03 April 2017

Four Notes Good

It's been one of those marvellous weekends in Singapore which was literally bristling with music.  Setting the International Jazz Festival to one side, the place seemed abuzz with music.  Les Arts Florissants kicked it off on Thursday night with a magnificent selection of Monteverdi Madrigals, jazz legend Tony Makarone got the lunchtime crowd tapping their feet at the Asian Civilizations Museum on Friday, and that same evening saw a trio of Brahms Trios performed by various faculty members of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  Saturday at the National Gallery saw not one but  four different chamber performances, while in the evening Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony should have dominated the musical weekend, had it not been for the fact that The Philharmonic Orchestra was simultaneously beginning its Beethoven cycle.  And to top it all off, last night saw a performance of contemporary Asian choral works at Victoria Concert Hall, a review of which will appear in this blog tomorrow.
Not for the first time, those of us charged with charting the Classical Music life of Singapore through the pages of the Straits Times were stretched beyond breaking point and had to miss some out.  Nevertheless this morning's edition of the paper seems to carry a near record-breaking number of reviews, including one for a performance which, not just in its quality and its originality, but in its global implications, deserves to be reprinted here.
L'Arietta is a small professional company dedicated to making opera accessible through informal, not to say, casual presentations in out-of-the-way venues.  Which is not to say these productions are not of the very highest professional standard, and so good was their performance this weekend, that it demands the widest possible publicity.  What makes this of global interest is the presentation of an opera which, for some inexplicable reason, has never been caught by the radar of popular contemporary opera.  Tom Johnson's The Four Note Opera strikes me not only as one of the cleverest, but one of the most dazzlingly original and entertaining of all minimalist operas.
Here's my review from today's Straits Times;

In previous productions, L’Arietta have done opera without lots of singers or lots of instruments.  In this production they did it without lots of notes. Tom Johnson’s Four Note Opera is, as the name suggests, based on just four notes.

 Occasionally other notes did creep in for special effect, but this hour-long production involving one piano, four singers – plus a supernumerary bass – and four dancers serving as the singers’ Alter Egos, was neither musically tedious nor tiresomely repetitive.  And that was down to the sheer ingenuity of Johnson’s score and Mary Ann Tear’s inspired direction.

 So well cast were the principal singers that it seemed as if the opera had been conceived with them in mind.  In fact The Four Note Opera dates from 1972, when American composers were obsessed with minimalism, and while as a show it was side-splittingly entertaining, as a piece of music it was devilishly clever.

 Angela Hodgins as The Contralto (“actually I’m a mezzo-soprano” was one of her more memorable lines) was absolutely fabulous.  Bitchy in her relationship with The Soprano, oozing charm in the ensemble numbers, and nothing short of amazing in her unaccompanied aria.  Required to drift out of tune and then back in again, she performed this feat with such impeccable sure-footedness, that when Aloysius Foong, the insouciant but razor-sharp musical director, matched her final note on the piano, the resulting applause was so loud that, I am reliably informed, you could hear it the other side of Aliwal Street.

 As The Soprano, Akiko Otao exuded endearing charm while conveying a convincingly grotesque and egotistic diva.  Her double aria, sung slowly to “show my lyricism” and again quickly to “show my virtuosity”, was not just a masterly display of vocal control, but also a matchless example of exquisite comedic delivery.

 The two lead male roles, Brett Allcock as The Baritone and Leslie Tay as The Tenor, were each supremely commanding vocally.  Allcock was a marvellously poised presence, astonishingly precise in his incredibly complex aria involving lots of unexpected pauses and scripted false entries.  Tay brought wonderful richness and passion to his role as the frustrated Tenor denied his top C by a score which had no Cs in it of any type. 

Only Thomas Manhart, making a cameo appearance as The Bass lacked vocal presence, singing a line way below his range.  But he more than compensated for this lack by his gloriously melodramatic stage presence.

 Tear’s monochrome staging and lighting took its cue from the piano placed centre stage.  Unfortunately, the blue hair of one of the excellent dancers was a distracting spray of colour in an otherwise uniformly black-and-white visual production.

In every respect, this was a brilliant show, and one which will long stand out as a high point in the chequered annals of Singapore opera.

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