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April 7, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Good Angel, Bad Angel

NIMBY Opera, Gryphon Theatre, April 1, 3, 4

New Zealand composer Lyell Cresswell, currently residing in Scotland, was able to combine his twin heritages in his one act opera, ‘Good Angel, Bad Angel’. The source – Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “Markheim” – presented its eponymous hero with a stark choice: to obtain the riches of a recently murdered man, at the cost of cooperating with a sinister Mephistophelian figure, or, resist temptation and face discovery and execution. In Ron Butlin’s libretto adaptation, the existential dilemma is honed further: kill another victim (the deceased shopkeeper’s innocent daughter), or himself.

The performance was attention-gripping from the first tentative yet tense pizzicati on the violin (mimicking the clocks that were to plague Markheim’s conscience), to the hushed, bowed iteration of the same rhythm at the end. The burden of expressiveness was often carried by the exposed line of an unaccompanied instrument or voice, as with the clarinet shrieks that marked the murder of the shopkeeper, or soprano Frances Moore’s melismatic, keening lament for the dead man. This sparseness was far removed from Cresswell’s characteristic orchestral climaxes, but closely akin to the violin solo Whira, his tribute to the cellist of Sarajevo.

A drama-opera, ‘Good Angel, Bad Angel’ employed a mainly modernist musical language. It was not lacking in lyricism, however (especially in the Daughter’s tuneful refrain, “Christmas Day is my true-love’s day”), and even featured some post-modernist quotations (“The Coventry Carol” haunted the score). Light relief was provided by two Christmas revellers.

The cast (of three, all either current or previous students of the NZ School of Music) and musicians (violin, viola, cello, with a clarinettist – mostly on bass) under conductor and NZSM graduate Justus Rozemond, were uniformly good. Craig Beardsworth, as Markheim, was the most impressive. Hadleigh Adams took on the challenge of two major roles (each with a distinctive characterisation and vocal register): the shopkeeper, and the ambiguous (demonic? angelic?) visitant. As the daughter, Frances Moore was, by turns, fetching and vulnerable – no more so than when threatened by Markheim (this was the one time when verbal clarity was swamped by raw emotion: inclusion of key phrases in the synopsis would have been helpful here). Director David Lawrence made imaginative use of the Gryphon Theatre’s space in this, the NZ premiere of this recent work.

In its combination of adventurousness and consistent quality of presentation, the enterprising, locally-based NIMBY have nimbly upstaged the more lavishly funded opera offerings of the International Arts Festival.

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