Master Peter’s Puppet Show / What Next?

artsHub – August 17 2012
By Heather Leviston
**** (4 stars)
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Victorian Opera’s latest offering – a double bill featuring Manuel de Falla’s 1923 work, Master Peter’s Puppet Show, and Elliott Carter’s What Next? from 1998 – is another successful tribute to Richard Gill’s programming philosophy of presenting rarely performed operatic works of significant merit. The pairing of these two operas is more than a matter of chance, since Carter’s explicit intention was to have his work performed after the short de Falla piece.

Starting the evening with Master Peter’s Puppet Showprovided an opportunity to engage members of the audience the moment they stepped into the hall. Master Peter himself stood at the door welcoming them, establishing a sense of theatre and the show within a show that was to come. The puppet show itself was played out on elaborate scaffolding that encompassed the whole stage and on huge, appropriately down-at-heel cloths, which were used as screens for the shadow puppetry.

As Master Peter, Carlos Bárcenas impressed with strong vocal delivery and his less than relaxed manner was in keeping with the troubles that were about to be inflicted on his show by a wayward narrator and an out of control Don Quixote. Lotte Betts-Dean sang the part of The Boy, who narrates Cervantes’ story, with a youthful, appealing timbre and emotional involvement. Her clarity and focus provided an anchor point for the flurry of activity around her. As she sang her recitative style account of the story, the puppets were comparatively still, only springing into full action during the subsequent orchestral passages.

Orchestra Victoria certainly did justice to de Falla’s masterpiece, with its complex integration of Spanish folk material and neoclassical style. The puppetry, created by director Nancy Black, was imaginative and intricate. Witty little details added to the pleasure. There was, however, the odd moment when the choice of action was questionable, particularly during the most beautifully serene orchestral passage, when the puppets were overly vigorous.

In the role of Don Quixote, Ian Cousins was vocally and dramatically secure as he ranged from would be lover of Dulcinea to knight errant. He managed to blend comedy with the stipulated sense of ‘nobility and dignity’ convincingly. His final heroic attack on the scenery brought the show to an end in a manner that was both fantastic and absurd.

If you were thinking that the children would love the rich experience of Master Peter’s Puppet Show and be able to cope with the surtitles translating the Spanish libretto, you would probably have second thoughts about bringing them after hearing What Next? On the other hand, a more sophisticated older child might find the Carter opera one of the most thrilling musical experiences he or she has ever had.

With the addition of banks of percussion strategically elevated at various places on the scaffolding, the debris of Master Peter’s Puppet Show became the scene of a car crash. The percussion announced the moment of impact and the players took on the role of the emergency service personnel, complete with lime green vests and, later, white hard hats.

A trigger for the opera was Carter witnessing a car crash in Rome and being shocked to see that the police were more concerned with the details of blame rather than the needs of the victim. The victims of this crash, five adults and a boy, are unsure of who or where they are. The central character, Rose, is dressed for her wedding and other characters are somehow related to her or each other. This absurdist, existential moment of crisis is played out through music and action that makes considerable demands on all performers.

Jessica Aszodi’s portrayal of Rose was nothing short of extraordinary. Carter saw Rose as a professional singer remembering snatches of her performance of the previous night. Much of the libretto plays with language; at the beginning of the opera, words build on each other in a stream of consciousness, and Rose ‘chatters’ her way through the whole piece with, at times, flights of operatic nonsense. Aszodi specialises in adventurous music and this role suits her down to the ground; her vocal range, musicality and theatrical daring furnished Rose and the performance as a whole with an electrifying energy. Essential to this energy were also splendid performances by the singers and members of the orchestra. Ireni Utley (Mama), Emily Bauer-Jones (Stella), Tim Reynolds (Zen) and Gary Rowley (Harry or Larry) are most accomplished singers and actors. All of these musicians negotiated a rich and complex score under the expert guidance of Daniel Carter with considerable finesse. The final moment has a wow factor that you will have to go and experience for yourselves.

This is a rare opportunity to hear two terrific works by two significant composers, performed by an excellent ensemble of singers and instrumentalists. You certainly won’t be hearing any more operas by Elliott Carter; this is his only opera and he is currently one hundred and three. Don’t miss it!