Tag Archive: Pinchgut Opera

An Awesome Trek Through the Cosmos with the Pinchgut Opera’s ‘Castor et Pollux’ by Rameau

Antony Walker conducts the Orchestra of the Antipodes for the Pinchgut Opera's Caster & Pollux with Andy McDonell's set in background. Photo by Simon Hodgson.

Back in the day, when music in the theatre manifested itself dramatically as dance and singing together — specifically ballet and opera — it did so in a myriad of different forms. Though we now call them opera-ballets (or even just operas), they can be difficult to imagine now that the two art forms are not only separate themselves, but tend to have separate audiences in many cities, sharing only their theatre in common. Conveniently, but unfortunately, the choreography has been lost in all cases and the works are revived as what we now call opera in the main. A dance of course is much more difficult to write down than music — though written music is not itself trivial, in fact, baroque composers had no desire to write down every note, and quite a bit of the creative act we now assign to composers was originally given to musicians and singers, ornamentation in particular, were and are very important and in most cases these improvisations were not thought to be written down since that would defeat their whole purpose of expressive dramatic spontaneity. These baroque operas, even the French ones of Lully and Rameau in which the dancing is particularly important, are first and foremost watched and listened to today as opera, even when some care, attention and time are given to recreating the choreography.

Vivaldi’s Griselda From the Pinchgut Opera of Sydney

Portrait of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) by John Butler Yeats (1839-1922). National Gallery of Ireland.

“Modernized Opera” can sound a little scary, especially if implicitly (mis-)associated with the term “upgrade” which came out of Hollywood and Silicon Valley almost simultaneously in the last several years. Perhaps this is why some people are so against it: it sounds as if their changing the notes to modern notes! Or completely reversing the tone of the opera in some sardonic way. Operas should not be modernized because they are old but because it makes sense to do so. The two terms in quotes shouldn’t be associated at all: the former is a style, the latter a consumerist slogan and a euphemism for dumbing-down. Bringing the action of the opera into the present either explicitly or in some less realistic or even abstracted way, where there is a motivation, can be a wonderful thing and be high art. When the imagery the designer and director create make poetical and musical sense in the way it unfolds through the piece, with its own internal logic compatible with that of the music, it is a wonderful thing and there is no reason modern images are necessarily excluded from this (there is the problem of literal contradictions in the libretto, references to “pastorella” or “boschi” or “selva” in an opera taken to the modern inner city, but those are a separate matter).

Haydn the Philosopher…at the Pinchgut Opera, Sydney

The Orpheus and Eurydice tale never really spoke to me, as it is now accepted in Ovid’s version. I was fed it over and over again through school, but always felt manipulated by Eurydice’s double death, which the storyteller designed to be super affective by describing their ardent love with so much intensity. It is really a quadruple death since the two lovers become so absorbed into one another, one’s death is the other’s; all pathos is destroyed in the end and the story goes beyond mere tragedy. The pivotal twist caused by Hades’ rule forbidding Orpheus to look back at Eurydice as they leave the underworld is arbitrary and puritanical; placing such negative importance and obsessively focussing on a simple and natural physical movement is a hallmark of Puritanism and conservative Catholicism. Also, the Eurydice in Ovid’s myth is a very weak character, only existing to be a victim. In fact, according to Robert Grave (The Greek Myths, 1960), Eurydice’s death and the the lovers’ rendez-vous in the underworld is a late addition to the myth of Orpheus, priest of Dionysus, resulting from misinterpretations of paintings depicting Dionysus’ harrowing of the underworld to rescue his mother Semele, a journey on which Orpheus accompanied him to charm Hecate and the spirits of the dead. Eurydice herself is a literary descendant of the more ancient queens, whose sacrifices were sometimes poisoned with snake venom. The barbaric Dorians who invaded Greece from the north several centuries after the fall of Knossus may have made many brutal additions to myths, like the double death. They imposed their patrilineal customs and changed the native myths to suit by depreciating women. The more ancient version does end with Orpheus’ death by Maenads tearing him limb from limb, but this somehow makes more sense, like Le sacre du printemps, on a mystical level, something which attracted Yeats, whose plays A Full Moon in March and The King of the Great Clock Tower were based on Orpheus’ Irish counterpart King Bran.

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