Current Issue #488

Festival Review:
Hidden Secrets at Ukaria

Steven Godbee
Marshall McGuire

For this year’s Adelaide Festival Chamber Landscapes series, the multi-hyphenated Marshall McGuire (musician/artistic programmer/and director of Ludovico’s Band) has focussed his visions on the theme of ‘composer as citizen’.

During the four-day, nine concerts weekend at the Ukaria Cultural Centre in the environs of Mt Barker, audiences are taken on a journey delving into the question of how artists and musicians can reflect, challenge and influence the issues and contemplations of our times. Music, with its ability to communicate the inexpressible, offers particular freedom. For one thing, messages in music can be less didactic.

For the opening concert Hidden Secrets, McGuire turns his attention to war, and in doing so has repurposed Limor Tomer’s programming for her 2014 Met Museum Presents series at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. The program pairs Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda with Lembit Beecher’s I have No Stories to Tell you. Each short opera tells a different tale of war. Monteverdi’s work is an act of battle in war and Beecher’s work–specifically commissioned by New York’s Gotham Opera as a companion piece to the Monteverdi–relates the personal experiences of the aftermath of war.

For the Met’s 2014 outing, the juxtaposition of the two works were envisioned as site-specific works for its Medieval Sculpture Hall. So, Adelaide Festival audiences can imagine here how the Met’s particularly informative visual backdrop might have aided their own comprehension. But without the luxury of costumes and set, McGuire’s illustrious baroque ensemble Ludovico’s Band and a hand-picked cast of local Australian opera singers set on the task.

Monteverdi’s 1624 work depicts – through the narrator Testo (Robert Mcfarlane) – a battle between a Christian soldier Tancredi (Samuel Dundas), and a Saracen warrior maiden, who is also his lover, Clorinda (Bethany Hill) in disguise. After he mortally wounds her, Tancredi baptizes her and dies in his arms. The entire substance of the tale rests on the narrator. Tenor Robert Mcfarlane seized the drama with as much dynamism that anyone could muster. Under McGuire’s direction, Ludovico’s Band offer a compelling account of battle scenes and emotional leitmotifs, with Samantha Cohen (Theorbo) and the ensemble’s principal violinist Lucinda Moon making particularly decisive contributions for the ensemble to follow.

In I Have No Stories to Tell you, Hannah Moscovitch’s libretto unfolds the story of Sorrel (sung with effecting emotion by Bethany Hill): a woman with post-traumatic stress disorder who returns from war unable to communicate with her husband, Daniel (a poignantly restrained Samuel Dundas).  The drama takes place in recitative styled conversations, which interject nightmares and flashbacks of memories. Beecher is a rising American composer whose fast-tracking opera career was recently signposted by his chamber piece Sky on Wings at Opera Philadelphia in 2018.

This Australian premiere performance of I Have No Stories to Tell you reveals Beecher’s ability to unfold a drama organically. His musical narration moves in a stealth like motion. He builds the arch of his drama with intricate cells of motivic materials that draw us into the emotional journeys of his subjects.  The result is, that by the end of the opera, we feel that we have experienced a slice of life in real time and we have insights into the richer inner world of the characters that he is portraying.

Hidden Secrets was performed at Ukaria on Friday 6 March

Xenia Hanusiak

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