The Tell-Tale Heart by Dennis Vaughan and Edgar Allan Poe. Produced by Melbourne Opera and the Castlemaine Festival. At the Wattle Gully Mine Shed. April 2, 2005.
Well, here's a performance to stun Melbourne Opera and VicOpera doubters into awed silence. Take it from me, cos I'm one of those doubters... even if I am rarely silent.
In a tin shed at a working mine a few kilometres west of Chewton, near Castlemaine, Melbourne Opera gave a full-blown performance of brand new "gothic horror for tenor and orchestra" by Dennis Vaughan on Saturday night. (The second -- and final -- performance is this coming Saturday [April 9, 2005].)
Vaughan is a double bass player -- an associate principal -- with Orchestra Victoria. About the meanest thing I can say about the opera is that the music is a bit too likable!
For his libretto, Vaughan uses Edgar Allan Poe's creepy short story in which a man describes how he coolly decides to kill an old man because of his "Evil Eye". The eye, he tells us, of a vulture.
Like many modern readers, Vaughan appears to have made the mistake of not taking Poe's work seriously enough. In 1843, a journalistic-style first-person narration was revolutionary. And this is almost a quarter century before Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov pleaded temporary insanity for killing an old woman with an axe.
Vaughan's music is a bit too tongue-in-cheek. It's just not terrifying. There are roiling references to Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries in the opening bars, a nod to Hitchcock's best composer Bernard Herrmann, some ghostly whisper music on the small but highly effective squad of strings (two violins, viola, cello and bass)... you name the trick, Vaughan uses it. He even breaks out the harpsichord. It's more like a Simpsons Halloween special than a horror show.
By contrast, the sung line is overly agitated. It's only at the bitter end, in the story, where the narrator really loses the plot.
This is, however, an interesting way of distinguishing between the narrator's mental state as he perceives it -- like all good psychos he doesn't know he's a psycho -- and his mental state as it appears objectively. The music is wide-eyed and does the finger-twirling "cuckoo" gesture at the narrator.
James Egglestone is the lone singer in this hour-long opera. He has a soft, boyish tenor that kicks easily and effortlessly into falsetto. Egglestone is unusually good at singing English, it's rare for our language to sound so natural and clear. And he's a strong physical actor.
As I say, this is a production to silence Melbourne Opera's critics. What a shame, then, that so few of them were there. No-one from the state or federal governments or arts ministries; no-one from the panel entrusted with the task of deciding which opera companies are worthy of dividing the spoils of public funding... They might have been part of the earth-shaking, stomping ovation that greeted this world premiere.
This review was published in the Herald Sun on April 8, 2005.