music / Canberra Symphony Orchestra Recital Series, with Julian Smiles and Dimity Hall, Wesley Uniting Church, Forrest, July 15. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE
IT is rare to see dramatic musical productions in Australia that also succeed as theatre. One need only recall Joan Sutherland, whose angelic voice was frequently paired with a stage presence like a dreadnought battleship coming into port.
The Song Company’s most recent offering “The True Story Of Guillaume De Machaut & Péronnelle d’Armentières” dispels the argument that singers can’t act.
Every element of this work, the singing, acting, semi-staging and sets, were equally compelling. Set in the time of the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death, Guillaume de Machaut’s “Le Livre du Voir Dit” (The True Story), relates the story of his affair with noblewoman Péronnelle d’Armentières through letters, love poems, songs and illustrated plates.
Perhaps the most eminent love poet and composer of 14th century France, Machaut’s Illuminated Manuscript, encompassing ballades, rondeaux, virelais and lays, is an exquisite precursor of the modern art book.
The Song Company has produced a beautiful program, with meticulous historical notes and facsimiles of images from siglum C, the first edition of Machaut’s text.
Everything about this production is restrained, intelligent and elegant. A seamless continuity is established between 14th century France and today by presenting both worlds together. The set, two French carpets, illustrated screens and high-backed wooden chairs is period. The dress is modern. Spoken texts are presented in Medieval French and modern English. The drama is never overwrought.
Artistic director and light baritone Antony Pitts, in the role of Guillaume de Machaut, was just as convincing an actor as a singer. His character created a sense of intimacy with the audience, a feeling of being allowed into a personal diary. Where the ensemble required direction, Pitt slipped easily into the role of conductor, never disturbing the drama.
In the role of Péronnelle d’Armentières, Roberta Diamond presented floating top notes and a consistency of tone across the range. There is a lot of talk, in this work, of Péronnelle’s beauty and “goodness” and Diamond’s character embodied that without ever seeming weak or ineffectual.
The Song Company’s attention to detail permeated every aspect of their performance. Totally unaccompanied throughout (except for one trumpet blast using a rolled up piece of paper), the eight voices saturated the Street Theatre. And the pitch never dropped – not once over the entire 80-minute work.
The ensemble demonstrated subtle understanding of 14th century modal counterpoint, through artful control of weighted passing notes, delayed suspensions and terraced dynamics. Elongated pauses and ritardando underscored the importance of cadence and white space.
As an ensemble, The Song Company produced melisma as weightless as violin jeté and the same cedar tones as gut-stringed instruments or wooden recorders.
The Song Company evokes Machaut’s love affair with gentle dramaturgy and impeccable musical technique, breathing new life into a 14th century love story.