Kudos to Australian Brandenburg Orchestra for their 2017 season programming which included a stage-directed production of Handel's Messiah in February and for having just concluded a run of seven performances in Sydney and Melbourne of three contrasting early operatic works that came under the title Bittersweet Obsessions: Monteverdi and Bach. Created in a pastiche-like manner by Artistic Director Paul Dyer, Bittersweet Obsessions courses through a lament, a tragedy and a comedy via Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, followed by J.S. Bach's Coffee Cantata.
|Jakob Bloch Jespersen as Tancredi and Natasha Wilson as Cloirinda|
Kapsberger's Toccata Arpeggiata set the atmosphere going in Scene I with its eerie and tumultuous shades to introduce the brief snapshot that Lamento della Ninfa gives on a nymph's distress after being betrayed by her lover. In a billowing white gown, Wilson brought a poignancy to the sighing melodies with her attractive, smooth and relaxed soprano. As shepherds, Sulayman, Darby and Bloch Jespersen added distinctive harmony in their interjections and observances as they all passed through a pastoral setting that consisted of a field of wheat backed by a lofty, full-height copy of Claude Lorrain's pastoral scene, Ascanius Shooting The Stag of Sylvia.
Deliciously evocative without overwhelming, Charlotte Mungomery's design, Genevieve Graham's appropriately delineated costumes and John Rayment's subdued lighting set a striking start under Constantine Costi's perfectly sensitive direction.
The gloriously featured zipping violins and strummed backing of Falconieri's lively Ciaccona, followed by a dignified interpretation of Monteverdi's overture from Il Ritorno d'Ulisse In Patria, opened Scene II's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda thrillingly. Claude Lorrain's tranquil setting fell to reveal a tri-level scaffolded structure. On it, the inconceivable and bitter tragedy of Clorinda's death in combat by her lover Tancredi was played out in slow-gestured stylistic movement and magnified more physically by aikido performers Andrew Sunter and Melanie Lindenthal on the (wheat)field of battle. Again, the creative and visual effect cut through splendidly, with Clorinda's death, marked by a cascading cloth of blood-red fabric from high, a particularly powerful moment that proceeded the punctuated metallic clash of swords that percussionist Adam Cooper-Stanbury reproduced wonderfully amongst many other detailed sound effects.
Bloch Jespersen was firm, robust and commanding as the Christian knight Tancredi with Wilson's ethereal and fine glassy soprano echoing the story's haunting ominousness. But it was Sulayman who sang the major part as Testo (the Text) the narrator, done so with passion and conviction but with most assuredness and warmth in moderate-paced passages.
After interval, Bach's comic Coffee Cantata, on the other hand, arrived in Scene III as a somewhat curious anomaly to the deftly resolved Monteverdi works. Opening the scene and though captivatingly played - concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen illuminated the florid lines superbly on violin - the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 4 seemed to break the spell cast by the first two scenes with its widely familiar tune.
|K. Sulayman, J. Bloch Jespersen and N. Wilson in Coffee Cantata|
As a spoiled, inelegant and recalcitrant Liechen, Wilson nonetheless demonstrated the range, flexibility and shading of her soprano beautifully. At ease in her comic skin, Wilson's melodic sweetness soared delectably in her central aria, "Ei! Wie schmeckt der Coffee susse" / Ah! how sweet coffee tastes" as if seemingly fed by the numerous spoonfuls of sugar she took. In between the need for a nicotine fix to calm his see-sawing parenting, Bloch Jespersen sang firmly as her unfortunate father Schlendrian. Dyer fuelled the music with a liveliness that the orchestra played with great appeal and depth.
More like three district tableaux - touching, entertaining and musically engaging as the evening was - Bittersweet Obsessions was advertised with the expectation of "three timeless tales that follow one woman’s journey through the bitter and sweet of life". That was always going to be a decent challenge to overcome. It was more a case of the one woman, in this case soprano Natasha Wilson, embodying three distinct characters on her own operatic journey. Still, the vivid theatrical portrayal and overall interpretation was a welcome addition to Australian Brandenburg Orchestra's repertoire and a feature that the stage will hopefully be utilised for again.
Bittersweet Obsessions: Monteverdi and Bach
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
City Recital Hall, Sydney
25th October - 1st November 2017
Melbourne Recital Centre
4th & 5th November 2017