Thursday, October 16, 2014

This Other Eden

The following isn't a review as such; rather some general thoughts about the piece. 

I went to This Other Eden on Tuesday night at the Mayfair Theatre in Dunedin, (same place that Grimhilda! was presented at in 2012). This is Anthony Ritchie's new opera, and what a marvellous piece it is. The music is complex and rich and full of detail, and yet is accessible at first hearing, accessible enough to make you feel you're getting to grips with it without straining your brain too much. It has wonderful emotion, and a frequent use of motifs, echoings, and all sorts of other musical mechanisms that make it available to your ear.

The libretto is by Michelanne Forster, and is derived from a play of the same name that she wrote eighteen years ago. The story focuses on Thomas Kendall, an early missionary to New Zealand (he was a contemporary of Samuel Marsden, who also appears in the opera). Kendall was the man who produced the first Maori/English dictionary. The story is in part told by his wife Jane, an unfortunate woman who had to take second place not only to the making of the dictionary and the machinations of the tough Maori chief, Hongi Hika, but later to the Maori common-law wife Kendall took. Jane is the emotional heart of the opera, and was played by Elizabeth Mandeno, who sang with such beauty and purity of tone that her mere singing moved you, quite apart from what was happening to the character.

Kendall was played by James Rodgers, who has a notable list of achievements as a singer, performing both in his native country of New Zealand and abroad. His strong tenor brought great strength to the part - a long and difficult one - though early in the performance he seemed to be momentarily struggling a little with his upper register. Thankfully this didn't cause any issues and for the rest of the evening he was in fine form. Kendall is presented as an ambiguous character, torn between his work and the missionary society's aims, his desire to understand the Maori people and his reluctance to provide them with muskets in order to learn more about them, and finally between the two women in his life.

Joel Amosa played Hongi Hika with great force of personality and a considerable physical presence. His singing was rich and strong; a formidable character altogether.

A number of years ago I was the musical director for a group called Opera Alive. This consisted of talented young singers from around the town; the group had originally been formed to give these singers experience in the theatre and in performance. It had already been running for three or four years when I took over at short notice because their musical director had to leave Dunedin (her husband had got a job in the North Island), and I was with them for five or six years after that, I think. The group changed from year to year: some stalwarts remained throughout most of the entire time I was involved, but others might only stay a year.

James Adams was one of those involved with Opera Alive; in Ritchie's opera he played Samuel Marsden, the strong-minded missionary who made a considerable impact on early NZ society. He doubled this role with that of King George IV. The King only appeared in one scene, the funniest in the opera both in terms of libretto and music. It was great to see James singing so powerfully and performing so well. He always had plenty of talent, of course, but it's still good to see his progress in his career. James has apparently moved back to Dunedin with his family. Hopefully he'll have the opportunity to carry on singing from his home base.

Matt Landreth played the smaller role of Richard Stockwell, a man who falls in love with Jane Kendall, and gets her pregnant while her husband is away. Stockwell was the Kendall family's servant, and his actions in the story are relatively true to history. Landreth brought considerable presence to the character, who could have been treated unsympathetically. Stockwell's relationship with Jane had truth about it, and though it brought them both grief, was perhaps more true in some ways that Kendall's own relationship with his wife. Certainly Kendall, in the story, treats her badly, and leaves her behind in New Zealand to fend for herself while he goes back to London for a year, much to her anger and sorrow.

The rest of the relatively young cast did well; vocally there were no weak areas, and the small chorus in particular contributed strongly to the piece.

The director, Jacqueline Coats, chose to use a raked stage, which to me always has potential for accidents. I remember years ago that when the NZ Opera Company toured the opera Il Trovatore, they performed it on a raked stage (from memory it was more raked than this one) and one of the chorus told me that they were afraid every night when they came racing onto it that one of them would fall and break something. Though there are advantages in this production with having a raked stage - people can stand above others, and there is the neat way in which people climb up onto it at the back - but it seems to me that it's hard on the performers, who spend a good deal of time climbing up and descending. Hard on the leg muscles, I'd think, and requiring that much extra caution in terms of keeping your balance. James Adams does a spectacular fall from the top to the bottom at one point, so it has advantages in that dramatic sense too!

Tecwyn Evans, the very well-known NZ conductor (he was raised in Dunedin) was in charge of the orchestra of ten players, and how wonderfully they played! As far as I know they're mostly local musicians, but the level of playing was excellent. I noted that Ralph Miller played the trumpet part (a considerable one with some degree of virtuosity, and requiring a great deal of clarity). I've known Ralph on and off for a number of years because he's been involved with various brass bands around town as a cornet player. I've played for him in the past, and last year he did a couple of beautiful solos at a concert where I was the accompanist.

And while I'm dropping names, Linda Brewster, a friend from a very long way back, was doing her first job for Dunedin Opera, as Stage Manager. Plainly she did a very good job, because everything worked like tickety boo. And finally Ryan Walker is listed as 'Audio Visual Technician.' He happened to doing a similar job (though with a less fancy title) on Hamp
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