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BWW Reviews: A SCORE TO SETTLE with Rita Costanzi

The harp is a unique musical instrument, obvious for its size and physical presence yet often subtle in its positioning and role in a score. Yet the sound of the harp can elicit so many emotions - from passion and despair to tranquility and serenity. When I think of the harp I immediately think of the haunting piece that is performed in Les Miserables just after the battle at the barricades. Titled The Sewers, the piece has a remarkable potency due to both the tragic narrative context in which it is positioned and the harps unavoidable soothing and reflective sound. A key part of this is what can best be described as repeated upward progressions on the harp that are poignant through their seemingly contradictory subtlety and necessity to the piece. In A Score to Settle world-recognised harpist Rita Costanzi presents a similarly contradictory tale of her professional evolution.

Rita Costanzi's show at Melbourne's Butterfly Club successfully drew out such inner beauty of the harp, with her cabaret show titled "A Score to Settle" offering a unique opportunity to experience the majesty of the harp being played on its own. With the show running for just over an hour, Costanzi takes the audience on a journey into the inner thoughts, fears, desires, insecurities, and ambitions of every harpist. By the end of the show the impression of the harpist is not of a tranquil musician, but rather one of a fiercely competitive individual who almost takes on a curse when they adopt the harp as their instruments of choice. Costanzi's narrative indicates that such a curse provides the harpist with both tragedy and triumph in their career.

There is no doubting Costanzi's often-conflicting belief in the role of the harp and the link this has to her overall love of music. Costanzi clearly communicates an unshakable belief in the inner beauty and incorruptible nature of music, with it being described as possessing an honesty that cannot be twisted. While this may be the nature of the music, the audience is left to wonder if the same can be said of the narrative that segues the scheduled performance pieces. This is a sometimes awkward tension that is evident from the opening moments and prevails through the story, as she describes herself as being a romantic and then regaling the audience with tales that are best akin to stories of failed romances. Whether it is hopes, dreams, or strings, the uncertain tone of the narrative gave the impression that it could all snap at any point in time.

A dramatic tone was established early on, with the spoken introduction describing a chain of seemingly apocryphal events that surrounded Costanzi's birth. These paint her birth as being some sort of Messianic arrival. The resultant challenge is to then gain suitable recognition and fulfill the prophecies (or in Costanzi's case, the predictions of the fortune teller). With grand expectations hanging over her since birth, Costanzi's show tells how she progressed and managed such expectations to attain success. Despite her apparent success and visions of grandeur there are seemingly some perennial sources of conflict for Costanzi, scores that are yet to be settled, symphonies yet to be completed. These provide the basis for some amusing story telling.

It is apparent that Costanzi's show is very tightly scripted and structured. This is to such an extent that her delivery of the comedic set pieces that serve as segues between musical numbers can sometimes reflect a clinical efficiency rather than cabaret reflectiveness. While the material is ostensibly humorous, I could not help but wonder if it's delivery was fully consistent with the cabaret genre.

At its heart cabaret is about telling a story and getting the empathy of the audience. If the audience does not buy in, or does not form a sense of endearment with the subject, then the performance becomes nothing more than a scripted set of songs, a concert of sorts. Cabaret is unique because it represents a most demanding performance task of personal reflection and sharing. The performer is the subject of interest and the music should compliment the narrative. Audience engagement, as well as the subject's intrinsic appeal are thus central to the success of the genre.

While there is no doubting the quality of the well-written material (despite a tendency to use a couple too many awkward references to G-strings) it's delivery tended to be one-way in nature. The audience was a passenger rather than a participant. As a result, A Score to Settle treaded a fine line that almost saw it too rigid for its cabaret format. It felt like a one-way show that would have benefitted through a greater willingness to ease the constraints of such a tightly scripted piece and engage more with the audience.

Some may view the preceding paragraph's observations as being on the periphery. Some may see them as unfair and insignificant, since this is a show by an internationally renowned harpist who's notoriety stems from her ability to play the instrument like few others. There is an element of truth to this sentiment - at its heart A Score to Settle is a performance involving beautiful music played on a most unique and heavenly sounding instrument. Each note Costanzi played hung in the air, in an almost overt manner, as the intimate surrounds of the Butterfly Club offered a rare up-close experience with the harp. Refining the segues and audience engagement factor would only aid in further elevating the show. The central element - the musical performance - cannot be faulted.

Once you hear Costanzi play the harp it is easy to understand why the harp has been traditionally depicted as the instrument played by angels hovering on fluffy white clouds. There is a natural beauty and hypnotic transcendence produced by the instrument that suggests nothing but peace, tranquility, and deep reflection. Costanzi's narrative may suggest that she has 'A Score to Settle' with the fateful path that led her to the harp. This path has seen her challenged in a number of ways, while also providing her with opportunities for professional triumph, as she makes her way through an as-yet unfinished score. On the evidence presented in her show Costanzi is winning her ongoing battle to create a legacy and mystery through music. There would be very few brave enough to argue that the consequences of Costanzi's musical fate have been anything but music to the ears.

WHEN: Wednesday 30 July - Sunday 3 August
WHERE: Butterfly Club, Carson Place, Melbourne, Vic, 3000
PRICE: Full $30, Concession $20, Group (>8) $18
IMAGE CREDITS: Photographs by Bill Blackstone

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