It’s been a thoroughly theatrical year for the Brandenburgs: a semi-staged Messiah, a Spanish baroque circus, and now, in ‘Bittersweet Obsessions’, three mini-operas with maxi-staging. It’s a luxurious approach to music presentation, and one which knowingly pushes the boundaries of the concert genre. That it is not entirely successful is as it should be: innovation is a risky business.
For ‘Bittersweet Obsessions’ some of the hiccups of the previous stagings have been adjusted. The ensemble is at the front, on the floor below the stage rather than behind the action, so the music does not have to fight its way through the action. And in The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda the singers and the fighters are wisely separated from each other, cleverly using vertical space to overcome the limitations of the City Recital Hall stage.
The costumes, lighting and staging are elaborate and theatrically thrilling, if occasionally confusing: a spectacular backdrop of a pastoral landscape, perfect for a nymph’s lament; bleak scaffold for a battle to the death; and a hipster cafe for the coffee obsessed.
As for the program, Paul Dyer has assembled a sort of pasticcio club sandwich, topping and tailing Monteverdi’s lugubrious madrigals with atmospheric toccatas and chaconnes which showcase the delicate timbres of a colourful ensemble. Thus the ensemble is not just a very classy pit band, but also a soloist in its own right, with a glistening performance of the fourth Brandenburg Concerto a highlight of the evening.
All in all, it’s a packed program, full of action, of references and connections, knowing looks, in jokes, literary tropes, special effects and coups de theatre, to the point that I feel overwhelmed, like Mrs Moore on the train to the Marabar Caves, and accidentally laugh when Tancredi discovers he’s just killed his lover. Oops. But this is what taking risks is about: looking for the right pitch of emotion, the right level of theatricality to engage and enlighten. It’s a bit hit and miss.
What does reach the target, every time, is the hard-working cast. Natasha Wilson is, of course, the stand-out. This scarily young New Zealander has a freshness and consistency of tone which, coupled with unerring accuracy and a sassy stage presence, makes her performance a thing of great loveliness. As the impossible Lieschen in Bach’s Coffee Cantata she trounces her well-meaning father, nicely played by Danish bass-baritone Jakob Block Jespersen — what a transformation from the warring lovers in the previous tale! Meanwhile, Karim Sulayman makes an exciting Australian debut as the narrator in Tancredi and an able barista in the Bach. (I’d love to hear more — maybe an Evangelist?) Spencer Darby completes the trio of shepherds with versatile ease and Melanie Lindenthal and Andrew Sunter bring an unexpected grace and dignity to walloping each other with metal bars.
It’s wonderful stuff. But I confess I’m now going to go and sit in a room quietly, with my eyes closed, and think of nothing.
More performances: today, Saturday 28 October, at 2pm and again at 7pm, then Tuesday and Wednesday at 7pm, all at City Recital Hall, then Saturday and Sunday 4 and 5 November at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall in Melbourne.