English composer Peter Maxwell Davies was a radical spirit in 1969, exemplified in his Eight Songs for a Mad King — a stark, confrontational dramatisation of King George III's mental meltdown and a half-hour virtuoso turn for a baritone who can hurtle from Handel to hysterics in a flickering second.
The Auckland Arts Festival performance marked the launch of director Thomas de Mallet Burgess' 2020 New Zealand Opera season. Robert Tucker was the King, unleashing soul and psyche, around and on a lengthy board table; a stressed corporate leader, surrounded by us — an audience of stake/shareholders.
This classic operatic mad scene was fired by six fine players from Stroma New Music Ensemble, whose encyclopedic assemblage of special techniques complemented Tucker's mood swings and lurches.
Hats off to flautist Luca Manghi for delivering cool, unruffled birdsong while his space was being seriously invaded by the raving monarch and also to young conductor Timothy Carpenter, keeping the madhouse on (and occasional off) the beat.
Davies searched out the sounds of extreme duress in this score and there were many frissons and quite a few jolts, as Tucker yowled against the wail of high-pitched clarinet or catapulted a decorous classical aria into shrieking mayhem.
Yet throughout this sometimes harsh cabaret, the uber-energetic baritone projected an intense humanity until he sloped offstage, muttering, to the whip of a pursuing bass drum.
The double performance — one inside, the other from outside, wearing headphones — ingeniously sustained an entire evening from just one short work as well as adding new and thought-provoking context.
Distanced outside, we realise that a message scrawled on the window is very much for us, as are the last song's opening lines. With plate glass separating us from the drama, our sightlines punctuated by the occasional passing scooter and bicycle, illuminated by a few roving headlights, it was a moving and eerily topical experience.
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With five more performances, this is a must-see.
What: Auckland Arts Festival and New Zealand Opera, Eight Songs for a Mad King
Where and when: Ellen Melville Centre, until Thursday, March 19
Reviewer: William Dart