Monthly Archives: April 2004

The Rape of Lucretia (Benjamin Britten)

The Rape of Lucretia (Benjamin Britten)

 

Australian Opera Studio
Regal Theatre

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Benjamin Britten’s chamber opera will never be listed in opera’s Top Ten for popularity – nor in opera’s Top 100 for that matter. No one is ever going to sing bits of it in the shower. It’s devoid of catchy melodies in the conventional sense and Ronald Duncan’s libretto (this was his first attempt to write a text for opera) is often pretentious. And its overlay of Christian concepts of sin and forgiveness is awkward and contrived for a story set in 500 BC.

What does make Lucretia fascinating and likely to endure is Britten’s endless inventiveness, a marvellously detailed, constantly diverting vocal and instrumental score.

It is very difficult to bring Lucretia off successfully. Even seasoned professionals find it daunting. How, then, did the youthful musicians of the Australian opera Studio fare? With minor reservations, remarkably well, so much so that I was constantly surprised and impressed at the way both singers and instrumentalists steered a way through some of the most intricate and difficult episodes. Indeed, if ever there needed to be evidence that the AOS is doing good work in preparing young musicians to cope with the realities of the profession, it is here in abundance.

There’s not a weak link among the eight singers. Not all are at the same level of development yet but it is clear that they had been carefully prepared for the demands of their respective roles.

Britten uses two singers – soprano Aivale Cole and tenor Donald Cullen – as a form of Greek chorus to introduce the work and to comment on the action and the protagonists as the work unfolds. Cole was immensely impressive. She is a stage natural, moving around the set with relaxed authority and singing beautifully with an understated artistry that augurs well for a career in opera. Her words were enunciated with such clarity that it was never necessary to look at the surtitles to check what she happened to be uttering. Cullen, too, made a good fist of his role and with greater experience and training, his vocal line will surely become more cleanly defined.

The story line in a nutshell is this: three military men during the Etruscan domination of Rome – Collatinus, Junius and Tarquinius – are indulging in “men’s talk” about sex in general and women’s faithfulness in marriage in particular. Two of them have wives who sleep around. But Collatinus’ spouse Lucretia does not. The devil gets into Tarquinius and he rides on horseback to Rome and rapes Lucretia in her own bedroom. Overcome with shame – even though she is not at fault – Lucretia kills herself in front of her distraught husband.

Ileana Bodnaras, in the eponymous role, was in splendid voice which had an attractive, darkly mellow quality – and she came across as a figure of tragic dignity. Baritone Brett Carter as Tarquinius made of his character a lecherous, amoral and cruel figure. In the much smaller role of Collatinus, baritone David Thelander is perfectly cast. His voice is an impressive instrument; his sense of horror and grief at Lucretia’s terrible experience is given the stamp of truth.

As Junius, Korean-born Min Huh was well up to the mark in vocal terms, producing a sonorous stream of sound while radiating an aura at once macho and misanthropic – and a barely disguised sense of schadenfreude on learning of Lucretia’s fate. His diction, though, was not always as clear as one might have wished it to be.

Miriam Sharrad as Lucretia’s nurse made the most of a smaller role as did Anita Watson as Lucretia’s maid. Their trio with Lucretia in the linen-folding episode came across convincingly.

The two chorus members wear casual, modern clothing which contrasts oddly with those of the rest of the cast who wear costumes of the era, designed by Michael Betts. When not wandering across the set, the two choruses sit in a contemporary, book-cluttered, study-like space to one side of the stage which is steeply raked.

Props are down to the barest minimum – a pillow here, some sheets there, a couple of spinning wheels – and large colour reproductions of ancient bas-reliefs positioned on the backdrop. Nicholas Higgins designed the lighting.

Michael Schouten worked wonders from the pit, coaxing a largely effective response from his ensemble, led by violinist Jessica Ipkendanz, and giving crucial cues to the singers. His very real understanding of the score and sense of pace went a long way to ensuring the success of the venture. As always, director John Milson’s discreet touch ensurd the smoothest of dramatic unfoldings.

Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn


Alexander Sunman (piano)

Alexander Sunman (piano)

Callaway Auditorium

reviewed by Neville Cohn

At his first recital since returning to Perth after taking part in the Prague Spring Festival Piano Competition, seventeen-year-old Alexander Sunman left one in little doubt that he comes to the keyboard with a number of precious musical assets.

He is blessed with what appear to be fundamentally very strong and agile fingers that allow him to negotiate even very tricky pianistic obstacle courses with ease. As well, he demonstrated considerable forearm strength that enables massive fortissimi to be generated without any noticeable strain. His musical memory, moreover, is impeccable.

For the moment, though, these significant assets are not fully yielding the musical dividends that they ought ideally to do; they need to be invested, as it were, to better advantage.

A penchant for over-rapid tempi, and a disconcertingly over-assertive approach to Mozart’s ‘Hunt’ Sonata, K 576 detracted from listening pleasure in a work that needs a cool head and absolute control of semiquaver note-streams.

This was only fleetingly evident in the outer movements which were informed by a sense of rush that was stylistically dubious – as was an occasional tendency for the left hand to play too loudly. This made for disconcerting listening. One longed, too, for a more reflective approach to the slow movement so as to allow the music to breathe more at the conclusion of phrases.

Similarly in Tchaikowsky’s June, one felt a need for a more introspective approach to this exquisite little barcarolle.

These reservations notwithstanding, there is every reason – on the evidence of this recital – to believe that with greater performing experience and careful guidance, the very substantial inherent musical gift of the soloist will shine through – as it did, splendidly, in Brahms’ Intermezzo opus 118 no 2. This was the high point of the afternoon. With notes clothed in refulgent tone, tempi that sounded entirely appropriate – and considerable success in revealing the interior mood of the writing – this young pianist took up an interpretative position at the emotional epicentre of the writing; it is playing of this calibre that augurs well for a concert career.

Two extracts from Janacek’s On an Overgrown Path were finely considered with a commendable understanding of the composer’s idiosyncratic style. I look forward to hearing this young pianist performing the entire cycle, wondrously original music which is heard far too seldom locally.

Beethoven’s Rage over a Lost Penny, though, was less persuasive; it needed the rhythmic reins to be more tightly held to avoid this magnificent outburst of musical exasperation teetering on the brink of incoherence.

Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor was similarly rushed. Much the same could be said of the central section of Chopin’s Etude in E from opus 10, which was invested with a turbulence that sounded excessive.

Notwithstanding these reservations, there’s little doubt that this young pianist has the potential to go far. He
is shortly to take up a scholarship in Singapore and one looks forward very much to hearing this young musician after what is likely to be an intensive learning experience.

Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn


A Night in Vienna W.A.Symphony Orchestra

A Night in Vienna
W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Perth Concert Hall

cond. Matthias Bamert

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

It was every concert promoter’s dream: a new concert format that so engaged the interest of the public that the response at the box office was overwhelming And how!

For its first ever Gala Night in Vienna, based on the Austrian capital’s famous New Year’s Day concerts, the WASO drew so many who wished to attend the event that hundreds were turned away.

With this level of support, the WASO beancounters are considering mounting the event on an annual basis. As well, they might think of arranging for it to be repeated on the following Sunday, say at 4pm, which would bring the presentation more in line with the Vienna presentations – and also drawing elderly folk who might balk at turning out at night in midwinter.

Front, rear and organ stalls and both galleries were packed to capacity at the weekend. Lavish floral displays on either side of the platform, below the conductor’s podium and almost completely obscuring the organ seat and keyboard in the choir stalls lent a festive air to the proceedings. So, too, did the colourful silk sashes worn by many of the women of the WASO which made a pleasing contrast to their conventionally austere, all-black garb. Male musos sported red roses in their lapels. And on each seat in the auditorium was a tiny white, red-ribboned box containing a to-die-for chocolate confection.

There were lashings of music by Johann Strauss the Younger, all time-tested favourites that, no matter how frequently heard, seem never to pall. (Strauss, incidentally, is one of the most prolific composers who ever lived; his output fills more than 43 CDs – and still coming!).

Of the music, this: even if, in the waltzes on offer, that elusive, idiosyncratic Viennese lilt was not as ubiquitous as one might have hoped, the inherent charm of these pieces – The Blue Danube, Voices of Spring and Leichtes Blut – worked their magic. In the Kaiser Waltz, principal cellist Rod McGrath’s all-too-brief solo was an object lesson in what stylish, expressive phrasing is all about. Horns did themselves proud throughout the evening, no more so than in The Blue Danube.

With Matthias Bamert presiding over events, the overture to Die Fledermaus unfolded in all its carefree splendour with oboist Joel Marangella at his persuasive best. And bracing attack by cellos and double basses made Strauss’ faux zigeuner overture to The Gypsy Baron memorable. But it was in the two-beats-in-a-bar polkas that Bamert gave us readings that had the stamp of authenticity, not least the engaging Annen-Polka and the Champagne Polka, which Bamert conducted with empty champagne glass in hand as Tim White did wonders in simulating the sound of popping corks. Here, and throughout the evening, Bamert provided an engaging linking commentary.

Soprano Sara Macliver was a glamorous presence in the celebrated Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus, her fearless attack admirable as she negotiated a tricky vocal line that was clearly defined and pinpoint-pitched. But there was some loss of vocal power in the lower reaches of the range in Voices of Spring.

Before the second half of the program commenced, WASO CEO Keith Venning came onstage and spoke warmly of the generous support the orchestra derives from its sponsors – Wesfarmers Arts, Emirates and The West Australian. A competition run via coupons in The West drew a phenomenal 52,000 entries from those hoping to win a return flight to Vienna courtesy of Emirates – and a representative of the airline presented the tickets to the lucky winner who was clearly delighted to receive the prize – and on her birthday, too! In Vienna, the winner will be hosted by the Austrian Tourist Board.

This was a first-rate instance of how effectively business and the arts can work together.

Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn


W.A.Symphony Orchestra Andreas Haefliger (piano) Matthias Bamert (conductor)

W.A.Symphony Orchestra
Andreas Haefliger (piano)

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

Matthias Bamert (conductor)

Perth Concert Hall

 

Making his first appearance with the W.A.Symphony Orchestra, Swiss musician Andreas Haefliger was soloist in Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor.

Over many decades, I have lost count of the number of times I have listened to this ageless masterpiece – in live performance, on radio and recordings – but I cannot recall a reading so startlingly forthright, even aggressive, as Haefliger’s. With its heroics, it was an unusual take on a much-loved concerto.

In the famous cadenza towards the conclusion of the first movement, the soloist weighed in with a thrustingly in-your-face treatment of the notes that took this listener aback – so much so that the poetry inherent in much of the writing took second place to muscularity. But the extended trills that play a significant part from the end of the cadenza to the conclusion of the movement were near-flawlessly spun.

Here was an interpretation that was overwhelmingly (although not exclusively) virile and passionate in its treatment of the score but rather less persuasive in evoking the tenderness and quiet reflection that lie at the heart of much of the writing. And from a seat in the 17th row, there was in the finale what sounded an over-generous use of the damper pedal which often blurred outlines and lessened the impact of Schumann’s fascinating rhythmic intricacies.

Throughout, Matthias Bamert was a loyally supportive conductor, meticulously anticipating his compatriot’s every musical intention and drawing from the WASO a response that was, for the most part, as vigorous as the playing of the soloist.

Warm applause and a floral bouquet wrapped in shiny paper elicited an encore that, coming after such a robust reading of the concerto, was a delightful surprise. In his account of Schumann’s The Prophet Bird (from Waldszenen), Haefliger beautifully captured the fragile, restrained essence of the music which, with extraordinary authenticity, evokes images of this curious fowl’s idiosyncratic body language.

Despite outbursts of unwanted and maddeningly insistent clapping between movements of Mahler’s vast and sprawling Symphony No 1, these discourtesies (which broke out like an unsightly rash) seemed not noticeably to put Bamert and his forces off their stroke as this mammoth opus unfolded. In passing: if, at the conclusion of a movement, the conductor had held his baton raised, this – based on decades of observing audience attitudes – is usually sufficient for even compulsive handclappers to get the message and hold their peace.

It is no mean achievement for a conductor to commit a work of this length and complexity to memory – and the confidence that stems from that grasp of the score seemed to rub off, as it were, on the musicians of the orchestra.

It was a good night for the strings, not least cellos and double basses who responded to Mahler’s demands with stylish aplomb. And apart from some sour notes from the off-stage trumpets early in the piece, the WASO’s brass players were on their musical toes, especially the horn subsection, all eight of whom stood as they played the closing pages of Mahler’s Titan.

As curtainraiser, we heard Carl Vine’s V which, with its fanfares and syncopated rhythms, sounded very much more convincing in the near-perfect acoustic environment of the Concert Hall than when first encountered at an open air performance at Langley Park some while ago.

Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn


Jonathan Paget (guitar) and friends St John’s Lutheran Church, Northbridge

Jonathan Paget (guitar) and friends

 

St John’s Lutheran Church, Northbridge

reviewed by Neville Cohn

 

Top violist Yuri Bashmet’s performances with the W.A.Symphony Orchestra at the weekend tended to draw attention away from a much-less-lavishly advertised event at St John’s Lutheran Church in Northbridge. And a wintry evening did little to attract what ought to have been a much bigger audience to listen to Jonathan Paget and friends. But for those who made the effort to attend, it would surely have been a rewarding experience.

Paget, on the evidence of this performance, is a young musician who will be going places. His years of study in the United States as Fulbright Scholar have added a patina of professionalism to everything he touches. Certainly, his subtle, intimate artistry did much to draw attention from a venue that wasn’t much warmer than it was outside. And, of course, the chilly dampness of the night was the sort of weather to play havoc with guitar strings so, understandably, much time was spent tuning the guitar. It was well worth the effort; Paget’s intonation was near-faultless.

His account of William Walton’s Bagatelles was the highpoint of the evening as Paget breathed life and meaning into these fiendishly tricky pieces, not least the rapid arabesques of the opening Allegro and the gently rocking rhythms and finely detailed outlines of the second, all negotiated with skill and musicality. Throughout, there was about the presentation an understated artistry that impressed, not least in Sor’s funeral march from his Fantasie elegiaque, music that tapered off to the merest wraith of pianissimo sound. And, after interval, Paget’s account of Morel’s Dansa Brasileira worked its magic in spite of the maddening rumble of traffic along the adjoining road.

It seemed a shame, incidentally, that the musicians weren’t more visible to the audience. Perhaps, if other concerts are envisioned for this venue, a raised dais could do much to rectify the current less-than-ideal arrangement and make the players visible as well as audible.

Soprano Claire Lenyk, who I have not heard before, presented six of Falla’s Canciones populares espanoles. I was impressed by both the quality of vocal tone and the seemingly effortless manner with which it was produced. This was a splendid vocal effort, a stream of consistently pleasing, unforced and musically phrased sound that held the attention throughout. The guitar accompaniment, although unfailingly loyal to the singer’s intentions, was too attenuated for a cycle that really requires the significantly more substantial sound capable of being generated at the keyboard.

At interval, hot coffee and delicious biscuits were handy armour against the chill of the night.

2004 Copyright Neville Cohn