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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Myth of Progress - Singapore Lyric Opera's Mozart's Don Giovanni

"Eternal nothingness is fine if you happen to be dressed for it." - Woody Allen


Many have critiqued the Myth of Progress as a delusion. As Qohelet observed (before one even conceptualised modernity):

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever... The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.

Our case study today shall be the Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO).

Now, I haven't blogged anything about the SLO for a long time. Yet, Monday's performance almost moved me to tears, which motivated me to finally write something.

Here is a scientific study showing how the SLO has progressed over the years:

This is a relative scale which tries to partial out the relative merits of each opera, and only consider the SLO's performance
You know this study scientific because I fitted a trend line to my ratings, there's an equation for it and you can see the R-squared value. Note also the precipitous decline marked "Don Giovanni". Which coincides with Monday night's performance.

(Unfortunately the SLO website lists no operas before the 07/08 season (perhaps because they're ashamed of them). Luckily, I had written a pseudo-review of Hey Figaro!, which helped jog my memory)

Now, while I wasn't quite moved to tears, I was certainly moved to laughter: laughing AT the performance, not WITH it. This was only the second time I can remember being so affected (the other time was The Magic Flute - not coincidentally, also by the SLO - when the Queen of the Night, supposedly a specialist at the role, was less than adequate).

Let me break down the performance into several aspects to analyse just what went wrong:

Staging: I was quite impressed by this. It worked. There was nothing overly-elaborate, but then it's not a movie set. The damnation scene was particularly well-done. About the only grouse I had was the statue of the Commendatore in the graveyard: he was sitting upright with his legs stretched out in front of him. When was the last time you saw a funeral effigy posed so?!
Lighting: Usually I don't notice SLO lighting (which means it usually works: lighting is like the life support system on a spacewalk - you only notice it if something is wrong). However the spotlights were off a few times (perhaps I only noticed this because my seats were better this time)
Chorus: They were alright, having come a long way from the days when the average secondary school choir could do better. Incidentally I hear they're all expats: even the men.

Don Giovanni (Song Kee Chang): He was the strongest of the cast, with a commanding stage presence, though he unfortunately blasted with a shouting tone too often. This role suits him better than Papageno, where he wasn't naïve enough.
Leporello (Huang Rong Hai): He often channeled Rex Harrison. Not in his acting, but in speaking on pitch. For example in his opening number he spent several bars shouting (which gets across the fact that he is annoyed, but not in the proper fashion). He also didn't really come across as a snivelly servant, mostly because of his voice; with a voice too similar to Don Giovanni, the two were not immiscible.
Donna Anna (Nancy Yuen): She couldn't hit several high notes - this was evident in Non mi dir, bell'idol mio. Perhaps she is getting too old for this part?
Don Ottavio (Melvin Tan): Alright, though his acting wasn't very good.
Donna Elvira (Ee-Ping): She was on continuous vibrato. It was like singing into a fan with a chicken in her throat - she was either unable or unwilling to control it. And it was her entrance in L'ultima prova which made me laugh as it totally fizzled.
Zerlina (Cherylene Liew): She was alright (though something about her wedding dress struck me as strange as she looked like she had unnatural proportions - and the shoes didn't seem to help), but then it was the least demanding female soloist role.
Masetto (Martin Ng Hon Wai): Alright, though his voice was a little thin. But then it was the least demanding male soloist role.
Commendatore (William Lim): His singing was quite good, but he was the most underwhelming Commendatore I've heard, overpowered by Don Giovanni. His voice was just not booming enough, but you can't really blame that on him.

Orchestra: Usually SLO's brass has problems, but here it was not just the brass, but the winds and even the strings, which went all the way down the hierarchy of orchestra failure (usually the brass is the first to go wrong, followed by the bass, and the strings are usually alright). And the harpsichordist even managed to screw up the simple recitative accompaniment, with timing that was off and wrongly-played notes.

The ending was puzzling. I wouldn't tag this as a fault per se (which is why it's not under Staging above), but it was definitely ambiguous (which is not always a bad thing). Specifically, in the ending scene as the sextet sung:

Questo è il fin di chi fa mal; (This is how evildoers end)
E de’ perfidi la morte (All the wicked die)
Alla vita è sempre ugual! (as they have lived!)

We saw:

A portrait of what looked like Jesus Christ (what probably is the Crown of Thorns is visible).

Now there are two ways to interpret this:

1) Christ died as he had live, in contrast to Don Giovanni's libertine ways
2) Christ died as he had live, similar to Don Giovanni's libertine ways

I will leave the theological implications of this to another, but I am sure SLO has received and will receive complaints from those they offended (Hardwarezone has an interesting thread on it, with some seeing messages complimentary of Christianity and most people condemning trouble-making).

Probably the reason why I was especially disappointed by this production was I had read good reviews - and not all by Chang Tou Liang. Perhaps they slipped after Gala Night with the Prime Minister and President.

Going back to Qohelet, we can see that his observations ring true even after many millennia. Don't bother with this Don Giovanni - lots of better ones have been done before. Unfortunately by the time you read this the production will have finished, but I only watched it on Monday. Next time someone can buy me tickets to the gala, and I promise I'll get a review out sooner.

Aside: I am quite sure AWARE, following their tradition of the last 3 years, will make noise if Cosi Fan Tutte were staged here. They did it in the 90s, but AWARE wasn't so feminist then.

All the better, anyhow - next to Covent Garden it'll almost certainly be awful.
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