BWW Review: AMONGST THE TREES at Thomas Edmonds Opera Studio
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Saturday 28th September 2019.
Co-Opera offered a very different double bill under the umbrella title, Amongst the Trees, two works in sylvan settings. Arnold Schoenberg's (or Schönberg's) setting of Marie Pappenheim's libretto, Erwartung (Expectation), Op. 17, finally receiving its first performance in Adelaide, was coupled with Daphne, a brand new work by the company's artistic director, Josh van Konkelenberg, with a libretto by Fleur Kilpatrick adapted from Ovid's Metamorphoses.
Both works feature soprano, Bethany Hill, accompanied at the piano by van Konkelenberg and under the direction of Bronwyn Palmer, who also designed the set. Originally composed for a large orchestra, I looked forward to hearing the piano reduction of Schoenberg's score and finding how it dealt, in particular, with the large percussion section.
On the night, however, two extra pieces had been added to the programme, the first being the first song from Schoenberg's Vier Lieder, Op. 2: Erwartung, a short piece from 1899, setting a romantic poem by the German poet, Richard Fedor Leopold Dehmel in which a man contemplates the reflection of the moon in a pond. This opened the performance as a prelude to Daphne. Following the interval, van Konkelenberg improvised briefly with Expectation and Transformation in order to give the audience a taste of Schoenberg's style, leading into Erwartung, Opus 17.
Daphne is told from her point of view and was preceded by a warning that the content could upset some people and that, if uncomfortable, it was quite permissible to leave the venue. She is a river nymph who has sworn to remain chaste, her father, who had pressured her to give him grandchildren eventually accepting her wishes. Apollo pokes fun at Cupid/Eros, who makes two of his arrows, one to make the God of the Sun fall in love with Daphne, and one to make her hate and fear Apollo.
This results in Apollo pursuing her, and in her running desperately through a forest to avoid him. It is not love, but animalistic lust; a predator chasing his prey. Just as he is about to catch her, she pleads with the gods to save her from his lust, and they transform her into a Laurel tree. Apollo strips the tree of its branches and leaves to make himself a wreath.
To talk in depth about such a rich and complex work on one hearing is asking a lot. I would have loved to have had the chance to attend the second performance on Sunday afternoon, and to have had the time and opportunity to have looked through a copy of the score.
Both the vocal line and the piano accompaniment reflect the highly emotional content of the tale, amplified by being recounted by Daphne. The term Sturm und Drang came to mind. At the crucial moment, when Apollo is close to capturing Daphne, the piano alone takes over to describe in music her transition to a tree, with Daphne returning to tell of what Apollo did afterward.
Bethany Hill gave a powerfully emotive performance, from the strong and committed daughter, standing up to her father, to the terrified woman in full flight, trying to preserve her chastity and outrun the lustful Apollo, and crying out to the gods for help. She embraced all of the trauma in Ovid's narrative.
Schoenberg was born in Austria and later moved to America. He was one of the group known as The Second Viennese School (German: Zweite Wiener Schule, Neue Wiener Schule) which included Alban Berg and Anton Webern who, already composers in late Romantic style, took composition classes with him. His later focus on serialism, or twelve-tone music, broke with the past and led into the explosion of styles worldwide in the twentieth century. This work, though, has often been described variously as athematic, or atonal.
Written in 1909, but not performed until 1924, the composer said of this work that "In Erwartung the aim is to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour." A woman enters a forest at night, seeking her lover, but he is dead.
A century on, and having heard so much modern music, in many forms, from many composers, the shock of this radically different compositional technique piece at its first performance is hard for audiences today to understand. Without it, though, all of the modern music that we listen to in concerts today might never have been written. We could still be clinging to conventional tonalities, major and minor scales and harmonies developed by Bach and expanded by Beethoven. Schoenberg is, arguably, the most important composer of the 20th Century.
This particular performance, as mentioned, used a reduced piano score which was remarkably effective in dealing with the many timbres of the full orchestral accompaniment. It was also interesting in that Hill brought influences of the Romantic period to the work, another new aspect. Although it could be seen that she had memorized a good part of the difficult work, she sang with the score in hand, referring to it to ensure accuracy and avoid errors. The performance as so well received that, having left for the dressing room, the two performers and the director were brought back to the stage for extra bows when the applause showed no signs of abating.
This bold departure from the company's usual offerings proved to be a success and clearly pleased the audience. This bodes well for the regional tours.