The Beauty of Storytelling

Posted by on 3 November 2016 | 0 Comments

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Your most recent production for Victorian Opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, had a sold out season and received major critical acclaim. Were you pleased with the outcome?

Oh wow. Are you kidding?  Pleased is hardly the word for what I felt.  First of all the collaborations with Deakin – with Kim, Jordan, Kieran, Steve, Tom, Simon, Casey – all the team – was fabulous.  Really satisfying.  I wanted the 3D imagery to add a visual journey to that completely fragmented libretto. 

The journey was to reference – lightly and humourously, in keeping with Gertrude Stein’s wonderful irreverence - mankind’s search for meaning, and we created images from sources as widespread as the Bible and Fury Road. I think we found images that were beautiful, suggestive, sometimes funny, and always engaging. Having the stereoscopic effect added that extra touch of magic. 

I was nervous about having only 1 week to rehearse the cast, but they were so talented, so open to what we were doing and so willing to work hard – that they went far beyond my expectations.  And of course the team at VO – as always – were wonderful.  Absolutely supportive and expert.

So yeah.... this was a dream project.

In 2017, you’ll be returning to Victorian Opera to direct another forgotten gem of the early 20th century with Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty. What have you enjoyed about discovering this opera?

Oh my goodness.  So much.  First of all the music is beautiful, very lyrical, and also funny. The opera is filled with interesting characters- from the lovers to animals to satirical representatives of capitalism. It is romantic but also lightly nuanced with philosophical and even political references.  At the beginning Respighi seems to be taking us through a traditional rendition of a well known fairy tale, but then his narrative leaps forward in time to what he imagined would be 1940, and he incorporates mid- 20th Century dance rhythms. Our vision for the work needs to incorporate all of those elements!  What an exciting challenge!

You’ve worked extensively with puppetry in the past and will be working alongside production designer Joe Blanck to create this fascinating blend of opera and puppetry. How are you planning to approach the production?

After reading the libretto, I knew I wanted to approach this work as though it was a community of people telling a story.  It is a village. Maybe they have come through hard times.  When Respighi wrote this Italy was still struggling with the aftermath of WWI and the devastation of the Spanish Flu. In setting the celebratory end in 1940, he could not have known what lay ahead.

I am fascinated by our human need for story. Even before mankind had written language, we have used stories as a tool for bringing order out of chaos, for giving us meaning when reason has failed, for instilling hope.

In our production, a group gathers around a fire; it’s a lovely night.  An ember leaps into the air. It becomes a nightingale puppet, whose song is picked up by one of the singers.  The story unfolds as a combined effort with some taking the singing parts, others the puppetry. Together they tell a story that initially takes them away from their present into a beautiful fantasy, but then weaves itself back into their reality.  

I don’t want to give away too many details, but our creative team that includes Joe, Ben Cobham, Philip Lethlean and Michelle Heaven are devising a production design that draws inspiration from the exquisite illustrations of Kay Nielsen (pictured) and organic shapes from our forests.  The puppetry will use several forms, always provoking and teasing the imagination, with circus and dance skills adding to what we hope will be a visual delight.

 

 

The cast of singers are sometimes positioned in the pit. How will you be incorporating them on stage?

The singers will certainly not be in the pit in this production.  They’ll be onstage – as part of the community telling the story.  Sometimes they’ll even be using puppets. Both singers and puppeteers will be costumed in a way that says they belong to one group.

Where will you be setting it and why?

It is set in a place, initially, that suggests the outskirts of a 20th century village without being definitive as to year.  Shapes in the background might be the arches of bridges or even Roman aqueducts. As the story unfolds those shapes transform into a fantastical forest, a tower, and a castle.  In the end we return to the outskirts.

Audiences might be familiar with Respighi’s orchestral works, such as The Pines or Fountains of Rome. How would you describe his opera musically?

Lyrical, romantic, playful, humourous, and slyly satirical.

The Sleeping Beauty is at Arts Centre Melbourne's Playhouse from 11-18 March. 

Pagliacci is a masterpiece th

at grows from the

enduring vibrancy of the theatrical tradition,

Commedia dell’Arte, which had its defining

period in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was

theatre of convention played by absolute

professionals, with a line-up of standard

characters such as Arlecchino, Colombina,

Pulchinello, Capitano, Servetta and the Zanni

figures who rendered improvised text. The

influence of Commedia on Italian opera is

profound, its traditions animating many Italian

composers during the 17th and 18th centuries

and persisting into the early 19th century and

beyond – the plot of Rossini’s The Barber of

Seville being an excellent example.

The genius of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is in

its stated ambition to abandon the “vecchie

usanze”, the old customs of Commedia, and to

make a theatre based on “truth” – real passions

as opposed to stylised archetypes. These real

passions are explored in the opera plot in the

context of those formal archetypes via the

“play within a play” and finally break free of them

to make a gesture based on the hyper-reality

of the passions. In the end, they defy the

formal conventions and break free from the

formal constraints of the situational comedy

of Commedia. Nevertheless, the Commedia

characters are mirrors of many of the less

comfortable predicaments of human life: illicit

love, the sting of unrequited desire in old age,

servants outwitting masters and opportunistic

charm seducing those with wealth and power.

However, in the world of Commedia, these all too

human discomforts are contained within the two

dimensional perspective of the mask, rhetorical

practice and formulae, and the lazzi or comic

turns – which hold a benign mirror up to nature

– through which the audience can see at a safe

distance the pains of being human and laugh

at them as a cathartic experience. The clown

somehow heals our sorrow through sharing it and

demonstrating its lurking absurd potentials.

The structured formality of modern circus

resonates with the emotional objectivity of

Commedia, underscored by technical brilliance

which is a resonance of the rhetorical brilliance

of “tirata”, the formal improvised speeches of

Commedia practice. Thus, the circus practice in

our double bill becomes a physical metaphor

for the aesthetic of Commedia, manifesting

the relationship of this aesthetic to music by

expressing the texts of the arias and ensembles

in physical action which sometimes assumes

a comedic life of its own. The eclectically

synthesised score of ‘Laughter’ is drawn from

the early Madrigal comedies of Vecchi (1597)

and Banchieri (1598) and the tradition of Arie

Antiche – whose lyrics are often situationally

derived from the plots of Commedia.

In essence, ‘Laughter’ is a pasticcio intermezzo,

a form with some interesting antecedents. Here

is a description by Massimo Troiano of the

festivities for the marriage of Duke Wilhelm and

Renata of Lorraine in 1568, which consisted

of a Commedia cobbled together by the great

composer Orlando di Lasso:

“After the prologue, Messer Orlando arranged

for a Madrigal in five parts to be sung while

Massimo, who now played the lover changed

his clothes… From the other side of the

stage appeared Messer Orlando dressed as

_

5

Magnifico… with a mask that drew roars of

laughter at first sight.”

The traditions of Commedia were essentially

slapstick, as the critic Muratori points out over

100 years later: “These comedies consist of

buffooneries and lewd intrigue, in fact a tangle

of absurd situations, in which we find not the

smallest trace of verisimilitude… and whose

only concern is to make people laugh.”

Despite the high-minded disdain for Commedia

found in the 18th century, the fact that

audiences like to be amused kept vigour in the

Commedia traditions, and the form alive in

practical theatre making up to the present day.

Our process of synthesis of a score from

extant sources around an absurd plot

exactly mirrors operatic practice in the late

16th and 17th centuries, the age of the

made-to-order pasticcio. In that spirit of

authenticity, I have unashamedly used a

21st century symphony orchestra and its

resources of colour in the orchestrations.

Director Emil Wolk has constructed another

mirror, placing the proceedings of the evening

in a fictional working theatre near Montalto

(the alleged scene of the murder in Pagliacci –

Leoncavallo’s father was a magistrate). The first

part of our show is an imagined final rehearsal of

a traditional Commedia, still popular in Italy in the

1930s, interrupted by the declaration of WWII.

The action of Pagliacci takes place five years later,

as the theatre reanimates post-war and the theatre

workers attend a run-through by a reconstituted

Commedia company whose tangles of personal

relationships unravel as the show progresses.

Thus, both ‘Laughter’ and ‘Tears’ have the

construct of ‘play within a play’ – images of a

working theatre and the lives of the actors and

technical crew who staff them. This construct is

resonated by our foyer exhibition by the

Tonti Filipini Opera Company, formed during

the exigencies of WWI in Sydney by itinerant

Italian singers: art interrupted and reformed

across the tides of history.

Moreover, the antics of ‘Laughter’ are often

mirrored in the business of ‘Tears’, characters

juxtaposed and cross-referenced with the

Commedia traditions explored in a lighthearted

way. This rich web of correspondences

extends sub-textually to the Gesualdo Madrigal

sung as a lament when the ‘Laughter’ rehearsal

is interrupted; Gesualdo murdered his wife and

her lover in a fit of jealous rage and spent the

remainder of his life in penitential seclusion

composing astonishing music.

Both ‘Laughter’ and Pagliacci mirror each

other, their theatrical processes reflect the

richness of the theatrical and musical traditions

from which they draw sustenance. All their

action is mirrored in the idea of their placement

in the working life of an actual theatre in a

time when events of history intervened. The

theatre and life may “not be the same thing”,

according to Canio, but at the deepest level,

they are mirrors of each other. Mirrors which

distort and reinvent perspectives, but mirrors

which upon inspection provide glimpses of the

deepest truths of the human condition. Enjoy!

Richard Mills

Artistic Director & Conductor, Victorian Opera



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