Opera Review: Bliss

Thanks to the kindness of Opera Australia and their Twitter presence, I managed to score myself tickets to the second-only-in-the-world performance of Australia’s newest opera Bliss. I should warn you that my review is going to contain spoilers, but considering that the opera always spoil plots by handing you a synopsis the minute you walk in the door, it’s not really a big deal.

This opera has been a long time coming. Bliss started life as a novel by Peter Carey in the early 80s, which was a bit later turned into a film of the same name by Ray Lawrence (who has subsequently directed the famous Lantana and Jindabyne). It’s been in the planning by Opera Australia for several years, but OA has turned over two chief conductors since that time, so for a while, no one was sure if it would ever be produced. But now at last it has. The music is by Brett Dean, violist, composer and Artistic Director of the Australian National Music Academy in Melbourne, and the opera is directed by the legendary theatre and film director, Neil Armfield.

If you’ve watched a few operas, you very quickly work out that there’s not a lot of correlation between the quality of the story and the quality of the music that goes with it. (Oddly enough, musical theatre tends to get it better more often – where you have a strong story with equally strong music to tell it.) But there’s many an opera with an absolutely rubbish storyline, but glorious music that has stood the test of time and keeps drawing audiences again and again. In fact, as a brief sidenote, I highly recommend that you get hold of the book A Night At The Opera (in the US) or The Good Opera Guide (in the UK – but it’s the same book). In it, he gives guides to all the major operas split into two parts – a serious discussion of the musical highlights and a tongue-in-cheek synopsis where he rips the plots to shreds. It’s great fun, and one of the few books on opera I’d give to a friend.

So how does Bliss hold up? Well, it’s a curious story, that’s for sure. I haven’t read the book or seen the film, so I can’t comment on its similarity to those, but the story I saw on Wednesday night was a bizarre mix of tragedy, satire and domestic drama. Set quite distinctly in the 80s in Australia, it tells of Harry Bliss, advertising executive, wife to Betty, and a father of a grown son and daughter. He’s at a party celebration 20 years of his advertising business, when he suffers a heart attack and is taken off to hospital. Shortly thereafter, Harry wakes up and decides that he’s actually died and now he’s in Hell.

Things are a bit slow for the next 30-45 minutes, and the story feels more like a satire, with Harry making his observations about life and how it resembles Hell. Things pick up when he suffers one particularly bad night of misfortunes –  beginning with an elephant sitting on his car and moving through a rather unpleasant discovery about the unfaithfulness of his wife and the even more depraved private lives of his children. After this Harry really falls apart. He retreates to a room in the Hilton, and holes himself up – pausing only to get rid of his largest advertising client, who he now feels it would be immoral to support any longer, because this particular client deals in cancer-causing materials.

However – and this is where I think the story starts to veer to the ridiculous – what would you expect a man to do who’s suffering from moral outrage that his family is immoral and his advertising business is causing cancer? Of course! You hire a prostitute! Enter the character of Honey, who from what I’ve read is only a part-time prostitute. The rest of the time, she’s a hippy. Once she enters – and this is where I think the story gets really stupid – it turns out that she’s the ray of brightness that helps Harry see some hope in the world.

Or at least that’s the way it appears. The problem is Act III which caps all this off. In Act III, Harry finds himself chucked into a mental asylum which is paid for by his son, the drug dealer. Then his wife bails him out. I’m not sure whether the insane asylum has done something to him (it’s unclear, because Harry has stopped really doing anything by this stage), but he goes right back into the advertising world working for his wife. The plot then forgets about him and focuses mainly on his ambitious wife, Betty, who we follow for the next 10-15 minutes till that subplot ends with probably the most explosive moment in the whole opera.

Then somebody must have remembered that this opera is about Harry, and we come back to a low-key fizzer of an ending which hints that he’s coping with life okay now.

Look, that’s my reaction to the story – other people may enjoy it more.

But let’s move on to the music.

Brett Dean is a very clever orchestrator. The palette of sound colours that he creates, and even subtle use of modern instruments such as electric guitars and synthesisers is great. He also has a bit of a sense of humour – so there’s a brief reference to Puccini’s La Boheme at one moment. Another clever joke is when people are talking on the phone that a squawky “conversation” sound is played on the trumpet.

And in the film’s dramatic or surreal moments, it’s brilliant. When Harry is at the restaurant with the circus, creepy carnivalistic themes enter the score. For the more shocking moments in the story, the music lends an intensity to the story.

But there are other times (like the opening party) where opera doesn’t feel like the right medium to convey the story – or certainly not this type of operatic music. While Dean’s work is not completely atonal and much more accessible than many other 20th century works I can think of, I can’t help but feel that there needed to be an element of tonality in there to give the score a sense of beauty and pathos in places. Call me old-fashioned, expecting good old-fashioned diatonic music to express beauty – but I think most of the Western world would be with me on this one (even if they weren’t quite sure what the word “diatonic” meant).

It’s quite possible, that if we’d had a bit more tonality in the final scene (the reunion between Harry and Barbara), that it would have been quite moving. Instead, we end up with the scenario that the music is telling us something potentially awful is about to happen, but the action on stage tells us that they love one another. It didn’t work for me at all.

So we end up with a story so abstract from humanity that we can’t really relate to it and a score that doesn’t provide the emotional catharsis that most great operas do. Don’t get me wrong – there’s still plenty to see – Peter Coleman-Wright (Harry) is a great baritone, and there’s some stunningly dramatic moments. But it’s never going to become a beloved favourite to millions of people.

2 1/2 out of 5.

CD Review: Hyperion Schubert Edition Complete Songs Vols. 3 & 4

It’s been a while since I last reviewed any of the Hyperion Schubert Edition – in fact, so long, that I realised I managed to review volume 2 twice and give it two different scores. Anyway, you can read my reviewed for volume 1 here and volume 2 here and here. The short version for those who haven’t heard of this series before – English pianist Graham Johnson decided to record all of the 600+ songs of Franz Schubert for piano and voice. For every volume of this set of the complete songs, he signed up a different singer and picked a mix of famous and not-so-famous songs for them to sing. Then he would complete each volume by writing some of the most brilliant liner notes ever written, telling you everything you ever wanted to know about even the most obscure of songs.

But are the songs any good? Well, I would say that so far, volume 3 with Ann Murray is my absolute favourite. Ann is an alto with a beautiful control of long lines – she can hold a note without it becoming overpowering or irritating. If was to list three songs that you absolutely must listen to off the CD (and I believe the Hyperion label now allows you to buy individual tracks), I’d recommend An die Freunde (a moving song about a poet wanting to die with a beautiful change from minor to major in the middle), Der Zwerg (a creepily effective Gothic song about a dwarf that murders a queen) and the best of the lot would be Viola (about an anthropomorphic violet that wakes earlier than any of the other spring flowers and then dies sad and alone before the other flowers find her – it’s only about flowers, but the music is so sad and delicate that you can’t help feeling sorry for the flower.)

5 out of 5.

Volume 4 is especially relevant to being reviewed this week, because the singer for this volume, tenor Philip Langridge, sadly passed away of cancer just last week. I always find tenors a bit of a gamble – sometimes they sound like there’s too much strain in their voice or they’re loud and overpowering. The main thing I wasn’t immediately bowled over by with Langridge’s voice is that at the time of the  recording (either late 80s or early 90s), it sounded a bit old. But very quickly you realise that he has a great grasp of how to bring drama and meaning to every word. And Graham Johnson gives him a huge variety of songs to work with.

They range from the majestic and beautiful Auf der Riesenkoppe (On the Giant Peak) a patriotic song where the singer takes us up the side of the mountain, surveys the Austrian countryside and sings the praises of his native land. On the other end of the scale is the Epistle to Josef von Spaun, a friend of Schubert’s who’d moved away and hadn’t written to his friends in a long while. So to rile him up, Schubert composed the music for a letter to Spaun telling him what a barbarian and downright rotten friend he was. It’s done in mock Italian opera style, complete with ear-splitting high notes and mock drama. It’s the kind of song you wouldn’t expect to hear on a normal compilation of songs of Schubert, but that is the wonder of hearing the complete Schubert songs.

4 out of 5.

Am very much looking forward to volume 5, which I hope to start on soon.

CD Review: Bach Cantata Pilgrimage vols. 1 and 8

Bach Cantata Pilgrimage vol 1Update 17 April 2010: Seeing as they asked me so nicely, I thought I’d give you a link to the Soli Deo Gloria Facebook page, where you can hear more about what’s going on with these CDs.

The composer Johann Sebastian Bach composed over 200 works known as cantatas. Quite simply, these are works for choir, orchestra and soloists that were designed to be performed in church. They run for about 25-30 minutes each, so presumably they would have been a part of the Lutheran church service at Bach’s church. Nowadays, the only type of music we tend to get in our churches is purely congregational music – it’s rare to hear (at least in Presbyterian churches) music designed to be presented to the congregation, rather than performed by the congregation. But Bach argues a very good case…

His cantatas are extraordinary. First of all, the speed at which he put them together. Every cantata is designed for a specific Sunday  in the Lutheran calendar (e.g. 2nd Sunday after Trinity, Feast Day of John the Baptist, etc.) so Bach presumably would have been working on them up until that particular Sunday. Second, the fact that he did this for serveral years, so for any given Sunday, there are usually three or four cantatas to draw on for that day.

But what is most extraordinary of all is the quality of this music. Walk into many churches today, and the music is lacklustre, boring. Even when it’s upbeat and exciting, very few music fans would prefer listening to church music to secular music today. It’s not just because church music is about a more limited range of subjects – it’s simply that church music is often musically inferior to much of the music that exists out there.

Not so in Bach’s day. His cantatas, even though they were composed to be used in a church service, were (and still are) some of the most complex, beautiful and magnificent music ever composed. Even today, among classical music fans, there are many, many people – most of whom have very little interest in Bach’s theology or the subjects for his music – who nonetheless are moved and inspired by the music that he wrote.Bach Cantata Pilgrimage vol 8

For Christians out there – I think we need to rediscover this music. Not that we have to write Baroque music – and not many churches are going to have the resources to provide top-notch singers, a choir and an orchestra each week – but the challenge is there: Christian music should be some of the best-quality music in the world, not the lowest.

The story behind these particular CDs is just as extraordinary as the music. In 2000, English conductor John Eliot Gardiner set out to perform every 0ne of Bach’s cantatas on the church day they were written for at a variety of churches across Europe, England and America. Calling it the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, every concert was faithfully recorded and they started to be released on the Archiv label, but something went wrong and they stopped releasing the CDs after about half a dozen CDs were released.

But the recordings still existed and so Gardiner and his wife formed their own record label, Soli Deo Gloria, and have started releasing all the concerts in beautifully-presented two-disc sets. I don’t normally get too excited about packaging, but these CDs are a great example of when CDs beat MP3s hands-down. Each one is like a little mini-sized hardbound book, with the CDs in cardboard sleeves at each end, and a booklet in the middle with notes from Gardiner on the cantatas and the complete German and English texts of the cantatas. On the front cover, they’ve gathered stunningly atmospheric images of people from different cultures and backgrounds – making a marked contrast to the quite Germanic sounding music. The only thing I’d fault is that in Gardiner’s notes, he likes to obscure Italian terms referring to the styles of music Bach employs. They’re not even regularly used in classical music circles, so I was irritated with that, but it is sadly a part of the classical music world that we always talk above the average person’s head…

But what really matters is the quality of the music on offer. I’m not a huge Bach expert, and I haven’t listened to a lot of these things, but every one of the cantatas is beautiful and musically interesting to listen to, especially when combined with the notes, which explain Gardiner’s enthusiasm for each and every one of them. The way I judge church music is simply is the music enhancing the text? Bad church music is often just whatever music the composer felt like with words crammed in to fit it. But the truly great music for the church that lasts through the years is music that brings the listener into the mood and emotion of the subject being sung about.

Bach does it amazingly well. I won’t go into each cantata, but some of the highlights from these two volumes (two discs each) for me were:

  • The final chorus from Cantata BWV 167. It only goes for a couple of minutes, and it consists of a rather slow hymn tune which, in other hands, could be rather a plodding number. To give you an idea of this, this YouTube video plays the final chorus (not the Gardiner version, however). If you listen, they’re singing beautiful, but slow, hymn tune. But the accompaniment is so joyful, that it lifts the hymn (that begins with the words “Laud and praise with honour God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost!”) and it takes off and soars.
  • The amazing aria for alto from Cantata BWV 30. The words are encouraging the waking sheep to rise for their hour of redemption, for sinners to run after their Saviour, Jesus Christ. Maybe the image of sheep skipping, combined with running is what inspired it – but Bach gives this music a skipping, dancing accompaniment. This video is from the Gardiner CD.
  • Those last two were from Disc 1 of vol 1. There’s great stuff on Disc 2 as well, and also Disc 1 of vol 8. But the highlight CD for me was the second disc of vol 8. The canatas on this CD were written for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, a day where Lutherans dwell on death. This is not as morbid as it sounds. In fact, it’s downright astonishing. Much music to come out of the 19th century dealt with death – it was a bit of a Romantic preoccupation. But death is very often portrayed as being incredibly tragic or terrifying. By contrast, the texts to these cantatas talk about not being afraid of death, because there is life after death for those who follow Jesus. I could be laid in my grave today, they say, and it will be fine. I’ll be in a better place. Considering how much death was prevalent in the 1700s, this is an incredibly brave view to take – it’s open-eyed, looking death in the face and not being afraid. There are many tracks I could play, but the one I like best is the opening chorus from Cantata BWV 8.The words (paraphrased by me are: “Dear God, when shall I die? I know that I’m descended from Adam and all his descendants have this in common – we’ll all return to the ground one day.” However, this morbid sentiment (even for many Evangelicals today) is expressed in music of the most sublime calmness. Also, I can’t help but thinking that Bach has actually crafted this to have the sound of a ticking clock. The music seems to move in big arcs, with a constantly moving accompainment for two oboe d’amores (early versions of the oboe) and the ticking being provided by the high flutes repeating the same notes over and over. Whatever it is, it’s beautiful, and everyone deserves to hear it at least once in their lifetime. Here’s the YouTube. It’s not the Gardiner version which is the best I’ve ever heard of this chorus, and has a less reedy sound from the oboes. But it will give you the idea.

Film Review: Shutter Island

I must admit, I’ve always thought that it must be somewhat demoralising to film directors to make a mystery thriller. You spend all this effort honing a cinematic experience that, for the most part, can really only work once. After your audience has seen it, they know the solution to the riddle, how everything pans out and there’s not necessarily a lot of reason to see it again.

So the strength of these types of films generally hangs on a) the subject matter, b) how well you can baffle the audience and c) and  how well they’re executed. Shutter Island delivers in varying levels on these three counts. But that might depend on who you are as well.

In terms of subject matter, it’s a great idea for a story. A US Marshall, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo diCaprio) heads out to Shutter Island off the coast of Massachusetts, home of an aslyum for the most violent of the criminally insane. Teddy is a bit traumatised himself, his wife having perished in a fire in their apartment, but really his trauma is about to begin.

Aided by his new Marshall sidekick (Mark Ruffalo), Teddy gets his briefing from the Director of the asylum (Ben Kingsley): an inmate has disappeared – a woman who is in denial that she drowned her three children. Teddy and sidekick set off to investigate, and the mystery begins.

From here, how the story goes depends on how baffled you are. From the moment I saw the trailer, I had a theory about how this kind of movie would turn out (a theory which I will not share…) and it was obvious fairly quickly that this was the direction the movie was heading down. I was wrong about a couple of details, but it was more an ending that ticked boxes for me, rather than left me reeling with surprise when the end credits rolled (unlike, say, The Usual Suspects, where I was). However, that’s just me. I know other people who had no idea how it was all going to pan out and thoroughly enjoyed the ride. So I won’t mention any more except to say that the less you think about it as you watch it, the more you’ll get out of it.

Which brings us to the execution. If you’ve ever seen a film by Martin Scorsese, you’ll know that the guy is one of our greatest filmic storytellers alive today. His subject matter is often violent and extreme, but always visually engaging. His editor, Thelma Schoonmaker (who I assume works almost exclusively for Scorsese) has developed a rapid-fire editing style over the years that makes his films instantly recognisable.

However, I’m not sure whether it’s Thelma or Martin, but somebody seems to be losing their touch in the editing room. Normally, his films move at an exhausting pace, with very little fat. But this film could easily have trimmed 20 minutes of it’s 140 minutes with no trouble at all. I understand that it’s the modern thing to have a dream sequence followed by a dream sequence. (It certainly made me jump in The Wolfman.) But Wolfman pulled off two dream sequences in about 45 seconds. Shutter Island has three back to back and it feels like they go for 10 minutes.

But despite all this, the film gradually manages to work itself up to a crescendo, without getting irritating. While it does have a few jump moments, often it shocks the audience by turning the sound all the way down. (Watch the scene near the beginning where the old woman says “Shhh” – it’s seriously creepy.) The separate strands of the woman who drowned her children, the Dachau concentration camp and the death of Teddy’s wife, all blend to provide a genuinely disturbing finale that, despite its predictability, is still rattling around in my head the next day.

Finally, a word must be said about the music. Rather than bring in a film composer, Robbie Robertson (of The Band fame, for those who remember The Last Waltz) is the Music Supervisor, and he has assembled an extensive collection of 20th/21st century classical music to use in the film. So there’s everything from Penderecki to Adams to Eno on display here and it works amazingly. (Especially the strident piece of Penderecki as Teddy arrives on the island and is driven to the asylum gates.) I once heard someone say that modern classical music was like music from a slasher film that goes on for 20 minutes. And that is kind of backed up by this film score, which will get under your skin faster than anything else in the film.

For those who like this sort of thing and have no idea where it’s going – you’re going to love this film. For the rest of you, there’s a lot to appreciate about the filmmaking, even if it is a tad slow. Just pretend you’re watching a Hitchcock instead…

4 out of 5.