The Cunning Little Vixen
Pacific Opera / Sydney Youth Orchestra
New Hall, Sydney Grammar School
Saturday 3 October
There were lots of reasons to see this show. First, Pacific Opera – a great outfit, doing exciting work giving early career / younger singers opportunities in a supportive environment. Second, Sydney Youth Orchestra – the pick of the next-big-things, playing music they clearly loved. Third, the music. Janacek, to be precise, and his iridescent score. Fourth, the chance to see a new venue in action. Fifth, avoiding the footy. No, but seriously, I could go on. There were many reasons. Why then did I leave feeling ever so slightly conned?
Perhaps ‘conned’ is too strong a word. But a combination of all these reasons was both the making and the undoing of this show.
Let’s take the venue first. New Hall is Sydney Grammar School’s latest no-expense-spared facility, an elegant hole in the ground with raked seating, lighting rigs and a drop dead gorgeous sandstone backdrop to remind you that you are actually underground, three storeys under the basket ball court in Yurong Street. It’s a magnificent performance space and I hope that Pacific Opera will have more opportunities to make use of it. However, the decision to place the orchestra in the middle of the stalls, with a catwalk around the front, had a string of knock-on effects.
Sightlines from the balcony were poor — we couldn’t see what was happening on the front half of the catwalk. More significantly, there were issues with acoustics, balance and sound. With the 80-piece orchestra bang in the middle, playing Janacek’s full-blooded score, the singers were never going to be heard, hence amplification for all principals. A pragmatic decision, but one which compromises an opera performance on many levels, and not only because the sound reproduction was not always ideal.
Opera has always been more or less about the power of the human voice, whether it is an intimately crafted whisper or a full-throated blaze, and I confess I’ve never experienced a sound system which can reproduce all the nuances and complexity of an unamplified voice. (I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise, honest. Just haven’t been, yet).
Then there is the story-telling aspect: operatic narratives are often (usually?) complicated, and the combination of singing rather than speaking, distance from the stage and diction make a complicated story even harder to follow. When you also add in amplification, so that your ears are getting their primary information from a speaker system rather than character singing, it gets even more complicated. Which character is actually singing? Who is saying what? And with no surtitles in this performance, fitting the words to the character was tricky.
I could now go on about how the amplification didn’t do the young singers any favours, and maybe, given Pacific Opera is a showcase for young singers, I’d be justified but, in the end, I thought they came out pretty well. I *know* I want to hear Alexandra Flood (Vixen) sing again. Anything. Just tell me when, where. Likewise Alexander Knight (Forester). Remember that name. I thoroughly enjoyed Jessica Harper’s blowsy Chocholka and Carli Partridge’s mournful Dog. It was harder to assess the full complexity of Christopher Curcuruto’s voice, although he powered through a tough set of roles with a lively and versatile stage presence. And Sarah Wang as the Fox was a natty foil to the Vixen, musically and dramatically.
The work of the chorus did get lost in the general welter of sound, which was a shame because I suspect they sang rather well. They certainly acted well, throwing themselves into Michael Campbell’s busy production. Vixen is a gift for designers – a wonderful parade of cartoon characters who can be animals or humans or something in between. A small budget and huge imagination here resulted in an enchanting menagerie of deftly drawn characters. The only risk was that in the big production numbers — the weddings, in particular — the action sometimes detracted from the music.
Which brings me to Sydney Youth Orchestra. This was one of the most successful aspects of the production. Indeed, to a certain extent, they dominated, sitting in the middle making these wonderful sounds while the action fizzed around on the edges. Young musicians — singers or instrumentalists — always seem to bring a special edge to a performance, especially when they are discovering new repertoire. It feels like you are literally discovering it with them. And it helps when the leader of the exploration party is someone with the experience of Alex Briger, who put aside any artistic flamboyance in favour of rock-solid semaphore, well-chosen tempi and what felt like the ability to look in multiple directions at once.
Thinking about the performance a few days down the track, I think what most impressed me the sheer ambition of the project, and what it says about Pacific Opera’s ongoing role in the artistic ecology of Sydney and beyond. The logistics for this, their biggest ever production, were considerable. There were compromises. There were problems. They didn’t solve them all. But it was a huge achievement, for the entire ensemble — principals, chorus and orchestra alike — and one which gives me the hope that I long for, but don’t always feel, for the future of opera.