Harriet Cunningham on two virtual operas – Three Tales, an adaptation of Flaubert’s stories from Victorian Opera, and Gertrude Opera’s cheeky take on Menotti’s The Telephone
Three Tales, an adaptation of Gustav Flaubert’s Trois Contes, commissioned by Victorian Opera, was due to have its world premiere in the last week of June 2020 but… Covid. Now the trio of one-act operas are streaming on line until next Monday.
The production brings together Flaubert’s curious stories, Daniel Keene’s libretto and the Melbourne-based PLEXUS Ensemble, with music settings by Zac Hurren, Dermot Tutty and Stefanos Cassomenos. The composers each introduce their work with a piece to camera, before the works play out as a sound recording (made last September). Keene’s words, white on a black screen, appear above an oscilloscope read out as the only visual accompaniment. You provide the pictures.
What you’ll see, in your imagination, is a series of oddly gripping vignettes. First comes A Simple Heart, the story of Félicité, a maid who has barely made an impression on the world in her modest life, giving love to faithless men, disappearing children and a stuffed parrot, with no expectation of return. Keene has reconceived Flaubert’s tale as the final monologue of a woman almost smudged out by age and infirmity.
The music, by Zac Hurren, turns Flaubert’s shadowy character and Keene’s taut words into a delicate but revealing song cycle, sung by Katie Noonan. From the very first notes – a solo clarinet, then a violin, just a semitone apart – Hurren’s music responds to Félicité’s liminal nature, picking a careful path through melody and silence, letting the crystalline quality of Noonan’s voice and the spare, often monosyllabic lyrics resonate like the distant memories they describe. It’s exquisite.
Next is Julian, another bizarrity, a riff on the story of St Julian of the Hospitallers, inspired by Flaubert’s fascination with a stained-glassed window depiction of the story in Rouen Cathedral. Dermot Tutty’s sonic imagination depicts the pre-salvation menace of a young sociopath with low pedals and austere harmonies, sung by the chorus of animals who will become his victims.
“Some kill to live. Some kill for sport. Julian kills for the love of killing.” Trenchant words and an atmospheric setting. But as an integrated piece of music theatre, Julian is not there yet. There is something not quite right about the pace, the way the musical energy tracks with the impact of the words and the narrative arc, making emotional climaxes arrive too early, too late or not at all. That, and the use of full-throated operatic voices with wide vibrato make for an uncomfortable story uncomfortably told.
Herodias is no less uncomfortable, but Stefan Cassomenos’s score for to this sticky story of sex and death revels in its discomfort, generating a wild and thrilling energy from dangerous thinking. It is, of course, the New Testament tale of Salome, who dances for her father Herod then demands the head of John the Baptist.
Here Keene, after Flaubert, builds the story on three characters: Salome, an artless maiden physically drawn to her mother’s prisoner; Jokanaan, the tendentious man of faith, and Herodias, mother of Salome and manipulator of lives. It’s a spectacular score: Cassomenos weaponises the operatic voice, using it like a blade to cut through the ensemble, and like a bludgeon to drive the message home. Meanwhile, his instrumental writing is packed with glittering gestures and pacy rhythms, at times recalling the headlong energy of a John Adams score, and always fizzing with invention.
Hopefully, all three works will find their way to the stage eventually. Nevertheless, Victorian Opera’s minimalist solution to the covid-canning of these new works is unexpectedly satisfying: without visual distractions, the mind focusses on the dramaturgical interaction of the words and music. In particular, it highlights the art of the librettist, a crucial part of this collaborative artform which often gets overlooked when the curtain goes up. There is no space for prolixity or persiflage in Keene’s eloquent and epigrammatic story-telling. Each word must work hard and ring true. And it does.
Meanwhile, now streaming on Youtube is Gertude Opera’s ‘Zoom/iso’ treatment of The [i]Phone. The Gertrude team – director Linda Thompson and singers Bethany Hill and Daniel Felton, somewhere in Australia, plus music director Matthew Toogood, somewhere in Europe — takes a different tack to opera in the time of Covid, re-imagining Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1947 wafer thin one-actor for the i-Generation.
It’s fun. The plot, about a lover steeling himself to propose marriage to his girlfriend who finds his declaration of love upstaged by a constant stream of telephone calls, translates easily to the screen. Favourite zoom behaviours – the pre-meeting preen, the awkward where-do-you-look-when-the-Three Tales, the operatic voice, developed to fill a nineteenth-century auditorium without electronic amplification, does not always sit easily in an intimate setting. Nevertheless, The [i]Phone is entertaining and imaginative.
More to the point, it’s yet another example of how artists refuse to sit down and shut up when they can’t take to the stage. You can lock us down, but you can’t stop us singing.
Three Tales, Victorian Opera. Herodias composed by Stefan Cassomenos, The Legend Of St Julian The Hospitaller composed by Dermot Tutty, A Simple Heart composed by Zac Hurren. Libretto by Daniel Keene, adapted from the stories by Gustav Flaubert. Conducted by Richard Mills. Performed by Katue Noonan, Kathryn Radcliffe, Daniel Todd, Raphael Wong and Shakira Dugan. PLEXUS Ensemble: Monica Curro, Philip Arkinstall, Stefan Cassomenos, with Greg Sully. Watched July 1, available at Virtual Victorian Opera until July 6.
The Telephone (The iPhone) by Gian Carlo Menotti.Music director Matthew Toogood, director Linda Thompson. Performed by Bethany Hill and Daniel Felton. Gertrude Opera. Watched July 1. Online at Youtube