The Tell-Tale Heart (State Opera South Australia)
Z Ward, now organized by the National Trust, is a former building that once housed insane criminals. This may initially seem like the most inappropriate place to stage an opera, but when that opera is the setting for Edgar Allan Poe’s chilling short story, The revealing heart, this is ideal. The claustrophobic ensemble comprises a rather small and sparse cellular structure built in a hallway of whitewashed bricks and concrete. This setup offers audiences a voyeuristic take on Poe’s nameless and trapped narrator / murderer as he vent his inner paranoia and rage. Dennis Vaughan, who directs the piece, contained his eloquent group of 13 musicians in two ancient catacomb-like cells stacked on top of each other, adding to a keen sense of claustrophobia. (Remember that Poe himself suffered from this fear.)
Premiered in 2005, Vaughan’s play, a dramatic monologue rather than an opera in itself, extends Poe’s four- or five-page macabre tale into an hour of gripping theater. The work is closer in structure and style to the disturbing Schoenberg Erwartung or Maxwell Davies Eight songs for a mad king, although this is music much more focused on the key. Add in what are often 19th century harmonies, the open-mindedness of American modernists like Copland and a lot of Bernard Herrmann, and you get an idea of ââVaughan’s sonic universe for this work. He created an almost psychedelic kaleidoscope of appropriate orchestral colors and ambiance. Musically, this work ingeniously uses a sawtooth accompaniment with short repetitive phrases alternating between 2/4 and 3/4 beats. Perhaps more effective in the small orchestra were the winds (flute, clarinet and soprano saxophone) which often interlock with or double the vocal lines. Perhaps here the conductor needed to control them a little because they sometimes drowned out the voice of James Egglestone, but that could be due to the too reverberating acoustics of this place. The other notable musician was Raymond Lawrence on keyboards who provided not only the piano, but Addams Family-like the harpsichord, not to mention the theremin-type electronic sounds (Dr Who meets M. Herrmann), which blended brilliantly as part of Vaughan’s overall orchestral color.
The only singer is tenor James Egglestone, whose identification with his role is very demanding and complete, both musically and dramatically. He in turn is very restless, ultra-confident and boastful, rocked by a false sense of mental security to panic and mental abandonment. Of course, the opera is littered with madness from the coloratura of Lucia and Lady Macbeth to Alban’s futile and alienated Everyman, Wozzeck. And all these characters demand from the performer vocal mastery, adaptability and virtuosity. Here Egglestone, who had created the role, was a vocal tour de force, zigzagging with powerfully delivered confidence (often with great beauty), then slipping effortlessly into a weird and highly effective falsetto. Dressed simply in an outfit associated with the 19th century convict – a simple collared shirt, high-waisted flannel pants and breeches – he completely inhabit his small space, throwing himself at bars and climbing walls for a minute, prostrating himself on the floor there. next, then effortlessly set up the table and chair – the only accessories in the cell other than a jug and a cup. Vaughan created, and Egglestone inhabits, a very fitting spooky and apparently hallucinogenic world that is associated not only with Poe but with the writer ETA Hoffmann and with composers like Berlioz and Saint-SaÃ«ns.
Lighting (Ben Flett), direction and general direction (Hugh Halliday) were all in the hands of skilled and well-chosen hands. As a live experience, The Tell-Tale Heart was very effective and a unique experience, especially when staged in such a suitable environment. (Z Ward is a place more generally reserved for nocturnal ghost tours.) Such is the intensity and efficiency with which he takes hold of the psyche, I don’t think this mono-drama would allow for effective repeated listening in as a record and as such, it should be administered in small live doses.
State Opera South Australia performs The revealing heart at Z Ward, Glenside, Adelaide until July 4th