|For opera companies, the designation “opera in three acts, for 8 singers and full orchestra” is terrifying. A smallish cast and no chorus, OK; but a large orchestra? Surely a recipe for budget blow-out. David Stanhope has worked long enough around Australian opera traps to offer a solution: a computerized score of virtual instruments. Dracula, his 100-minute opera, originated in a workshop performance in 1990; almost 30 years later, it appears in a splendid realization, largely self-funded and recorded under the composer’s supervision. The stellar cast, including such luminaries as Peter Coleman-Wright and Lorina Gore, sing Stanhope’s Britten-like score with lyrical and dramatic fervor, close-miked so diction is crystal clear. Likewise Gore’s evanescent performance of Stanhope’s Three Poems by Gwen Harwood, on the eve of her centenary next year. An impressive double CD package, this release should be a tantalising and relatively inexpensive calling-card for opera companies throughout the country.|
© Vincent Plush
The Australian August 17, 2019
For any composer who undertakes the major creative struggle of writing an opera, the next and perhaps hardly less daunting hurdle is to secure its performance or create some kind of forum (such as a workshop) to promote such an outcome. A completed, non-commissioned opera is first and foremost a labour of love and composers of such works have employed a variety of methods of stirring up interest in their progenies. Alban Berg paid to have a short score of his Wozzeck published to send to the managements of Central European opera houses, finally securing a premiere with the Berlin State Opera.
As composer David Stanhope observes in his liner notes to this disc, the premiere of a new opera is an expensive business, and the financial risks are considerable. Stanhope’s Dracula underwent a long gestation period of nearly a decade from its initial composition in 1990, through a workshop undertaken by The Australian Opera in 1991, out of which the work was revised and substantially completed in 2009. I first became aware of the opera at that time when Stanhope was investigating avenues for securing a premiere performance. By now a decade has elapsed, but the composer’s passion for his work has clearly not diminished.
David Stanhope is one of Australia’s most versatile and accomplished musicians. As well as a prolific composer he is a successful and well-recorded pianist, an accomplished French horn player and bass trombonist. He has enjoyed an extensive career as a conductor where he is equally at home in the symphonic and operatic spheres. His professional experience in conducting operas of the twentieth century, including the first Australian staged performances of Berg’s Lulu has doubtless provided him with invaluable experience in creating a full-length opera of his own.
This recording is a testament to David’s resourcefulness and determination in the promotion of his own work. The current operatic landscape has not been kind to the performance of new works, and in the absence of a staged performance materialising to date, the composer has created a possibly unique recording of his work, in which the orchestral element is provided by ‘David Stanhope and his Orchestra’, which is, in reality a digital programme which has been constructed using a sophisticated library of samples of individual instruments, including ‘single notes throughout the entire range of each instrument, or instrumental group’. Stanhope, the composer/conductor/programmer notes the complexity of creating an orchestral ‘performance’ in this way, though he clearly sees it as a viable means of experiencing his music, noting that the finer points of ‘balance or the flexibility of rubato’ can be manipulated without any limitations. As a composer/conductor, Stanhope is ideally positioned to create a performance by these means, steering towards an ideal musical result, he notes that the work of creating the recording ‘should be rehearsed in the same way a good conductor rehearses’. He clearly sees this process as a viable one for composers generally and is at pains to point out that such a recording is not meant to replace a live orchestra, but rather to simulate one in cases where neglected works are not being programmed. His enthusiasm for this medium is such that he notes that if the process contains any flaws, it ‘may be the absence of flaws!’ It offers the composer the chance to determine an ideal performance, unhampered by the constraints of time and cost that are ever-present factors in the performance of new works.
In a sense, Stanhope has created an ideal orchestral rendition of his opera, with matters of tempo, balance, dynamics and rubato all calculated with a precision that may well rival any live performance. Over this orchestral track the vocal parts have been added – a process that allowed multiple takes under studio conditions in order to create the best performance, without the cost of orchestral time mounting as passages were repeated. This process has also allowed Stanhope to assemble an extremely strong cast, featuring the likes of Jud Arthur (Dracula), Peter Coleman-Wright (Van Helsing), Barry Ryan (Arthur Seward), David Hamilton (Renfield) and Nicholas Jones (Jonathan Harker), along with a trio of vampires – Lorina Gore (also sings Lucy Westenra), Catherine Bouchier and Silvia Colloca (also sings Mina Harker). To gather such a distinguished cast together for a series of staged performances would be a considerable feat, but with the technology that this recording employs, each voice can be added individually in the studio, similar to the way the orchestra is created layer by layer.
This recording is of extremely high quality and presents Stanhope’s opera in a way that leaves the achievement of its composition in no doubt. Those listeners who might wish to contemplate the staging possibilities of this opera will find in the libretto an unusually detailed and extensive set of stage directions, making it possible to imagine the action that is suggested by the orchestral passages of the work. A bonus of this recording is two further works by Stanhope, also recorded with his ‘virtual’ orchestra – Three Poems by Gwen Harwood which were originally composed for Jennifer McGregor and are here beautifully rendered by Lorina Gore. The disc concludes with String Songs, which is an homage to Percy Grainger, not without a larrikin sense of fun (the final movement, Keel Row, is described as ‘a spontaneous folkdance for the musical and unmusical’). Stanhope has long been a champion of Grainger’s music and clearly sees himself as an heir to Grainger in the lineage of Australian music.
At one level, this disc is an enterprising and brilliant promotional tool – one could hardly imagine a better way of bringing their opera to the notice of potential programmers. It is also a fascinating document in terms of the new possibilities available to composers, in this instance pioneered by someone who is also an experienced conductor. In my view it is also a very worthwhile musical experience in its own right, a new work with an orchestral rendition of great accuracy and clarity, performed by a very strong cast, who one assumes is the composer’s ideal. This disc is strongly recommended to those interested in opera, Australian music, and further to those who are inclined to perform new Australian operas.
Loudmouth June 2019
He developed his “digital orchestra” by using sound samples from the Vienna Symphonic Library and East West Quantum Leap virtual instruments, along with some powerful software. The process draws on his skills as a horn player and concert pianist, conductor of conventional orchestras and composer, and the results are very impressive.
This is not the organic, textured experience you get from listening to a live orchestra — there are no fluffs or bum notes, of course, and everything is digitally smooth — but the difference is hard to pick even for the most experienced ear.
Stanhope now has three CDs out on the Tall Poppies label using this approach including one, Australian Premieres, which features symphonies by three lesser known Australian composers — George Marshall-Hall (1892), David Sydney Morgan and Peter Tahourdin (1994) — which have never been performed.
At the same time Stanhope released Australian Fantasia, a collection of his own orchestral works, some dating back to the 1990s, all unperformed with the exception of Olympic Fireworks, which was part of the 2000 Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony.
Now he has come up with an opera in three acts, Dracula, based on the Bram Stoker novel and starring an impressive cast of eight singers including Opera Australia regulars soprano Lorina Gore and bass baritone Jud Arthur, alongside stalwart baritone Peter Coleman-Wright. The double CD also includes Gore singing Stanhope’s settings of Three Poems by Gwen Harwood, and String Songs, a suite of four folk-based works dedicated to Percy Grainger showing hints of Aaron Copland, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Frederick Delius.
It’s not the first time Stoker’s irresistible mix of sex, violence and religion has inspired composers — there have been at least four since the Millennium — and Stanhope makes the most of his material employing a large orchestral palette with plenty of Gothic and romantic effects, and some fine vocal writing. The recording (TP262) is a world premiere and it is also the first time an opera has been presented with a digital orchestra.
Originally composed in 1991 titled The Un-Dead, Stanhope extensively revised and retitled it in 2009. Stanhope’s libretto is his own, although he uses dialogue and key episodes from the original novel. As Stanhope says his digital orchestra is not intended to replace the real thing or the musicians — “it records music that cannot presently be heard because existing orchestras do not play it”.
The other works on the double-disc set are a welcome change of pace after the operatic drama. The three poems were originally composed for noted Australian soprano Jennifer McGregor and feature a transparent and charming score, while the folk songs round off the program with a light and lively spring in the step.
© Steve Moffatt
The Wentworth Courier June 20, 2019