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Only Mad North By Northwest

Eight Songs for a Mad King

New Zealand Opera

Until 7 March

Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

A few years back, the Festival of the Arts featured a circus show in which the audience got to see the performance twice, once from the front and once from behind. It was a clever device, allowing the audience to piece together two linked but distinct narratives, like connecting two halves of an apple. Eight Songs for a Mad King is a version of the same device that is at once simpler, as the audience sees essentially the same performance twice, but also much more disturbing, given the subject matter and the effects created.

Peter Maxwell Davies’s opera has one character, The King, and a small lineup of players. Derived from the songs the British King George III tried to train his bullfinches to sing, it is a short – roughly 40-minute – but profoundly disturbing meditation on a psyche undergoing severe stress.

Here, it takes place in the new Royal New Zealand Ballet dance space in the car park of the Michael Fowler Centre. The performance runs twice over; half of the audience is inside the building and half outside, and they swap after the first run-through.

I was outside for the first run, and initially sceptical about the effect. It’s an ingenious idea, admittedly, especially for an opera that is essentially about mental health: situate (part of) the audience at a distance, to throw their attention back on themselves and what it means to watch, from afar, someone undergoing serious mental distress. The music being played inside was also transmitted via headsets provided to the audience outside, ensuring a full audio experience.

It wasn’t clear if the whole thing was going to fly, though. The clear plastic wall through which we watched the performance was broken up into multiple panels, and filled with reflections of the Michael Fowler Centre behind us. To begin with I struggled to make out Robert Tucker as The King, or to understand what was going on.

But as the performance unrolled, the effect began to work. It was a little like watching someone have a breakdown in an apartment across the road from us, somehow almost sadder and more pathetic for being at a distance. Even the cars roaring past on the quays to our left seemed to suggest the wider world’s indifference to those who struggle. Any more distancing and the whole thing would have flopped, but the concept hung together, just.

After a break, we were ushered inside. This time round, we could of course see everything clearly. The set was revealed as a long boardroom table, with huge black anglepoise lamps mounted in it. And we were, in contrast to the first run, very, very close to the action, with a full view of Tucker’s impressive performance, as manic spills of enthusiasm alternated with howls of despair.

The score demands incredible efforts from its soloist, requiring quite an array of sounds and singing techniques over five octaves. Tucker, whose musical ‘centre of gravity’ is clearly his rich baritone, nonetheless sounded exceptionally good right across the range. This was largely matched by his acting, which displayed an impressive ability to move swiftly from the hardest of sneers to the softest of sobs. If there were one or two moments where this threatened to descend into scenery-chewing, they were minor blemishes.

It was a compelling performance, overall, one in which Tucker would launch himself onto the boardroom table, cavort, pop pills, lay his hands on the musicians and even smash one of the instruments. The musicians themselves, the Stroma New Music Ensemble, coped exceptionally well with a demanding score, especially flautist Luca Manghi. One of the most enjoyable elements of a very odd score was its immense variety, referencing as it did some classic opera setpieces, brass band marches, the aria ‘Comfort Ye’ from The Messiah, and even lounge jazz. All this was thoughtfully played and impeccably conducted by Hamish McKeich, at home as ever in the world of twentieth-century music.

A couple of minor complaints could be raised: the electronic harpsichord sound was rather tinny, and The King’s wardrobe made him look more like a high-class hotel concierge than a monarch, even a distressed (or pretend) one. But all this was small beer, in the context of a brilliantly thought-out and constructed performance.

© Scoop Media

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