Thursday, February 16, 2017

Murder, Redemption and King Roger

One would not normally compare a chamber orchestra with an opera company, but I happened to see the Australian Chamber Orchestra and an Opera Australia production within days of each other this month, so here is my take on them both.

In the nineties OA put on a wide variety of operas from a wide variety of composers with wonderful singers, mostly Australian. It was an exciting company. Then the management changed and every production seemed to be a reality TV show. Perhaps someone thought it was the way to win a younger audience but avid opera fans drifted away. I got a subscription to the Australia Chamber Orchestra instead and discovered a vibrant  band of passionate players who have so enriched my life that I can only thank OA for sending me in their direction.

I had chosen to see Opera Australia's production of King Roger because it was billed as 'something different' but I probably wouldn't have gone to the ACO Murder and Redemption concert if I had not had a series subscription because it included American folk songs and I couldn't imagine how they could be combined successfully with a classical offering. So I expected more from one concert than the other.

Unfortunately I found King Roger underwhelming. The music itself is worth hearing, but I found the production too similar to other over-sexualised or pop-culture OA offerings. The program notes described how the composer Szymanowski struggled with his homosexuality, so a reference to this would have been understandable, but the surfeit of writhing and thrusting male dancers that was presented made me feel as if I was watching an American sitcom where every facial gesture is overdone. My seat-neighbour was similarly under-impressed, telling me he had seen the Edinburgh version which interpreted the opera as the struggle of transformation. It sounded like the one I would have preferred to see. I have seen several concert performances of opera since I gave up my AO subscription and find them much more satisfying than overblown productions.  I read however that the current La Traviata is a winner, so perhaps I shall have to give OA another try. 

In comparison, Murder and Redemption with Finnish violin-wizard Pekko Kuusisto leading the ACO way overshot my expectations. Folk songster Sam Amidon sang his songs with becoming naturalness (in  the best American folk song tradition) but what surprised me was how they complemented the classical pieces by Janacek and John Adams.

I am not sure why exactly, but Amidon's songs gave the ACO's passionate version of Adam's Shaker Loops a special zing.

The ACO has exceptional curatorial skills and  this program was just another example.

I sat there wishing I had brought my 17 year old music friend with me.  If you want to induce that generation to go to a classical concert, this was the sort of music you would choose.


marcellous wp said...

I'm a bit surprised that you have such conservative tastes in operatic production, Elisabeth.

A quick squizz at reviews of the 2008 Edinburgh production (the Mariinsky performing a production from Warsaw)suggests that you probably wouldn't have been much more pleased by it than by the Covent Garden production put on by Opera Australia. Sure, the Edinburgh/Warsaw interpretation eschewed the gay angle for a more generalized Dionysianism - that mostly seems to have meant topless women rather than homoerotically writhing go-go-boys.

I agree (assuming that is part of your view) that the production was perhaps over-schematic but I suspect that is true of almost all if not all modern productions - you would probably have disliked the Paris production even more. The only way around it would be to attempt to stage a literal realisation of Szymanowski's stage directions - which include dancing eunuchs and youths in the dance in Act II - and leave it to the audience to reach their own interpretive conclusions. I suspect the main reason this never happens is because very elaborate sets and costumes would be required and it would be prohibitively expensive.

My own feeling is that King Roger represents an anguished moment of conflict between religious and sensual impetuses which has mostly since been bypassed amongst at least opera-goers, but which was the occasion for music which still deserves to be heard (though it probably requires a bit of preparation on the part of most listeners to yield its full value) and given some kind of dramatic context - ie, more than just a concert performance, though I'd welcome a concert performance too, especially since the orchestral score is possibly its strongest point.

So I'm glad OA put it on.

Elizabeth said...

Marcellous, you are right a surfeit of topless women would have impressed me even less than the go-go boys (at least there was a reason for them). Thank you for all the interesting background. I liked the fact that OA gave us leaflets with the information so at least we could relate to what we were seeing if we didn't know the opera. I agree, it was worthwhile putting on.

I am not sure whether preferring subtlety makes me conservative. I loved Sclingensief's Parsifal better than any opera I have ever seen - a production hated by all the 'conservatives' I know (and many others).