June 2008

Arts & Letters

Sing out loud, sing out strong

By Peter Craven
Opera in Australia

It’s an odd business, a night at the opera. You know, if you like the diversion, that you are basking in the glow of an artistic institution that we're lucky to have and yet sometimes the effect can be bemusing and the ho-hums can assail you, as if the maintenance of an expensive art form were something a country this size should be able to take for granted.

This happened to me recently with a couple of Opera Australia's excursions to Melbourne. There was a quite presentable Carmen, with a good singer-actress, Pamela Helen Stephen, in the title role and Richard Hickox, the famous and not often glimpsed (in the ‘other' city) artistic director, in the pit. I'm not sure that I had seen Hickox conduct for the longest time. I will certainly never forget the extraordinary impassioned attack of his conducting of Britten's Billy Budd a few years ago (before he took over the Opera Australia directorship from Simone Young), with Robert Tear as Captain Vere. That production had the great advantage of having been directed by Neil Armfield in the then-recent past, and it was full of intense drama.

The problem with the Carmen was that it wasn't. Hickox conducted with characteristic delicacy, but the savagery and the sparkle were not there. The production, imported from Covent Garden, was by Francesca Zambello, and it was one of those sub-Zeffirellian affairs with a horse (and a donkey) on stage and with plenty of primary colour and stage movement to distract the eye, but without much in the way of histrionic bite. The music was fine but not wonderful.

A week later, with Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, the music - particularly from the tenor Julian Gavin and, in terms of dramatic presence, Milijana Nikolic as the witch Mademoiselle Arvidson - was big enough, and had enough presence and richness to be moving in itself. The production, by John Cox and dating from 1985, was one of those bewigged eighteenth-century affairs that distract the eye with a conventional splendour but are not exciting in themselves. Even so, with the traditional chocolate-box production there is often enough visual magic, however faded, to let the drama of the music do its work.

It is difficult to know what to think of productions like this. Opera Australia is of a consistently decent standard musically, yet the work is frequently presented in productions which are long in the tooth or generally conventional, and both. So what do punters want from the opera? The short answer is that they want Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Last year's Don Giovanni in Melbourne, with Tahu Rhodes frisking about in leather boxer shorts, excited audiences because he has such an electric presence as well as being the kind of exciting singer who can embody Mozart's womaniser, both in the splendour of his singing and in the sheer power of his performance.

It would also have been nice to see a great singer like Yvonne Kenny, and the fact that she and Tahu Rhodes had been together only last year in the Australian premiere of André Previn's opera of A Streetcar Named Desire made me wonder why Melbourne was not getting this exciting-sounding production. Streetcar was directed by Bruce Beresford, one of the nation's best-known film-makers, whom I once saw do a dazzlingly powerful production of Strauss's Elektra. He has an intense feeling for the drama of music and a superb power of visualisation. In what is essentially a grandiose form, deeply dependent on the power of its musical conception but at the same time complexly dramatic, it is vital that directors of opera have a good eye. (And that is not necessarily the same thing as an ability to spend huge amounts of money on production, handy though an ample budget is.)

Opera is a wonderful form of entertainment on a good day, and its fans are not insensitive to what can be lost when they lose opera companies. In its time, the old Victoria State Opera could do everything from presenting Kiri Te Kanawa in Puccini's La Bohème to mounting a production of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten with an internationally competitive cast and a production designed by David Hockney that was a wonder to behold. The VSO proved to be something that the city decided it could not afford, but it is still missed - despite the efforts of the secondary opera companies, Melbourne Opera and Victorian Opera. There was also the sense that the brief heyday of the VSO - with its group of lavish productions mounted for only short periods - kept Opera Australia's awareness of the appreciation of opera in Melbourne notably keen. (Reports are that the box-office takings for the recent Opera Australia productions in the city have been exceptionally good.)

Quite apart from the needs of particular cities, it is worth asking what is possible with a national opera company in this country. In the past couple of decades we have heard, over and over again, that we, meaning Opera Australia, don't want to be the Metropolitan Opera of the South Pacific. Donald McDonald said it when I interviewed him the better part of 20 years ago, and it recurs still, even though it's a long time since Opera Australia was the stamping ground of Joan Sutherland or was run by people who thought that it could bring her peers to Australia. In recent years we have seen the excitement generated by Simone Young's appointment, and then the public consternation when she left the company and ceased to be the artistic director. Young's leadership of Opera Australia was associated with her international connections and with the ambition she brought to the post.

Undoubtedly Australians hunger for the chance to see performers of the first rank on stage. I remember the thrill in the '90s of going to Sydney to see a singer of genuine grandeur, the great Bryn Terfel, essaying the title role of Verdi's Falstaff for the first time, anywhere, at the Opera House. Yes, Terfel is a huge opera star, and this was one of those rare moments when opera in Australia was on the international calendar, but part of the excitement of Simone Young seemed to be that she could keep the best performers coming. And stardom is, of course, symbolic; it is an aide-mémoire of what simple excellence can mean in an art form. Everyone wants to see Terfel or Renée Fleming sing opera on stage (just as they want to see Ian McKellen or Cate Blanchett act), but the fame is simply the magnet of quality. We got a version of this when we saw Yvonne Kenny doing Handel's Julius Caesar or Strauss's Capriccio. Not a fame that ruled the world, but a distinction that captivated and was absolutely real.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes is also a thrilling performer. A swag of singers who perform opera in their own country can be. But I think we should be careful of the kind of marsupial piety that we sometimes hear which preaches (or at any rate, whispers) that we should cut ourselves to the cloth we have, that opera was not meant to be great in Australia. If it's not, then we might as well give up. Just as we should give up on classical theatre, if we don't aim to do it as well as it can be done. That's how I felt when I saw Lisa Gasteen sing Isolde a few years ago, just as it was how I felt when Geoffrey Rush did a classic modern play like Exit the King. Many people got it from the Adelaide productions of the Ring cycle, the first of which was conducted by Jeffrey Tate.

One of the admirable things about Simone Young was her commitment to the German Romantic tradition. Richard Wagner was one of the greatest masters of musical drama who ever lived - something to which all lay fans of the opera attest. You can thrill to Wagner with Gasteen; you can thrill to Wagner with Barrie Kosky. But you have to see Wagner performed to be thrilled. I can still remember when the VSO undertook to dream about an Elijah Moshinsky and Sidney Nolan Ring - an Ayers Rock of a cycle which was never to be.

It's true that opera is an establishment art form, but there is an obligation to make it available to the widest audience that can appreciate it. We can't do that by turning the exhibition of a heritage - which should be a birthright to those who want it - into the kind of museum that is actually a mausoleum. We need the best singers and singer-actors and directors that money can buy. The money will, one way or another, be limited, but the imagination and the achievement need not be. Anything less is not worthy of a national institution.

The last of the operas proper to be performed in Opera Australia's Melbourne season was Strauss's Arabella and it confirmed the sense, for this opera year, that Young was right in her preference for the German late-Romantics. Sure, this led to the production of Alban Berg's Lulu by Simon Phillips, which used a huge distorting mirror to render the rest of the stage into some emanation of expressionism, like a Schiele painting. And Berg, to the average Mozart- and Verdi-loving canary-fancier, is likely to sound like so many shrieks from the torture chamber. Not, of course, that this constitutes any reason not to perform him (or Schoenberg), any more than a theatre company should turn its back on Beckett or Wedekind.

But Richard Strauss is not like that. He is, in operatic form, what Mahler and Bruckner were in their symphonies, the heir to the fullness of Wagner's vision, not to his modernist implications. Arabella is a sumptuous crowd-pleaser, and it is a bit boggling to realise that this production, which premiered in Sydney at the start of March, was the first time the opera had been performed in Australia. This, despite the fact that the title role is one of the great roles of Te Kanawa, the only superstar from this part of the world since Joan Sutherland, and that the opera is frequently excerpted on the kind of albums which feature Four Last Songs and highlight the glory of Strauss's love affair with the soprano voice.

The Opera Australia production featured Cheryl Baker in the title role, Emma Matthews as Zdenka and Peter Coleman-Wright in the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau role of Mandryka, the bluff and earthy suitor. Arabella was the last work written for Strauss by Hofmannsthal, and (although it was not his last great opera) it was therefore his last collaboration with the great dramatic poet who fitted words to Strauss's musical genius so well - who gave him the outline for the ravishing bitter-sweetness of Der Rosenkavalier, the opulent biblical melodrama and orientalism of Salome, and the iconoclastic blood and starkness of Elektra.

It's a gorgeous opera, full of romantic complexity and authentic feeling and requiring big-time singing from its three leads. Both Matthews, in the more extroverted role of Zdenka, and Baker, exulting in the labyrinthine twists of moodiness and vacillation as the heroine, showed that they were equal to the grandeur and the exquisiteness of Strauss's writing for the female voice. We might not have been in Te Kanawa or Yvonne Kenny territory, but voices which are equal to this music are quite grand enough. Part of what keeps opera companies, at the end of the Earth, away from this repertoire is that it cruelly exposes voices which are not up to the task.

Coleman-Wright gave a performance which cut the air with its precision and authority. This was an inhabitation of a Strauss role that soared on the stage and stirred the audience into a recognition of what great singing and acting are like when they combine. He is not, like Tahu Rhodes, a matinee idol of the opera, but he is a remarkably fine singer and actor and people who encounter him as Billy Budd or, here, as Mandryka experience the exaltation of seeing one of the opera's great roles performed as well as you could ever expect. He has sung at the Met and Covent Garden, and won a Helpmann Award for Sweeney Todd.

Arabella is not La Traviata or Carmen. It doesn't evoke those childhood memories of how opera can soar: it's not a Magic Flute or Midsummer Night's Dream experience. But it is a classic modern opera which gives the heart God's plenty of feeling and of thrilling sound, as well as their interplay. It was conducted with great suaveness of touch and sensitivity by Lionel Friend, and the production, again by John Cox, had freshness and the style hadn't receded into a period thing. (It had been designed for Glyndebourne in the recent past.) There were lessons written all over this Arabella. It was an entirely satisfactory performance of a great - and for Opera Australia, unfamiliar - opera, and the audience lapped it up.

It's natural enough that the company should also be interested in that enormous money-spinning area, the revival of the musical. There is, of course, a natural affinity between the two forms, as the career of Anthony Warlow attests; Dame Kiri herself has in her day recorded My Fair Lady (with Jeremy Irons), and both South Pacific and West Side Story (with Leonard Bernstein wielding the baton to his own music) with José Carreras. I remember a production of Anything Goes mounted by the VSO with Geraldine Turner which was ordinary enough as a stage production but which was dazzlingly well sung, with Turner equalling, say, Elaine Page at the height of her powers.

Opera companies are very good at the crossover aspect of the Broadway musical. No one is going to be as boomingly boisterous singing ‘Nothing Like a Dame' than an opera chorus, and there's a fair chance that they might be able to unearth a personable bass to do ‘Some Enchanted Evening', which was first sung by the greatest of all Don Giovannis, Bruno Walter's Don, Ezio Pinza. The trouble is in finding the Geraldine Turners. My Fair Lady, with its Shaw script and with the collective memory of Moss Hart's direction and Cecil Beaton's costumes preserved by George Cukor's movie, is about as dramatically demanding as a musical can be. It requires as Eliza Doolittle (a role created by Julie Andrews) an actress who can really act and sing, both Cockney and posh, and an actor as Higgins who, in the manner of Rex Harrison, doesn't have to be able to sing at all, though it will help if he is a high comedian with lightning timing and great personal magnetism. Reg Livermore is set to play Higgins, following on from his success in the comedian roles in Gilbert and Sullivan. It will be interesting to see how this goes. Livermore was excellent in The Producers and he is probably, in his singing-and-acting-together splendour, the greatest musical-comedy star this country has produced.

But doing the Broadway repertoire should not mean that Opera Australia's treasure chest is misused, so that the effect is of an alarmingly multiplied barbershop quartet. No, it requires the Trevor Nunns and Jim Sharmans. It requires the greatest directors on Earth. And if that's not strictly true of the opera, it's certainly true that it repays them. Everyone knows the old joke about Verdi's Il Trovatore: all you need is the four greatest singers in the world. Opera Australia should pin that ideal to its mast and think of what it achieved with Arabella, when the best voices that can be found are put through their dramatic paces in a production worth looking at.

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

Cover: June 2008

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