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'Tis Pity

An Operatic Fantasia on Selling the Skin and the Teeth

Victorian Opera
Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre

Composer & Arranger: Richard Mills
Operatic Libretto: Richard Mills
Additional Material: Meow Meow, Cameron Menzies
Concept:  Richard Mills, Meow Meow, Cameron Menzies
Cast: Meow Meow, Kanen Breen
Dancers: Alexander Bryce, Thomas Johansson, Patrick Weir
Orchestra: Orchestra Victoria

White Hat attended on Monday 6th February 2017

As the opening production of their 2017 season, Victorian Opera has offered us a new operatic fantasia called ‘Tis Pity. This is an operatic/cabaret romp through the history of the world’s oldest profession. The possibilities seem tantalising – Meow Meow, the internationally acclaimed chanteuse together with the fine voice and acting of operatic tenor Kanen Breen, The Victorian State Orchestra with a score and libretto created by the conductor/composer Richard Mills who has given us many enjoyable scores, a director in Cameron Menzies who has been responsible for a number of successful recent productions – and all held in the splendid Melbourne Recital Hall which has arguably the best acoustics for smaller scale classical music in the country. With these ingredients, surely the audience were in for a rare treat.

Unfortunately, the end result was less than the sum of its parts.

Meow Meow commanded the stage (or at least the apron of it, to which the performers were mainly restricted) with the aplomb we have come to expect from this polished performer. Kanen Breen displayed both his fine voice and acting versatility – attributes which are often mutually exclusive in the genus of operatic tenor. The minimal sets and props were supplemented by three male dancers who functioned in multiple capacities. The orchestra occupied the rear of the stage and boasted the forces to be expected of a large pit orchestra – ample strings, double woodwind, solo brass and percussion plus the exotic ondes martinot – occupied the back of the stage and negotiated Richard Mills’ score with the professionalism we have come to expect from Orchestra Victoria.

Given all these components, the production had some pretty impressive material with which to work. However, a number of aspects came out substantially underdone.

The first hurdle that was not successfully scaled was that of the ‘sound reinforcement' (amplification). The Elisabeth Murdoch Hall is a splendid chamber for acoustic classical music but, in this case, proved itself a difficult venue for successful combination of occasional sottto voce microphone voices combined with a moderate sized orchestra. The result in the mid stalls was far from satisfactory and as there was no interval there was not an opportunity to check the balance elsewhere in the auditorium. This formed a strong contrast to the recent Lyric Opera production of Williamson’s Our Man In Havana which splendidly combined sound reinforcement of voices with a complex orchestral score in a difficult venue (see our review here). For 'Tis Pity, however, the resulting sound canvas left the singers anchored in a (sometimes distorted) acoustic world where they could neither communicate directly with the audience (in the style of cabaret) or create the frisson of a full-throated melody (in the style of opera). The orchestra was equally ill-served with, we suspect, delicate passages by the lower woodwinds going un-noticed by the audience. The chanted chorus of the orchestral players during the jackboot sequence appear as though it may have contained some compelling cross-rhythms but again it was difficult to tell in the resulting soup of direct and amplified sound.

The second hurdle to prove problematic was that of the stage production. Minimal sets and working space does not necessarily mean cut down production values. Take for instance the New York 2004 short run concert performance of Candide. “Unfair!” you might say. Well, international comparison is not unfair if Melbourne wants to claim itself the Arts Capital of Australia, and Victoria Opera as a prime performing arts company. We would have been very happy to see the minimal production at an out of town opening or, say, at the Butterfly Club, ready for continuous polishing and improvement before maybe venturing on a national or international tour. However, as a performance by a prime company in a prime venue, the verdict would have to be ‘promising but needs more work’.

The third, and major hurdle which was valiantly attempted but not cleared with aplomb was that of the libretto and music. To produce an orchestral and vocal score of over an hour’s duration with clever references to much in the classical tradition as well characteristic dance numbers and ballads is no mean feat, and few if any in Australia could do it with the ease and fluency of Richard Mills. However, the relentless romp through the centuries proceeds at the expense of two main ingredients of large-scale music, theatre and prostitution – pacing and timing. It is not surprising that several of the most effective moments of the evening are when at last the pace relents to allow a softer ballad with a delicate accompaniment. The final Semitone Song is possibly the best example.

Similarly, the libretto ignores sources in praise of prostitutes such as the ribald enthusiasm of Catullus or poignant elegies of the Elizabethans which might have given the libretto more texture and variety.

In the end this worthy enterprise left us with no outstanding moments of pith and wit from the libretto, no insights that only music can bring and no highly memorable pieces of stage magic.

However, it still remains a worthy production.

Victorian Opera has committed to commissioning and producing new works each year rather than just wheeling out a stale old repertoire year after year. That commitment is to be applauded and supported.

In the case of ‘Tis Pity we are sure that the considerable work will not be wasted. In the words of Richard Mills, in preparing for this production he “uncovered material for many shows”. We are sure that we will find the considerably content in this production recycled, reworked, maybe reimagined but all with a firm basis in the creative concept and performers involved.

Congratulations to Victorian Opera for continuing to explore the possibilities which are out there.

Our rating - 3 Hats

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