Concert Review, Education, Life, Music

A Review of “Honestly! 3 Operas, One Hour.”

A review of “Honestly! 3 Operas, One Hour.”
L’arietta Productions
02 April 2016, 7pm
10 Square, Orchard Central.

The Gentlemen’s Island
Music by Joseph Horovitz (1925 – ), libretto by Gordon Snell

Window Shopping
Music by Chen Zhangyi, libretto by Jack Lin.

A Hand of Bridge
Music by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007)

Honestly! is L’arietta’s first full length production and oh boy was this a fun night! Opening with Horovitz’s 1958 opera “The Gentlemen’s Island”, Reuben Lai (Tenor) and Brent Allcock (Baritone) were an absolute joy to watch and listen to. Both artists were evidently comfortable in their comedic roles, with beautiful individual musical touches to their lines (turtle souPP and juuicy oysters anyone?). Do not however, mistake this one-act comedy opera to be musical fluff! Horovitz’s work while tonal in nature was nonetheless difficult music even though Lai and Allcock sang it with aplomb, making it sound a lot easier than it really is. The libretto was a cutting commentary on social classes and rules… two shipwrecked ‘gentlemen’ ridiculously refusing a rescue ride on ‘convict class’ and disassociating themselves from undesirable characters? While hilarious, the underlying message was certainly not lost on the discerning audience who chuckled at various other innuendoes in the text. While there were the one or two occasions when the duo’s phrase endings could be more together, it hardly mattered – Lai and Allcock’s engaging performance brought us all on a 30 minute journey that passed in the blink of an eye.

After a much too short 10 minute intermission (there’s good wine set up outside mind you!), Young Artist Award winner, Singaporean composer Chen Zhangyi’s “Window Shopping” was performed.

“Set in a high-end shoe boutique, the opera opens with the entrance of a woman in her mid-late thirties who wanders around the store with nostalgia, reminiscing about a part of her past with each pair of shoes she sees. As she lives through her memories, a younger woman in her early twenties marches into the store with life and vigour, as if on a shopping mission. (…)

The existence of the blue heels arouses different reactions from the two characters, one of dismay about a difficult past, the other about a bright future ahead where the sole (soul) of the shoe has a new story to tell(…)” (Source: Programme notes)

Window-shopping is a subject matter that resonates with Singaporeans-at-large. Ably performed by Angela Hodgins (mezzo-soprano) and Akiko Otao (soprano) the darker, brooding music of the older protagonist as sung by Hodgins was well-contrasted by a more upbeat, lively music brought to life by the bubbly performance of Akiko. The final juxtaposition of musical ideas that represent the two protagonists made for a very interesting fare for the ear. The two women never interacted nor addressed each other directly but eventually ended up moving their scarves in exactly the same manner at the very end. Are the two women really one and the same person? Schizophrenia? Future self lamenting the consequence of one’s choices on hindsight ? Regardless, this is certainly one opera that deserves a second (or third) hearing!


(From L-R): Brent Allcock (Baritone), Reuben Lai (Tenor), Akiko Otao (Soprano), Angela Hodgins (Mezzo-Soprano), Wayne Teo (Pianist)

A second intermission while unusual might have worked better though as a breather between the second and third opera. Although the stage crew were speedy, perhaps excited anticipation made the wait feel long despite the soothing vocals of Ella Fitzgerald setting the stage and playing from a gramaphone in the background.

It was exciting to finally see all four soloists coming together for “A Hand of Bridge” where each soloist is showcased with an arietta that reveals the inner (unfulfilled) desires of each individual of the two married couples which ranges from ‘a hat with peacock feathers’ to lying on the beach with ‘20 naked girls and boys’. The short 10 minute opera was a fun end to the evening.

Special mention must be made of the pianist Wayne Teo who negotiated the oft musically complex accompaniment with great finesse, providing excellent support for the soloists in his unobtrusive manner. The interludes between the recitatives and arias could afford to be more extroverted although I suspect this might in some ways, due to the very dry acoustics of the hall as well as the piano’s upstage left position.

Also deserving mention is Director Jameson Soh’s excellent staging, creative use of lights to create boundaries, shining shoes and having desert island rocks transform into shoe racks.

Going by the full-house turnout and audience reactions tonight, Singapore’s opera audience have definitely come of age – all three operas were works by 20th/21st century composers and rather far from the saccharine melodies and harmonies.

I saw (and heard) tonight, fantastic singing and music-making; excellent staging and use of lighting; programming was thoughtful, provocative and quality repertoire that certainly deserves to be heard more. What I love most was how L’arietta did not attempt to ‘dumb down’ the approach to such ‘difficult music’ and instead, let the music, libretto and drama speak for itself… challenging the audience to go beyond the well-known and conventional favoured by opera dilettantes! The inclusion of a Singaporean opera by Chen Zhangyi in L’arietta’s inaugural full-length production is also significant and speaks volumes about its direction and commitment to local composers and arts.

I have not enjoyed an evening at the opera like this in a long, long time and am personally looking forward to many more equally top-notch productions from this company in the future. Make no mistake, L’arietta is THE opera company to watch out for! Stay tuned!

Review by Albert Tay, a Singaporean composer-conductor who had just fallen in love with opera (again) after attending L’arietta’s outstanding production.