Thursday, 2 November 2017

PURGATORY / L'arietta / Review

Namiko Chan Takahashi's portrait of
Reuben Lai as The Old Man
formed the cover of this production

54 Waterloo Street
Tuesday (31 October 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 2 November 2017 with the title "Creepy enough for Halloween".

Halloween night was an apt occasion to witness local opera company L'arietta's production of Gordon Crosse's one-act opera Purgatory (1966), a musical setting to W.B.Yeats' disturbing play of the same title from 1938. Unlike last year's macabre barrel of laughs that was Operacalypse Now!, Purgatory was deadly serious, but made topical by director Eleanor Tan's transforming an Irish saga of familial decline and degeneration into a Peranakan one. 

The hour-long opera benefitted from the “immersive experience” offered to its audience, by means of acting, dance and portraiture in addition to purely musical values. Before the actual opera began, listeners were ushered into a Straits Chinese decorated ante-room where the back-story was played out. Well-heeled Nonya girl has an affair with a lowly commoner, but dies after giving birth to a son, who grows up to become the troubled Old Man in the opera. 

Singaporean tenor Reuben Lai must have gained a headful of white hair singing the Old Man, for this was the most exacting and convincing portrays of descent into psychosis even winessed on the local operatic stage. Jack Nicholson in Kubrick's cult horror movie The Shining readily comes to mind.

Opposite him, Malaysian tenor Peter Ong was the blase and not-so-innocent Boy, whose Oedipal antagonism with his father was clearly palpable. This uneasy chemistry between both stage veterans was excellent. The only female presence was provided by a 6-member women's chorus, representing the Old Man's dead mother and spirits of the dead who observed, reacted and commented on goings-on like some spectral Greek chorus.

Crosse's music was tonal but dissonant, much in the manner of Benjamin Britten. The chamber orchestra led by Aloysius Foong comprised cello, flute, keyboards and percussion, the latter providing ominous hoof-beats which spelt doom besides ratcheting up the ante to heart-stopping highs.

The set design by Grace Lin was darkly evocative, dominated by an arc of wooden slats from a burnt-down house under the shade of a haunted banyan tree, which revealed a hung skeleton during the latter stages. Only the taped Balinese music that accompanied random village scenes before the opera came across as misplaced.

It is said that the sins of the father are visited upon the children, and it was the premise of the Old Man (who as a 16-year-old had killed his own father) to stop that endless cycle of death and free his mother's soul from purgatory. The purging of his emotions and downward spiral, so vividly played by Lai, would lead to another death in his hand, but could two wrongs ever make a right?

Short as this opera was, there was no shortage of dramatic tension and one was led on a noose to its bitter denouement. This was so effective that one individual in the front row was seen to make convulsive stabbing motions all through to the end. If that does not give one the Halloween creeps, nothing else will.  

Purgatory plays till Sunday 
at 54 Waterloo Street. 

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