Saturday, 20 June 2015

Opera in Miniature – Continuum Ensemble – Kings Place, 19 June 2015

Paul Hindemith
Paul Hindemith: Hin und Zurück (performed in English as There and Back)
Helene – Anna Dennis
Robert – Andrew Rees
Auntie – Martha Jones
Maid – Gemma Summerfield
Doctor – Barnaby Rea
Orderly – Edward Grint
Wise Man – Norbert Meyn

Ernst Toch: Egon und Emilie (performed in English as Egon and Emilie)
Emilie – Donna Bateman
Egon – Martin McDougall

Kurt Weill: Vom Tod im Wald
Barnaby Rea (bass)

Kurt Weill: Mahagonny Songspiel
Jessie – Anna Dennis
Bessie – Martha Jones
Charlie – Andrew Rees
Billie – Norbert Meyn
Bobby – Barnaby Rea
Jimmy – Edward Grint

Continuum Ensemble
Conductor – Philip Headlam

The opening concert in the Continuum Ensemble’s enterprising ‘Swept Away’ weekend exploring the music of composers forced out of their homelands by the Third Reich concentrated on opera. Not the large-scale ambitions of the late Romantics and Expressionists, but instead work by the exponents of ‘New Objectivity’, who aimed to do away with earlier emotional excesses and bring a new reality and sense of discomfort to their art – in essence what we think of as the ethos of the Weimar Republic. One particular strand of exploration in opera was the short, snappy, satirical miniature: here we had a 30-minute first half to a concert that encompassed two complete operas, including platform reconfiguring.

Hindemith’s Hin und Zurück, written in 1927 as a kind of experimental study for his full-length ‘Zeitoper’ Neues vom Tage, is based on the conceit of a dramatic palindrome: a husband and wife argue over a letter from her lover and he shoots her dead; a Wise Man appears and suggests there’s no reason why life shouldn’t be lived in reverse, from death to birth; so the first scene is replayed in reverse until marital happiness is regained. It’s all over in about 12 minutes. Even in this static concert performance, it made a telling impact, with enough little witty touches – Auntie’s sneeze (her only audible contribution to the drama), the postman’s knock on the door – to make the most of the ‘there and back’ symmetry. Kings Place’s rather full-on acoustic somewhat masked the impact of the singers’ diction, especially when Hindemith’s wind-and-piano orchestra played at full pelt, but Andrew Rees and Anna Dennis as the couple conveyed the drama’s swift changes of light and dark in their singing as much as their on-the-spot acting. It was unfortunately impossible to make out the the tenet of Norbert Meyn’s crucial, harmonium-accompanied intervention as the Wise Man.

Ernst Toch’s Egon und Emilie, here receiving its UK premiere, is another 12-minute miniature, this time based on a brief text by Christian Morgenstern, subtitled ‘Not a family drama’, that sends up 19th-century opera. A diva fails to encourage her husband to perform a five-act drama with her, so she goes off in a huff, leaving her husband to give a spoken explanation for his silence along the lines of who wouldn’t want to remain silent when faced with such a shrew. It’s effectively a coloratura scena for soprano, and Donna Bateman performed her role magnificently, storming around the stage in her frustration and projecting the often angular vocal line with precision and care for the words (sung here in English). Actor Martin McDougall’s mute response was treasurable and his final speech was expertly delivered. (Toch, whose music went from international acclaim before the Third Reich to obscurity afterwards, was the main focus of this weekend of concerts and I’ll aim to write more about him in a later review.)

The concert’s second half was given over to the more familiar sounds of Kurt Weill, though his chilling Brecht setting Vom Tod im Wald – a spill-over from the Berliner Requiem – is a rarity in itself and was sonorously and movingly sung by bass Barnaby Rae. Mahagonny-Songspiel, Brecht and Weill’s 1927 ‘try-out’ for their full-length opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, alternates numbers for male quartet and soprano/mezzo, including the famous ‘Alabama Song’, and conveniently shared the cast members of the Hindemith, at last giving voice to Martha Jones’s rich mezzo, in duet with Anna Dennis’s crisp soprano. Tenor Andrew Rees led the well-blended male ensemble – shades of the barber-shop close harmony that colours Weill’s near-contemporary Seven Deadly Sins.

Throughout the evening, the mainly wind-based instrumentation of the Continuum Ensemble (two violins featured just in Mahagonny) came across with power and panache, even if some of the subtlety of timbre seemed gobbled up by the acoustic. Philip Headlam’s advocacy for this fascinating genre of 20th-century music – conveyed with the perception and enthusiasm of his direction – deserves every commendation.

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