An Opera with No Singing!
by Jennifer Bryce
This is my kind of opera. I have to confess that I don’t like ‘Grand Opera’. It’s mainly because of the style of singing — so thick, so much vibrato that it’s sometimes hard to know exactly where the note is. Thinking of all of the effort and skill that the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Kiri Te Kanawa and Plácido Domingo have put into their work, I know that this is a sacreligious thing to say — I just can’t appreciate it. I like a pure singing voice; a soaring counter tenor or the bell-like quality of a boy soprano.
On Tuesday 30th March, a wind ensemble of the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) under the direction of Nick Deutsch (former artistic director) put on a one hour performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. This mode of production of the music would have been familiar to Mozart — in his day, with no means of recording for radio or disc, people were familiarised with the latest music of his operas by wind ensembles (harmoniemusik), who presumably performed in public places.
In this case the ensemble was two oboes (including the leader, Nick Deutsch), two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and one non wind instrument, a double bass, which provided, I thought, a necessary string texture that helped to blend the melodic lines.
The program notes (written by Phil Lambert, ANAM Librarian) gave us a synopsis of the story, which even an opera philistine like me is familiar with.
The action unforlds at the palace of Count Almaviva in Seville. It is the wedding day of Figaro, valet to the Count, and Susanna, maid to the Countess. The Count has had his eye on Susanna for some time, and hopes furtively to invoke the ancient privilege of ‘droit de seigneur’ on her wedding night. Further obstacles in the young couple’s path include middle-aged Marcellina, who claims a legal hold over Figaro, and Cherubino, the horny page-boy whose sudden explosion into puberty has thrown the household into mayhem. The last piece in the puzzle is the young Countess Rosina, sadly aware of her husband’s infidelities but powerless to stop loving him. She and Susanna realise they must join forces to bring the Count to account.
When I looked at the program I assumed that a narrator would recount the story while excerpts of music were played. Little did I realise that actor/ writer Bethany Simons was waiting in the wings. Bethany acted out and narrated her version of the story — covering all of those characters with gentle reference to the present day — particularly the practice of misogyny. It worked really well. Marcellina was distinguished by a slight American accent and (miming of) smoking and Cherubino was very much the cool (or maybe ‘sick’) adolescent. And there were just enough amusing asides, such as asking the wind ensemble when the Susanna character prepares for her wedding — hey, are you guys available for weddings?
Bethany’s acting and writing was brilliant, as was the playing of the wind ensemble who took the overture at a rattling good pace with lots of clean double-tonguing and then played the tunes of well-known arias with silky smoothness.