As the opening production of their 2017 season, Victorian Opera
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
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
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.
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