Saturday, October 03, 2015

Forest high jinks with Janáček

So, Janáček and his “Cunning Little Vixen”. Not an opera I would recommend for a young cast. Or a training company. One could say, an opera that many companies need to think carefully before performing. It is full of odd rhythms and complex textures, yet requires a cast to imitate all sorts of forest creatures, not just the humans that also feature in it. It also requires an intensely physical performance to pull off, thus most opera singers find it tough.

So, how did Pacific Opera handle it? Well, mostly pretty well. They had the very impressive Sydney Youth Orchestra firing away in the pit under the baton of Alexander Briger producing all kinds of glorious sounds, doing justice to the complex score. In some ways, they were the stars of the show.

The production itself was a reframing of the story as a dream the Forester has, reliving how Harasta got to marry the beautiful gypsy that various men in the town had chased. To me, this added an element of confusion, rather than clarity to the story. It did however help to justify some of the more crazy elements, but when your story is basically “circle of life” stuff and ends with a scene where your lead character sings a song in praise of the glory of nature and her renewal, making most of it a dream seems counter intuitive. But, then, I am a fan of taking a work and presenting it, not taking the music and making it what you want it to be about, as some directors seem keen.

So, what of the performers you say? Well, unfortunately, a decision was made to mic all the leads and have them perform with headsets like most music theatre is done now. Now, while I understand the reasoning (a large number of the singers would not have been heard over the orchestra), I would have rather had the orchestration reduced, and allowed the singers to sing unmiced, though I realise that much of the pleasure I got from the performance was because the orchestra was so good and that would have been lost.

And the main reason I say I would have preferred it, is because a lot of the singing got distorted thanks to the amplification. I was told there was a fault causing it, but to my ear, a lot of the problem came from the sound guys not being used to dealing with highly resonant voices with a big volume range, as for the most part, the quieter singers seemed to come off better via the mics, but the big voices seemed to suffer more.

So, considering that, to the performers. As the Forester we had Alexander Knight, a young baritone who I have heard before singing up a storm in Handel, and doing it well. Giving him Forester at this stage of his career seemed cruel, as while a beautiful voice, well produced, this is a role that is a long way off into his future. (A future that in the short term involves him going off to sing at Wiesbaden as a house singer at their opera) Having said that, he was a compelling performer in the role, making you believe in him as the older man who has watched the world change over the years.

His Vixen, (sung by Alexandra Flood) similarly was impressive in characterisation. Her voice seemed well suited to the role, although both she and Alexander had the most problems with their voices being distorted by the mics. What came across was good, but the amplification really did her no favours. Both she and Alexander would have been able to sing over the orchestra without them (although some of the staging might have needed to be changed to ensure that) but they would have both been working harder to do it.

Also vocally impressive was Jared Lillehagen as the priest. His smaller role was sung very well and brought off his inner conflicts well. (him being very easy on the eye was also noted)

As to the ensemble work, mostly it was very tight. There were times when voices got lost in the mess of the amplification, but it sounded together. The chickens scene was very well handled with the singers adopting very hen-like movements, despite not being dressed in costumes that gave any sense of that. Many of the other animals could have been anything (apart from the children playing leapfrog at the end) I can see the reasoning behind not making the animal costumes clear that are usual for this opera, but there is a bigger reason for them. It makes it easier to bring the characters to life. Having the same chorus be the animals in the woods, and the chickens and the villagers at a wedding in the same costume, does not really make for clarity in story telling.

But, ultimately, this was an opera that, as much as it is telling a story, the real star remains the orchestral writing. Sure there are some places for the lead singers (or the chorus) to shine, but ultimately, they tend to come off second best, beside the glorious orchestral score, that creates the forest scenes so well. And, that was what we were left with at the end, memories of some extraordinary music making.

(Incidentally, if this seems a tad harsh, I probably should make it clear, the performers all did a fantastic job with what they were given, but I don't think this was a wise choice for Pacific Opera to perform)

No comments: