New Zealand Opera’s bold production of Eight Songs for a Mad King had it’s Auckland Arts Festival opening on Wednesday night in the Ellen Melville Centre. Penned by the enfant terrible of British composers, Peter Maxwell Davies, this piece from 1969 explores the decline of Mad King George III. Based on snippets of Handel’s Messiah and King George’s actual words and explored over 30 minutes, it is scored for a baritone and chamber ensemble.
General Director and Theatrical Director of the piece Thomas de Mallet Burgess laid a decisive calling card on the table. This modern piece opens the door to new audiences and could reshape the traditional view of opera. On Wednesday night the theatre door was well and truly broken open and the audience led into a powerful evening.
From the get-go it’s not the usual. Half the audience is seated around a board-room table and the other half is wearing headphones and on the outside looking in. At half time the scene is reset and the audience switches, getting a chance to have a different perspective. The monodrama is fully visible to the general public and the street sounds weave into the performance at times. Sometimes passers-by imitate operatic warbles, at other times they scuttle past, embarrassed by the bizarre scene of madness within.
Brilliant stroke to move the royal figure into a modern power figure. The mad king has become the CEO pushed to breaking point and we witness his decay. Baritone Robert Tucker delivered a hugely brave and committed performance, creating a relatable yet destroyed character. Vocally it’s beyond extreme, and even though there wasn’t a lot of bass range available, Tucker’s beautiful baritone gave us an extraordinary personality and a remarkable falsetto hysteria.
Here is a production that treads on the fragile ground of mental illness. And we are forced to look at it close up, encircling the board-room table on which the mad lord is screwed to breaking point….”but” he cries “I am not ill, I am nervous!”. Indeed what is mental illness, can we assume to know it from the outside. And when the audience is positioned outside the glass, that is exactly the point, we examine his illness as if he is a specimen in a jar.
“He veiled the mirror so as not to see himself passing by …. poor fellow, he will die howling” …. How uncomfortable and yet how important to have theatre that makes us think. At the end of the performance there is a stunned silence within, it almost feels obscene to applaud.
Framing the whole piece was the excellent Stroma New Music Ensemble led on Wednesday night by assistant conductor Timothy Carpenter. Maxwell Davies’ instrumentation superbly creates the grating strings for the King’s tension, the nostalgic wisps of sweet harpsichord, even the elemental intoning of didgeridoo. A beautiful vignette with flautist Luca Manghi in a wincing scene of the King’s abuse of power. Keyboardist Rachel Fuller became the prim smiling queen of the King’s fantasy and percussionist Jeremy Fitzsimons whipped the King from the room.
Without giving too much away, there are other inspired touches - the key to the kingdom was a swipe card and the royal elm trees became office angle-poise lamps. At the peak of the piece the King’s gorgeous cocaine-induced dance offered welcome humour and Tucker’s squeezed out “Comfort Ye my People” was a stunner. But that sweet comic moment only made the climactic knock-out more shocking. Go see NZ Opera’s surprise package, this is theatre you need to experience.
Radio 13 thanks and credits Jeff McEwan for the images in this review.