Purgatory – A Chamber Opera

A most exciting concert by the Sydney Wind Ensemble at the Mosman Art Gallery.

The Australian Wind Symphony in Opera. Image supplied.

The Orchestra dominated the Hall and for each piece there was a photo – often of Opera Australia productions – with the title of the appropriate opera. Musical Director and conductor Mark Brown welcomed us and introduced some of the pieces (and later, others were introduced by tenor Benjamin Oxley). Under Brown’s direction – his conducting is precise, rather finicky and restrained – the Orchestra was in inspired and in excellent form. For each of the works there was a photo or two projected on the screen stage left.

Purgatory – A Chamber Opera opened explosively with the overture Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla. It was a stirring performance and executed at a brisk rather breathless pace.

The bulk of the first half was the Australian premiere of Philip Rugel’s short chamber opera Purgatory. It was also the world premiere of the work in this particular orchestral setting. The two soloists were Judith Rough and Benjamin Oxley. Purgatory is based on Yeat’s play but features an Old Woman (Rough) rather than an Old Man, and her son (Oxley). We were transported to a country road where visions of an old house and a symbolic dead tree create harsh memories for the Old Woman. Are they already ghosts? Or it is her memories? A Poe-like tale enfolds of guilt, murder and revenge.

Oxley as the boy was menacing, caressing his dangerous knife. As the Old Woman, Rough was splendid, torn and tormented in black.There was a stormy, chilling opening and most effective use of red lighting to represent the burning house, and a most atmospheric photo of a dead tree.

Rugel’s score at times perhaps reminded me of some of Britten’s work. There is unexpected sudden violence and a wonderful evocation of thundering horses. In this hypnotic work the performances are stark and powerful and can give you goosebumps with a shattering, very tense ending.

In complete contrast was the Rossini overture to The Barber of Seville darting, sparkling joyous and much fun, which took us into interval.

The second half opened with a fiery relentless version of the famous Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner’s Ring Cycle in a shimmering, flowing performance. You could see in your mind’s eye the women on their flying galloping horses in the stirring, crashing music.

Next was the passionate, tempestuous Leibestod also by Wagner from his Tristan and Isolde; swirling and cascading, saturating the audience in a wall of sound. In some ways being a wind orchestra this actually had a rather jazz feel but was an almost overwhelming sea of passion. ​Then came the love scene from Puccini’s La Boheme. The singers were tremendous and we were dazzled by their lyricism and magnetic passion.

Oxley then introduced his colleague, baritone Joshua Rogers, who sang a darker, deeper version of Nessun Dorma (from Turandot). Rogers has a tremendous dark chocolate velvety voice but was perhaps a bit overwhelmed by the Orchestra’s volume. We then heard the captivating Spanish rhythms of Lara’s Granada, also sung by Rogers.That bought the concert to an official close but the audience demanded an encore and we were treated to a sparkling ,delightful version of the Brindisi (drinking song) from Verdi’s La Traviata led by the Oxleys.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Purgatory – A Chamber Opera 

The Australian Wind Symphony in Opera 
Sydney Wind Symphony musical director Mark Brown 
Cheryl Oxley, Judith Rough, Benjamin Oxley , Joshua Rogers 
Glinka – Russlan and Ludmilla overture
Rugel – Purgatory A Chamber Opera
Rossini The Barber of Seville Overture
Wager – The Ride of the V alkyries
Wagner – Liebstod ( from Tristan and Isolde)
Puccini – duet from La Boheme 
Puccini – Nessun Dorma ( from Turandot ) 
Lara – Granada
Encore- Brindisi from La Traviata ( Verdi ) 

Purgatory was for one night only at the Mosman Art Gallery 6 November 2016 ​

Lynne Lancaster
About the Author
Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.