Review: Toby’s ‘Vow’ delivers with integrity

opera / “The Vow”. At The Playhouse, October 8-9. Reviewed by Clinton White

The Vow - The angel arrives (Sarahlouise Owens) - Photo by Hou Leong

The Vow – The angel arrives (Sarahlouise Owens). Photo by Hou Leong

“THE VOW” was the first outing for Tobias Cole’s new company, Handel in the Theatre. 

If judged by the audience reaction, it was a very successful one. There were a few lessons to learn, but its already highly polished approach gives confidence for the future.

Adapted from Handel’s last oratorio, “Jephtha”, itself based on the biblical story in The Book of Judges, chapters 11 and 12, “The Vow” is a staged version set in the grey drabness of the eastern bloc.

This contemporary treatment worked well, especially with Cynthia Jolley-Rogers’ excellent lighting.  It also provided a dramatic contrast for the appearance of the Angel (soprano Sarahlouise Owens), dressed in a dazzling sequin-clad costume with wings represented by a glamorous white fur bolero jacket.

There was no set to speak of, except for a few chairs and a raised platform at the rear of the stage.  This was used to good effect by some of the soloists, especially the Angel, except from a vocal aspect.  The sound became lost in the fly-tower and did not project well into the audience thus losing clarity and power.

Handel's quartet of distress - Christopher Richardson, Andrew Goodwin, Christina Wilson and Tobias Cole - Photo by Hou Leong

Handel’s quartet of distress – Christopher Richardson, Andrew Goodwin, Christina Wilson and Tobias Cole – Photo by Hou Leong

A small chamber orchestra, conducted by Brett Weymark, the much-lauded music director of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, provided masterful accompaniment.  Located on-stage, the orchestra was very much a part of the action, even interacting with the singers.

Even if somewhat unbalanced in its registers (there were just three tenors), the 45-strong chorus, drawn from Cole’s former stamping ground, the Canberra Choral Society, was beautifully expressive and worked extremely well to produce a nicely-balanced sound, even when the choristers were scattered across the stage.

Hamor (Tobias Cole) and Iphis (Jacqueline Porter) - Photo by Hou Leong

Hamor (Tobias Cole) and Iphis (Jacqueline Porter) – Photo by Hou Leong

All the soloists immersed themselves into their roles, with the hapless daughter, Iphis (Jacqueline Porter), giving an especially moving performance, particularly in the second half, when her fate became clear.  (But don’t worry, the Angel saves the day; unlike the biblical story, “The Vow” does not end in tears.)  The marvellously mellifluous voice of mezzo, Christina Wilson, as Storgè, Iphis’ mother, was captivating and sensitive as always.

Tenor, Andrew Goodwin, singing Jephtha, and baritone, Christopher Richardson, singing Zebul, Jephtha’s brother, also acquitted their roles with assuredness and character.

But above all was Tobias Cole, who played Hamor, Iphis’ lover.  Cole’s enunciation was crystal clear from beginning to end. Despite a single, momentary lapse of memory for his lines, which Brett Weymark prompted with consummate professionalism, Cole sang with great conviction, beautiful phrasing and moving expression.

“The Vow” is quite long, with many recitatives and arias and not many choruses. But its drama and storyline keep things going along quite nicely. What it does require is a high level of musical integrity and this was delivered to the full in this very fine performance.


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