money – and the tickets really were far too cheap for 75 minutes of excellent music-making – the star performance was Richard Mills’ score: its harmonic invention and its orchestration. Dr Mills seemed to be able to refer back to the 12th century Fleury manuscript – the horrific mediaeval tale – without the load of romantic agony we’re used to in 19th century Italian opera. There was agony but it was controlled. The magic was his orchestration and his genius was out in front in this work: his gentle pastoral treble recorder (a leitmotif?) at one end and his magnificent brass at the other with panic-stricken piano running somewhere in the middle. It was restrained, powerful emotion reminiscent of Benjamin Britten in harmony and control.

Expensive sets? Who needs ‘em? When the score, the orchestration and the singing are right, the production works.

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