Remembrance is Victorian Opera’s new work marking the centenary of the events at Gallipoli that we today commemorate as ANZAC. This work draws on documents of the period to allow the voices of the people involved to speak directly to us. From the songs of the period, and parodies crafted by the soldiers at war, to the letters to and from home, it also includes archival footage, and photographs as well as journalists’ dispatches.
The work is formed into six scenes, or chapters, and performed by a luxuriant range of singers and orchestral musicians. It was a very full stage indeed, with a very large choir – enough to fill all of the designated choir areas at Hamer Hall – an augmented Orchestra Victoria, and a range of soloists and ensemble members.
Rodney Hall – the writer and director of Remembrance – states in the program that “The research for Remembrance began with the discovery of irreverent versions of popular tunes of the day, as sung by the troops themselves. From that initial idea the scope of the show took its free flowing form – as an interplay of scenes ‘at the front’ with scenes ‘at home’”.
Indeed these songs contributed a great deal to the form of the show, inspiring the way in which the rest of the material is structured, as well as revealing things about the thoughts in mind of the soldiers and other participants in the war. There are the expected lavatorial and sexual variants of these songs, but there’s more to contemplate in these folk lyrics. For example, a most entertaining parody of “It’s a long way to Tipperary” expresses the boys’ excited anticipation of the sexual techniques they hope to pick up from some of the wilder girls on the foreign shores for which they are bound. There is also a pointed item calling into question the behavior and integrity of a commanding officer.
If Hall’s discovery of the songs contributed to the shape of the work, this stimulated a cinematic approach in Mills’ score. From the fireworks of the opening, through the setting of each scene, references to period musical styles abounded. Textures varied from the lushest of orchestral writing (the kind where I found myself musing “this is why you come out to see live performance!”) to the sparest and most delicate backings and use of small ensemble writing; from expressionist outbursts and abstract colours to a most authentic civic brass band sound, then to acoustic instruments used to produce sound effects for which a lesser imagination might use electronics.
The variety of textures helped to maintain interest throughout the piece – when you already know how the story goes, how it is told is what is thrown into focus instead. Here is where the depth in the musical setting as well as the staging and lighting excelled. The accompaniments of these songs varied in character, sometimes providing humorous orchestral commentary while the lyrics were sung yet at other times underpinning emotions with great subtlety. One especially poignant dramatic moment was set to string chords played without any vibrato, but with the chord voicings themselves creating a shimmer. The writing provides for genuine experience, studiously avoiding mawkishness or obviousness.
So fascinating is the mastery of styles in this score that at times I was unsure whether there was a period piece being quoted, or whether the item was newly composed to evoke a style. For example, the Ragtime scene showed society in a party deciding that fripperies such as dance crazes were to be put aside, to focus on the serious task of putting the world back to rights.
This is Opera for even the non-believer – the settings of text were always very clear in allowing the words to be understood, and there was masterly declamation of lyrics, yet with a wide variety of melodic material. This was also due in part to the exemplary clarity of all of the solo and ensemble singers, but also to Richard Mills’ truly masterly writing, with the work crafted to fit all of the performers, settings that framed the pre-existing pieces like separate artworks, yet integrated them into the texture of the show.
David Hobson as the War Correspondent functioned as narrator, largely written as a sung role constructed with much use of arioso, and spoken text. This was demanding, musically and dramatically. His performance was flawless, in both acting and singing. The Ensemble of younger singers saw each given their moment to shine in various solos and ever changing ensembles and dialogue. All performed with a delightful level of poise and musicality, but two in particular stood out for me – Nathan Lay and Elizabeth Lewis.
The chorus may have been massive, but it was tight and accurate. At times I wanted more consonants projected for clarity of text, but on the whole, it was a splendid sound. Orchestra Victoria was in terrific form – the kaleidoscopic range of colours and textures called for by Richard Mills’ score delighted the audience. The orchestra was also augmented with enough brass to make a very convincing civic band effect when it was called for – the familiar warmth of the full chorus of various horns, right down to the oom pah of the tuba.
Just occasionally I found the staging a little busy. I was not always sure where my focus was to be, particularly with the use of projections at the same time as other scenes were playing out. For the most part there were song lyrics projected for our appreciation, but I was left wishing they had been for a couple of other pieces as well.
The work is remarkably successful in stripping away the jingoism that seems to grow year by year around the ANZAC legend, particularly as we see it reconstructed and pressed into service for political purposes. Remembrance assembles the voices of the time with sensitivity to allow their truth to speak. The musical setting is remarkable for its accessibility and its enjoyable range of commentary on the styles of the time, while always underpinning the drama. It is opera that calls for no special tolerance in its audience. Remembrance is a piece which is clear to anyone with ears to listen.
The Melbourne debut of Remembrance was at Hamer Hall on August 13, with a regional tour to follow
Richard Mills – Artistic Director, Composer and Conductor, and Rodney Hall – Writer and Director.
Cast – David Hobson, Kate Amos, Carlos E Bárcenas, Elizabeth Barrow, Michael Edwards, Nathan Lay, Elizabeth Lewis, Emma Muir-Smith, Michael Petrucelli, Kiran Rajasingam, Cristina Russo, Matthew Tng, Shakira Tsindos.
Orchestra Victoria, Choir