GEORGINA BENISON –
How much can your senses be assaulted in just one hour? And for how long can your children remain engaged? One hour is a perfect length to assail one’s capacity for artistic stimulation on a Saturday afternoon, leaving senses saturated before it is time for tea. This weekend the teams at the Royal Opera House Muscat presented a concert of animals featuring superb solo singers, the ‘Orchestra Opera de Rouen Normandie’, animated films prepared by the ‘Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation’ from Lebanon, and “Peter and the Wolf” LIVE projection from ‘BreakThru Films’, based in London.
As an aperitif to the main feature, the concert opened with songs inspired by animals, accompanied by the Orchestra under the baton of French Pianist and Conductor, Frederic Rouillon. First up was Andre Messager’s rustic ‘Donkey Duet’ from his Operetta, “Veronique”. It was beautifully and humorously sung by the French Soprano, Ludivine Gombert and the Italian Tenor, Lorenzo Decaro to a magical animation of shadow puppets, delightfully designed by Palestinian puppeteers from the APTF.
“Histoires Naturelles” is an early song cycle by the French composer, Maurice Ravel, each of the 5 songs is playful and highly insightful, set to poems by Jules Renard. The pompous ‘Peacock’ was performed coquettishly by Ms Gombert to a clever animation of shadow puppets on a bright landscape of castles and other birds.
She continued with the lazy ‘Cricket’, animated by cute line drawings, with lyrics helpfully supplied on the surtitle system. The words are enigmatically rich – not simplistic views of the animal kingdom by any means – and Ravel’s orchestration was lush and sublime.
His impressionistic use of the harp, (Constance Luzzati) and pairs of woodwinds and brass were evocative, with unusual appearances of tubular bells to invoke exoticism, and percussive ‘guiros’ to suggest the crickets’ song. The swan was serene and elegant, amusingly depicted in the animation backdrop, and sung with poise and romantic quality by the astounding Moldavian Soprano, Diana Axentii. It was her second appearance in Muscat and no less impressive than her recital last week. She concluded the cycle with her convincing impression of the fat, clumsy yet clever ‘Guinea Fowl’, after Mr Decaro described the cool and quiet ‘Kingfisher’, illustrated by coloured shadow puppetry projections.
The set concluded with Rossini’s deliciously wicked portrayal of two felines, with words to match their fights and purrs (Meow) in his celebrated, ‘Humorous Duet for Two Cats’ – sung with claws-at-the-ready by the two ladies. Behind were the silhouettes of two black cats mimicking the action. Ms Axentii and Gombert kept hilariously in character, and never broke cover by smiling.
The main course was introduced with typical ROHM ingenuity as Ms Lisa Navach, from Education and Outreach, called out from the back of the auditorium and walked through to join 3 school girls in a Box. They discussed the story of Russian composer, Sergei Prokovief’s 1936, “Peter and the Wolf”, describing the instrument ascribed to each animal and its characterised musical theme, as if they were old friends. Credit to their acting skills go to Sara al Taee, Julia El Bizri and 5-year-old Guilia Blasio. In 2006 BreakThru Films produced the Oscar-winning, stop-frame puppet animation film, ‘Peter and the Wolf LIVE’ specifically for concert venues with live orchestras, and it has been screened over 300 times since then. Directed by Suzie Templeton and produced by Hugh Welchman, it features exaggerated caricatures with big eyes and an imagined back-story with violent themes. This was screened with a nearly silent sound-track, and the Orchestra entered so subtly at the point where Peter gets out of his grandfather’s house with his pet Duck to play on the frozen pond and teach the Bird to fly. Prokovief’s action-packed score accompanied the film with vivid tonal colour throughout.
The performance was excellent: The String section, led by Jane Peters, played Peter’s beloved theme with exuberance and perfect intonation; Duck was beautifully executed by Jerome Laborde on oboe; ugly, awkward Bird was depicted charmingly by flautist Jean-Christophe Falala and old, wrinkly Grandfather was represented with sonorous ease by bassoonist, Batiste Arcaix. The fat Cat – a parody of herself – was personified in Japanese clarinettist, Naoko Yoshimura’s velvet chalumeau; the frightening Wolf by the Horn trio led by Cyril Normand and the nasty Hunter in this interpretation, epitomised by Philippe Bajard’s timpani rolls.
The audience fell into captivated silence, interrupted only by chuckles at the Bird’s burlesque efforts to fly or Cat’s impossibly feline antics. The conclusion of the story saw Peter bring the Wolf to the circus instead of allow the Hunter to kill him and capture the Hunter who had been so brutal in the opening sequence. In a final show of mercy for the beast, Peter releases the Wolf to freedom and to escape into a full-moon nightscape. It was an animal lover’s only solution, and children of all ages left the auditorium just a little closer to the animal world.