Nestled mid-week in the frenetic seven days of the Auckland Writers Festival, Man, Sitting in a Garden was a monumental achievement.

Witi Ihimaera's intricately etched portrait of a man seeking emotional and spiritual refuge in the changing seasons of his garden was illuminated, with dash and in detail, by composer Kenneth Young.

At just under an hour, it was a massive challenge for Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and soloist Jared Holt. A challenge magnificently met by both, even if some dramatic impact was sacrificed through the tenor's understandable dependence on a printed score. And too often our eyes were drawn upwards for surtitle assistance to appreciate clever turns of script.

It was a test too for conductor Tecwyn Evans, skilfully guiding his musicians through a vast panorama of scenes and styles, from peaceful pastoral and boisterous bluster to clustering dissonance and Straussian opulence. All of which, thanks to Young's composerly acumen, grew from and complemented the libretto.

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Ihimaera's writing is beautifully poeticised but, in essence, he catches here an emotionally cauterised Kiwi bloke, propping up his life with a dependence on the scientific. It takes the shocking deaths of his family to get him examining the bigger issues of humanity, sublimating his grief in his garden.

Photo by Karl Maughan, Ohinemuri Crescent, 2017, reproduced with kind permission.
Photo by Karl Maughan, Ohinemuri Crescent, 2017, reproduced with kind permission.

Effective musical signposts along the way included an ironically jaunty folksong and a haunting brass chorale towards the end, tellingly shaded with ghostly violins.

Few of our composers have Young's orchestral skills, here used to stunning effect in various punctuating interludes.

A panel discussion afterwards, chaired by Thomas de Mallet Burgess of NZ Opera, hinted at the possibility of further performances. The "opera" word was used and certainly a full staging might then incorporate the Karl Maughan garden paintings prominently featured in this event's promotional publicity.

Yet, one-act operas are notoriously difficult to programme and NZ Opera has an almost moral duty to bring as many singers as possible into its stagings.

What: Man, Sitting in a Garden – part of the Auckland Writers Festival
Where: Auckland Town Hall
Reviewed by: William Dart