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27 May 2009

Rembrandt's Wife

Melbourne // VIC // 24.04.2009

Roxane Hislop, Gary Rowley, Jacqueline Porter and Paul Biencourt in <em>Rembrandt's Wife</em> Image: Roxane Hislop, Gary Rowley, Jacqueline Porter and Paul Biencourt in Rembrandt's Wife  
© Jeff Busby

The Victorian Opera commissioned and recently premiered the new chamber opera Rembrandt’s Wife at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne. Composed by Andrew Ford with a libretto by Sue Smith, this partnership and successful production resulted in a series of performances that were well attended and enthusiastically received.

The actual lives of artists are often as fascinating a subject matter as the artwork they produce, and this sombre but engaging examination of Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn’s life aimed to explore the themes and motivations behind the artist. Librettist Sue Smith (perhaps more widely known as a screenwriter, whose credits include the ABC mini series Brides of Christ and Bastard Boys) has produced a libretto that principally examines Rembrandt through the relationships he had with the three central women in his life.

Set in Holland in a repressed 17th-century Calvinist world of plague and poverty, the libretto and drama of the opera unfolds following the death of Rembrandt’s first wife Saskia (Jacqueline Porter) and recounts his haunting visions, loneliness and grief. Rembrandt finds temporary solace in a relationship with Geertje Dircx (Roxane Hislop), his son’s nurse, but he eventually betrays and institutionalises her on a false allegation. This allows him to pursue his final muse, Hendrickje Stoffels (also played by Jacqueline Porter), made famous in Rembrandt’s portrait of Bathsheba at her toilet (1654). Throughout this part of Rembrandt’s life, he is falling from fashion in the Dutch art 'scene' and struggling financially to the extent that he ends up selling Saskia’s gravestone. Morally tarnished and destitute, Rembrandt refuses to bend to the vicissitudes of the day, retaining an artistic defiance to bourgeoisie convention and respectability at great personal cost to himself and especially to those close to him.

Love, passion, conflict, jealousy and despair – these are the elements of opera, and what Smith’s libretto and Ford’s music provide is a clear narrative and musically attractive flow and cadence over the work’s 75 minutes for them to play out in. Smith’s libretto benefits from a screenwriter’s concise story-telling abilities, yet it is not without its poetic moments and mysteries. Historically interpretative choices have been made in order to shape the drama and reveal thematic undercurrents, yet remain subtle. Smith claims to be interested in such questions as ‘whether great art justifies bad behaviour’ The libretto manages to leave such questions thought-provokingly open for the audience to ponder.

Ford’s music marries well to the libretto and shows the benefits of a considered and successful collaboration process. The score is unashamedly accessible throughout, though tightly crafted and compositionally engaging. A nine-piece mixed ensemble was used and distinctive melodic and rhythmic interest was generated early on and continued through the performance. The colouristic scope of the music also did much to move the emotional layering of the characters forward, and there were moments of rich lyricism – particularly between Rembrandt and Saskia – that left a resonating impact. Of note were ‘The girl in the summer hat’ and the quartet ‘Death is walking in my shadow’. Near the opera’s end, his fall from grace complete, Rembrandt sings ‘his ox-life was big as the sky’ – a poignantly sad but beautiful moment. It has been some time since I have been able to distinctly remember melodic sections of music from a contemporary opera following its performance.

VO musical director and conductor Richard Gill deserves credit for the precision, vigour and depth of musical understanding brought to the performance. Among the performers themselves, Gary Rowley as Rembrandt managed to maintain a consistency of characterisation and vocal technique throughout long sections of the work, moving between intensity and tenderness. Other performances were generally solid and diction generally clear (this was put to the test when the surtitles went offline once or twice). Roxane Hislop as the betrayed Geertje and Paul Biencourt (performing a number of minor roles), were each noteworthy for injecting energy and individuality into the role of their characters.

The set design showed a clear attempt to physically reflect aspects of Rembrandt’s psychological landscape, though I remain a little undecided on its overall impact. The use of shadow and dim lighting certainly evoked the atmosphere of a Rembrandt canvas. However, mounds of ochre-coloured dirt representing Rembrandt’s paint palette, and an even larger mound of dirt representing Saskia’s grave, while giving the set a textured, topographical quality, risked looking a little amateurish. Furthermore, despite subtle shifts in lighting and positioning within the set, the sparseness of design perhaps remained a little too static throughout. That said, Talya Masel’s overall direction managed to draw all the design elements together in such a way as to prevent visual fatigue and maintain interest and adequate momentum.

New opera is rarely an easy beast, yet this first production of Rembrandt’s Wife offers much. The libretto and music in particular present a rich tapestry of emotions and themes whose threads have been carefully woven together. Perhaps great art does not exonerate bad behaviour, but the opera does leave one with a considerable degree of sympathy for Rembrandt. At the very least Rembrandt’s Wife manages to successfully engage the audience in its inner world, especially the mind-set of Rembrandt during his darkest days. What results is a memorable and lyrical new work, worthy of future performances.

Event details

Rembrandt's Wife
Sue Smith, libretto
Andrew Ford, composer
Victorian Opera, The Malthouse, Melbourne, Vic
24 April 2009 (premiere 18 April)

Further links

Sue Smith: Never confuse a genius with a saint - a blog on Resonate
Andrew Ford - AMC (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/ford-andrew)
Libretto of Rembrandt's Wife (www.andrewford.net.au/pdfs/rembrandtswife_libretto.pdf)
Victorian Opera (www.victorianopera.com.au/)


Subjects discussed by this article:

Anthony Lyons is a Melbourne-based composer and teacher.


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