Thursday, November 1, 2018

First steps into the baroque but a Gluck double bill from Melbourne's BK Opera falls short

Melbourne’s broad-scaled local opera scene has been pleasantly enriched by small amateur company BK Opera since its inception in 2016. For 2018, firebrand young artistic director Kate Millet has kept the little enterprise busy with a season boasting 4 productions, all of which have found an inventive angle on presenting opera. But, on Wednesday night, in a double bill comprising two of the more commonly performed of Gluck’s prodigious output, Millet’s risky first step into distant baroque fell short.

Louise Keast as and Alison Lemoh in
BK Opera's Orphée et Eurydice
First up, was an evocatively conceived Orphée et Eurydice, a work that premiered in 1762 to an Italian libretto by Ranieri de' Calzabigi and later adapted to a French libretto by Pierre-Louis Moline. It looked to be going somewhere but finished thin on polish. A woolly Iphigénie en Tauride followed (a work that premiered 17 years later in 1779 to a libretto by Nicolas-François Guillard), and disappointingly dragged for most of its course. Taking two full-length operas and condensing them into a running time of one hour each wasn’t, it turned out, the wisest choice. 

Apart from Gluck’s name, common to both was little more than a questionable alteration that saw Orphée and Eurydice romantically involved as lesbians and friends Oreste and Pylade in Iphigénie en Tauride very obviously in a deeply affectionate gay relationship, not that the latter didn’t allude to suggestions of homoeroticism by some Greek writers. But, if doing this was to give contemporary relevance to open-minded audiences then why not dress it so? Nevertheless, a lot of work has gone into creating striking costumes for a seemingly ancient-Grecian look for the mythological subject of Orphée et Eurydice and, oddly, Greeks Oreste and Pylade dressed like Scottish highlanders in tartan kilts for Iphigénie en Tauride. 

A plasticised white floor and back wall allowing for minimal projections and titles formed the basic setting. A small rectangular podium was placed in the foreground to give some directorial variety and prominence to pertinent moments. The only other feature was a headless statue of Artemis carried out and placed at the rear at the beginning of Iphigénie en Tauride - referring to Oreste's order by Apollo to retrieve it from Tauris. Scenes were often too harshly lit when more brooding moods would have been expected, especially so in the bobbing dance of the Furies in Orphée et Eurydice when they initially refuse Orphée's entrance to the Underworld. They did, however, look foreboding as they taunted in their long black cloak, hoods and Carnevale masks.

Erin Towns, Finn Gilheany and Jonathon Rumsam in
BK Opera's Iphigénie en Tauride
Both pieces were sung in well-enunciated French but the extensive cuts did their damage to the poetic colouring of characters and their interactions. English titles chipped a little more off by way of neglectful proofreading. Musically, the exciting range from divine translucency to stormy thrust that characterises Gluck’s score rarely made itself apparent in the more weighty solo piano accompaniment by Pam Christie. James Penn’s conducting provided good pacing, if only the singers were more tightly reined. 

In its story of love, separation, grief and eventual acceptance of death, dark chocolatey mezzo-soprano Alison Lemoh and rich soprano Louise Keast carried their parts admirably as a sombre Orphée and pining Eurydice. Their stylised gentle movements added fluidity to the work as lovers, particularly when separated by a long red veil - a thoughtful touch - under the control of the Furies. Rada Tochalna looked the epitome of Amore and sang with a clear and radiant soprano but cast an overly suspicious eye over her domain. Overly strident singing by the small chorus of nymphs, shepherds and Furies tarnished their performance but, in Iphigénie en Tauridethe priestesses of Diana held it together beautifully. 

In what usually is a confrontational story embedded with courage, compassion and hope in the context of familial love and friendship, those elements rarely shone through effortlessly, however, in Iphigénie en Tauride. Not so in the case of fervent baritone Finn Gilheany, the standout of the night as an impressively gallant Oreste with his strongly shaped vocals and deeply entrenched characterisation. Marginal intensification of vocal colour would have lifted shadowy mezzo-soprano Erin Towns’ commanding Iphigénie as she maintained lovely composure. Andrew Alesi administered stiff authority as Thoas, King of Scythia, and Jonathon Rumsam’s vulnerability in the top of his voice hampered his subordinate Pylades. 

This time, it looked like BK Opera took on a task too great when it might have paid off better by concentrating on just one Gluck. Still, their small audience should be excited about another season ahead next year. 

Orphée et Eurydice / Iphigénie en Tauride
BK Opera
Studio 1, Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre
Until 4th November, 2018

Production Photos: Burke Photography

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