Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Victorian Opera: Julius Caesar

The second event on my visit to Melbourne was the Victorian Opera production of Handel's Julius Caesar at the Recital Centre. I had been less than enthusiastic about three VO productions heard earlier; and was also sceptical about the use of the Elizabeth Murdoch Hall in the Centre for opera. I'm not critical of the use of a space without a traditional stage: operas staged by Pinchgut Opera in the City Recital Hall in Sydney have been excellent overall and musically outstanding.

However, on my previous visit to the Melbourne hall at the time it was opened in 2009, I heard chamber music, (Schubert's Trout Quintet played by the Goldner Quartet with Piers Lane and Alex Henery and a late night concert which introduced me to Morton Feldman's haunting Rothko Chapel), for which the acoustics of the hall were perfect, and a performance of some opera excepts and Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music, with Orchestra Victoria conducted by Richard Mills and singers, which I thought was not as well suited to the space.
Melbourne Recital Centre

The Elizabeth Murdoch Hall is lined with timber, and I could smell the wood as I came in: I hope this natural aroma therapy will last.

For Julius Caesar, the orchestra was placed in front of the stage. The simple all purpose set included an obelisk, Cleopatra's Needle perhaps, reaching almost to the ceiling and some thin drapes hanging from a rail attached to the roof, which were opened and closed during the performance.

As soon as the orchestra played, my doubts about the quality of the music were extinguished. The ensemble from Orchestra Victoria conducted by Richard Gill, the artistic director of Victorian Opera, played beautifully. The orchestral sound was balanced and well articulated. If I wanted to find fault I would say that the hall was not quite as kind to the singers, as I thought I noticed a little too much reverberation at times. But overall I was enchanted. I should have allowed myself enough time in Melbourne to hear it more than once. So much for scepticism.

I don't think I had heard David Hansen the countertenor who sang Caesar before. He has a remarkably agile voice, his high notes in particular had great clarity of tone. Tiffany Speight was a fine Cleopatra, and it was interesting to hear Tobias Cole ( Oberon in OA's Midsummer Night's Dream earlier this year ) as Tolmeo. He sang Caesar in the most recent revival of OA's famous production. The other singers were excellent as well.

It may not be a universal rule, but I think there is much to be said for staging 17th and 18th century opera in small theatres and halls. I know that when Handel's opera's were first performed the rather static nature of the opera seria was mitigated by the use of elaborate scenic effects; but I'm not certain about how large the theatres were. I have seen the OA Julius Caesar, first performed by Yvonne Kenny and Graham Pushee in 1994, in both Sydney and Melbourne. Those theatres were fine for the music and the space allowed for elaborate and effective staging. I was, however, disappointed by David McVicar's production, originally for Glyndebourne, which I saw at Chicago Lyric Opera in 2007. I will mention some aspects of the production later, but my overriding impression was that the theatre was too large for the work which lacked impact for that reason. It's seen from a distance, and though there are singers who are powerful enough for a large auditorium many fine artists are not. In Chicago, French countertenor Christophe Dumaux, who sang Tolemeo, seemed much more suited to the space than David Daniels, who sang Caesar.

The VO production was directed by Steven Heathcote who recently retired after an outstanding career as a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. His background in dance was reflected in some aspects of the production, which I thought was well suited to the hall and enhanced the excellent music. I disagree with the critic for the Melbourne Age, who wrote: "All too often, what we were seeing on stage seemed superficial to what was being played and sung."

The static nature of opera seria creates problems for the modern director, but those problems were elegantly solved here. Two examples:

Towards the end of Act 1, Caesar sings the remarkable aria with horn obligato "The skilful hunter treads silently when stalking his prey". In Francisco Negrin's OA production this was done with Caesar and Tolemeo confronting one another around a large table covered with a green baize cloth. It was a thrilling piece of theatre. David McVicar's production picked up a dance rhythm in the music and had Caesar and Tolemeo performing a kind of gavotte which seemed to drain the dramatic tension from the scene. The VO production, with less elaborate resources, depicted the scene as a confrontation in a way which did enhanced the music.

Another highlight of the OA production was the aria -

" If in the pleasant, flowery meadows, the bird among flowers and leaves, conceals itself, it only makes its song more delightful.."

in which Caesar steps out of character and conducts a kind of duel with the accompanying violinist as they compete to find the highest note. This was also very effective in the theatre. (The applause and foot stamping can be heard on the live recording ).

Chicago also had the violinist on stage without the same theatrical effect, but Steven Heathcote's solution was to have a dancer depict the bird of the lyric sometimes eluding Caesar's reach but when caught allowing the singer to try a few lifts from the ballet. It created a nice effect.

Apart from the obelisk, the Melbourne production was not intended to accurately represent Caesar and Cleopatra in their historical context, but it was straightforward and effective. The much more elaborate Chicago production was a sly representation of British Imperialism, which despite the comic effects had a Serious Purpose. Mr. McVicar says in the program: " On some level this is an opera about what happens when you walk into other people's countries under false pretenses". So there.

I find that it is now 40 years since I first heard Julius Caesar. I mention this because over that time there has been a change in the performance practice for opera seria, most of which included parts for the then prevalent castrati. I saw the first stage performance of Julius Caesar in Australia presented by Young Opera at the Science Theatre, University of New South Wales. Ceasar was sung by one of the great Australian singers, contralto Lauris Elms and Cleopatra by the equally celebrated Marilyn Richardson. Here is the cast list:

1970 Caesar

As with many programs there is no indication of the year, but looking in Lauris Elms' memoir The Singing Elms I find it was 1970. She says (at the time of her writing): "Twenty-five years later people still remember those performances." And Forty years later as well.

Alfred Deller's career as a countertenor was well established by then, but the voice did not have the prominence it does today. I bought a LP record of highlights of the opera as performed by New York City Opera after hearing it in 1970. Beverly Sills is Cleopatra, but Caesar is sung by a bass baritone, Norman Treigle.

As late as 1999, we have a female Caesar at the Met, in a performance I found on the Met Player:

Jennifer Larmore and Sylvia McNair as the ill-fated couple, abounds with dazzling vocal pyrotechnics as well as heart-rending drama. Stephanie Blythe (Cornelia) and David Daniels (her son Sesto) give memorable performances as the grieving family of the murdered Pompey. Brian Asawa sings Cleopatra’s conniving brother Tolomeo.

I was surprised to see David Daniels, Caesar in Chicago, was Sesto. In 1970 David Parker, a tenor, sang this role, but in the other productions I have mentioned Sesto has been sung by a contralto.

* Julius Caesar, Victorian Opera at Melbourne Recital Centre; 22 July 2010.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Forgotten Operas


In the Members room at the Art Gallery of NSW I came across a display of French opera posters from around 1900. It seems there was a more formal exhibition of the gallery's collection of the posters about ten years ago with an illustrated catalogue I haven't seen yet.

The posters are the work of various artists, none of whom I know; but the fascinating thing was how many of the operas depicted are now unfamiliar. I have made the mistake before of thinking of the history of music, (and the same applies to other things), as an orderly linear progression of famous works, in the case of music, beginning with Bach, or Monteverdi perhaps, and on through Mozart, Beethoven and so on. But in fact as a quick look at the Naxos catalogue proves, at any time there were thousands of composers of countless works which we will never hear. Leaving aside works that were never performed, this small exhibition is a reminder that many operas  reached the stage but soon vanished.

I have not heard any of the operas advertised by the posters, but at least know of Massenet's Esclarmonde, (in a poster by Auguste-Francois Gorguet 1862-1927); and was reminded by an interview with Richard Bonynge in the August 2010 edition of Opera News that it was famously revived by him and Joan Sutherland and performed in San Francisco and at the Met in New York 1976. I hadn't heard of Le Mage (poster by Alfredo Edel 1856-1912) but then as the Opera News article points out that Massenet left 28 complete operas as well as incidental music ballet and songs.

Charles-Marie Widor is famous for his organ symphonies particularly the toccata from the symphony for organ no.5 op. 42 no. 1, but I had never thought to ask if he had composed any operas. There were four, represented in the exhibition by Les pêcheurs de Saint-Jean (poster by Fernand-Louis Gottlob 1873 - 1935).

The operettas are even more deeply lost. I hope time permits me to search for and find Shakespeare! by Gaston Serpette (poster by René Péan, b.1875 'opéra bouffe' at the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiennes) or the saucy Mam'zelle Boy-Scout by Gustave Goublier (Poster by Boulanger 1858 -1924 for the operetta at the Théâtre des Renaissance).

But, because of its curious name, the opera which most caught my imagination was La Glu by Gabriel Dupont (Poster by Robert Dupont 1874 - 1949, the composer's brother, for the opera at the Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Nice). My student's French dictionary has no entry for "La glu" but it's meaning is clear from this review found in the New York Times archive -

PARIS Feb. 12- The new dramatic opera "La Glu" produced recently in Nice has been received with the greatest enthusiasm by all who have heard it. The libretto is drawn by Henry Cain from Jean Richepin's powerful book bearing the same title, and presents the following story:

An elegant Parisienne is known by the significant nickname of "La Glu" or birdlime. To gratify a whim she begins and intrigue with a young Breton fisherman, who, however, takes the affair so seriously and loves her with such mad jealousy that he tries to kill himself on learning that she has betrayed him. His mother saves his life and to rescue him from the charmer who endeavors to get him again into her power, murders her.

The music , which has been written to this simple theme by Gabriel Dupont, is extremely melodious and full of poetic beauty. The orchestration is declared by musicians to be admirable.

Paris desires to hear this opera, which in a general way, seems likely to awaken the same emotions that "Carmen" does, but Berlin will almost certainly enjoy that good fortune first. The Princess of Saxe-Meiningen, a sister of the Kaiser, has sent a copy of it to him from the Riviera, at the same time writing him about it with superlative praise. "La Glu" will be produced at the Imperial Opera House in Berlin early next season."

February 13, 1910

By that point Carmen had emerged as a classic: it was not as well received when first performed. The NY Times itself joined the general opinion of the day:

"...Carmen must stand on its own merits - and those are very slender. It is little more than a collocation of couplets and chansons with a strong flavor of the opera comique ( which may be "spicy" but is not very pure -- art-wise, we mean) and musically, is really not much above the works of Offenbach. It is new, and it has chic, but as a work of art, it is naught. "

October 24, 1878

Australian Shakespeare Company COMEDY OF ERRORS


First stop on my recent Melbourne excursion was the Atheneum in Collins Street for the Australian Theatre Company's production of The Comedy of Errors. Since, by chance, I have happened upon two of the more obscure Shakespeare plays, King John and Henry VIII this year, I thought, why not see them all; so when I found that the Comedy of Errors was being performed in Melbourne during my visit I decided to add another to my list.

The play dates from about 1592. It concerns the confusion arising from the presence of two sets of identical twins, each set unaware of the other, in Ephesus. Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, were separated in a shipwreck when they were very young. Their servants, both named Dromio, were separated with them.

The introduction to the Penguin edition of the play says:

Modern productions and scholars, as if taking their cue from the play’s good-natured laughter at erroneous perceptions, have re-examined the play through theatrically innovative and historically revisionist perspectives to overturn older prejudices against it as a mechanical farce of mistaken identities representing a one-off piece of Shakespeare juvenilia.

The Melbourne production, I think correctly, presented the play as a mechanical farce of mistaken identities. The problem of presenting the identical twins was overcome by having the characters in masks which owed something to the comedia del arte, and something to cartoons and the muppets. As dressed and masked the sets of twins were pretty much indistinguishable .

The twins named Antipholus, are the children of Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse and Emilia (who has become Lady Abess at Ephesus. At the begining, we learn that Egeon has been sentenced to death by the Duke of Ephesus, as he has entered Syracuse contrary to restrictions imposed because of a trade dispute between the two cities. As written, Egeon has a very lengthy speech in which he sets out the misfortunes of his family and his search for his son as an explanation of his presence in defiance of the ban. The duke relents and gives Egeon time to find the money for a fine in lieu of excecution

The penguin editor says:

And in the hands of an actor who can tune the rhetorical peaks and valleys of Shakespeare’s masterly piece of verse-narrative to Egeon’s turmoiled recollection, the story can grip theatre spectators completely, as modern productions have often shown.

This production passed over this possibility by breaking the speech into sections and interpolated between later scenes. This became a running joke, as Egeon was dragged across the stage to execution, time and again, reciting his apparently never ending story. The joke worked well; so I will need to await another production to see if the speech can be completely gripping. At the moment I am sceptical about this.

The only trouble with presenting the play as knockabout farce and slapstick, is that, although it is Shakespeare's shortest play it makes for quite a long real life cartoon. I don't say this as a criticism of the production, more of the play, or at least way Tom and Jerry and the like have changed our expectations of the content and pace of slapstick.

It is wonderful that Melbourne has retained so many of its traditional theatres, and although the Atheneum looks somewhat run down it was a pleasure to see the play there.

There was one set, having the appearance of a roughly sketched building. Names were attached to it indicating that it, or its various doors, represented different locations. It was well designed to accommodate those scenes in which the participants can hear, but not see, each other in a convincing way.

The costumes and masks, while elaborate and well made, complemented this style giving the whole production a rough hewn appearance and feel.

The play was well acted throughout. Notwithstanding all the knockabout action, the words were spoken with clarity by everyone. It's probably not a play for great performances; and no one member of the cast seemed to stand out.

The Residents at the Sydney Theatre company are now performing the play at The Wharf; it will be fun to see what they make of it.

Seen at Atheneum Melbourne
21 July 2010