Richard HickoxLeft - Richard Hickox, Music Director of Opera Australia. Cover - String Section Opera Australia. Photos - Branco Gaica

Orfful! (No, I'm having a lend.) 

Indeed, the Opera Australia chorus soared majestically, almost lifting the roof Orff (sorry, can't resist) the concert hall of the SOH; which, on the night, wouldn't have been a bad thing, since, as with the last time I sat, uncomfortably, on my less-than-supportive crimson seat, was stuffy & sweltering; how ironic Utzon's (apparently unwitting) evocation of seagoing vessels and the fresh, salty air that suggests should contain only the CO2 emissions of a (jet)set of Sydneysiders (for, I'm quite sure, that ought to be the collective noun, if it isn't already).

Thankfully, the atmosphere pervaded even that cloying, well, atmosphere. In fact, it almost transcended the abysmal lighting, a too-bright, yet still inadequate compromise, designed I assume, so that we could follow the 'lyrics', duly provided. It might be anathema to purists and, to some extent, even to my good self, but more light and, sometimes, shade, would've, or could've, almost unquestionably added a semblance of sympathetic drama, pathos and poignancy.

The evening wasn't merely replete with the Orffster's thundering opus, the 'classic' hit of last century, but came with 'bonus tracks', including the irrepressible maestro Leonard Bernstein's marvellous tribute to his religious & cultural heritage, the Chichester Psalms and Sam Barber's Knoxville. The former was an emotionally-charged and, thus, highly engaging revelation! 

The Australian Opera & Ballet Orchestra excelled, throughout, under the vigourous, self-assured baton of Richard Hickox. As did the various choral lineups; with enhanced, sentimental acclamation, rightly or wrongly, going to the kiddies. Each of the soloists was, at least, adequate, with a couple of standouts: vocally, diminutive boy soprano & Australian Youth Choir member Robert Adam, almost stole the night. Then again, despite his tender years, he's something of a veteran, having been a chorister in that esteemed group for over 5 years; touring Europe during '03/4; appearing in Germany, Austria (including a couple of days with the Vienna Boys'), The Vatican & England!

Fellow soprano Emma Matthews, also rang out, loudly & as clearly as the proverbial bell; not surprising, given a list of credits as long as her arm.

Tenor Kanen Breen swanned in & entertained consummately, in his all-white attire: all of it fitting, given his role as a roasting swan. For mine, nonetheless, his voice lacked cut-through, but not as much as baritone Michael Lewis who, although also a theatrical treat, as a drunken abbott, failed to fill the hall, with timbre faltering into husky flamenco tonality.

But then there's the music itself & who could fault it?

Bernstein was commissioned to write the Chichester Psalms hot on the heels of his abandoned Broadway career, soon after he took up the lofty, demanding position of Chief Conductor of the New York Phil. He was writing little, or nothing, at the time: composition a casualty of his furious 'conductivity'. But when the Dean of Chichester approached, the very same cleric who had previously, as it were, seduced Benjamin Britten, well, how was a go-gettin' guy like Leo gonna say no? He himself describes his '65 work as 'tonal, tuneful & somewhat square'. All of these & more, p'r'aps, but also & fundamentally, achingly beautiful, building on his one other major work from the early 60s, the Symphony No. 3 Kaddish, for solo soprano, adult and boys' choruses & of course, orchestra. The title alludes to the Hebrew prayer for the establishment of the Kingdom of God, which would probably come in handy right about now. Trust me: if anything could bring it on, it's this!

The first half was also fleshed-out with Barber's clean, elemental (rather than what harsh critic & composer Virgil Thomson describes as elementary) Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Opus 24. This work has heart and soul, no doubt, but I'm not sure it's temporal American idiom convincingly conveys those qualities for a 21st-century Aussie audience.

Intermission signalled the monstrous, breathtaking orchestral storm to follow, in the form of Carmina (interestingly, emphasis is on the first syllable, not the middle, as we might expect) Burana, for which the assembled were casually attired; (not quite Burana in pyjamas, but a little closer than you might think). If, on paper, it doesn't ring any bells, rest assured, when you hear the intro, you'll instantly know it, from advertising if nothing else. Yet not even the latter has, or could, diminish or defile the sheer, awe-inspiring power of the opening chorus in which fortune, or fate, is hailed as empress of the world.

The jury would seem to still be out, but it's quite possible Orff was at least a passive Nazi, which is of no consequence musically, but maybe historically. He certainly seems to have been evasive, at best, on the question & despite nay-saying, he clearly cultivated the Reichian aesthetic. Having said that, there's a passage which unashamedly 'borrows' from the quintessence of Jewish music. What could be more ironic, save perhaps, for the counterpoint of Bernstein's Psalmist stylings?

Opera Australia presents
Carmina Burana
Carl Orff

Venue: Concert Hall Sydney Opera House
Date/Time: 27 Mar 2007 @ 8.00pm

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