This was an ambitious program comprising a world premiere of a concert performance of the third Act of Tchaikovsky, Angel of Music, an award-winning opera by the Australian composer Sean Peter Ross, then after interval, the Australian premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Coronation Cantata “Moscow” written for the celebrations for the crowning of Tsar Alexander III, and Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard Festive Coronation March written for the 1883 coronation itself. The large forces of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, with a line-up of some of Australia’s best vocal soloists, rose to the challenge and met it admirably, with some top-notch and often splendid singing and playing. Credit is due to forceful and effective conducting by Sean Peter Ross and Andrew Wailes, who always gives exemplary directions to his players and singers.
The concert started nearly 10 minutes late and began with an informative but overly lengthy introduction by Andrew Wailes (much of it read verbatim from the program notes). Before the main program the audience was invited to stand for the stirring Ukrainian national anthem, which was followed by a brief but effective unaccompanied Prayer for Ukraine written by John Rutter as a response to the war in Ukraine. This was sung beautifully by the choir with a sensitive dynamic range.
In the first half, Ross conducted his own piece that borrowed deliberately from Tchaikovsky’s own style and was therefore often reminiscent of his work. Ross based the libretto on correspondence between Tchaikovsky and his patroness and confidante, Nadezhda von Meck. The synopsis in the program notes helpfully described the stage setting for each of the scenes, so giving this unstaged performance greater context (although there was barely enough light in the auditorium to read the program). The six soloists each took the part of one of the protagonists (or in the case of Michael Petrucelli, multiple roles), with baritone Christopher Hillier and mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell having the lion’s share of the singing as Tchaikovsky and his patroness respectively.
Notwithstanding the nods to Tchaikovsky, Ross’s rich and romantic orchestration was imaginative and varied, ranging from lyrical passages from solo instruments or small sections of the orchestra (for example, the lovely opening passage with horn, soft shimmering strings and harp) to exuberant and gutsy sound from the full orchestra. There were some lovely references to Tchaikovsky’s own works, fully in tune with his orchestral colours. The five solo singers were in fine voice and their diction was excellent (the text was in English), although at times they could barely be heard as the orchestral sound was so powerful they were practically drowned out, even with mics. If fully staged one would hope for surtitles. Petrucelli could be heard more clearly – perhaps due to his articulation, the acoustic of the hall, the timbre of his fine tenor, or the fortunate tessitura. Russell impressed with suitably declamatory gestures as she sang. It was a pity that Adrian Tamburini had only a speaking role as narrator, as we missed the opportunity to hear his splendid bass singing. I found the amplification a little disturbing, with an occasional disconnect between the soloists’ voices coming from speakers and stage. Things would no doubt be better in an opera house, where orchestra would be in the pit and the conductor in front to control the balance.
The dialogue was not always convincing. In the death scene the philosophising took too long, with some slightly hackneyed exchanges between Tchaikovsky (Hillier) and his brother Modeste (baritone Andrew Jones). The text in the Epilogue seemed somewhat stilted – did it try too much to echo the Pushkinesque metre and rhyming scheme of Eugene Onegin? Perhaps it would have been wiser to heed Wailes’s opening words. Listen to the sound – don’t worry too much about the synopsis.
Meanwhile, the choir had been sitting patiently, and at last, more than an hour later, it was their turn to play the part of the St Petersburg Opera Chorus singing Tchaikovsky’s setting of Kheruvimskaya Pyesn, part of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, at his funeral in Kazan Cathedral. The unaccompanied choral contribution was excellent and touching. My feeling is that this final act of the opera could well have ended here, as the epilogue depicting the composer finalising his work seemed somewhat of an anticlimax.
After the interval came the orchestral Festive Coronation March where Tchaikovsky used the same Russian anthem theme from God Save the Tsar that he had employed in his 1812 Overture, and like the overture the march was triumphal, fully majestic and a showcase for the colours of the orchestra. The brass playing was terrific. So good to hear this confident and very competent orchestra in full flight again. One almost wished for a cannon or two. Then followed the Coronation Cantata for orchestra, choir and two solo voices (mezzo and baritone, sung with verve by Russell and Hillier). Here you could see how Ross’s opera was influenced by Tchaikovsky, as the latter’s orchestration is by turns lyrical and grandly full-bodied. Moments to remember include a wonderful passage with a single flute trilling over the players like a bird; a lovely duet between winds and brass; a terrific fugal background to Hillier thrown from double bass to cellos then upper strings; and a delicate pizzicato accompaniment to one of Russell’s ariosos, really beautifully done, with a near-perfect balance between orchestra and solo voice. The choir was by turns impressively triumphal and softly imploring and their singing was perfectly blended, especially in a unison passage for sopranos and altos. The grand finish with repeated declamations of Glory, glory, glory! was exciting and stirring, particularly so as Slava Ukraini has become a rallying cry for Ukrainians since their invasion by Russia. Four trombones and a tuba for a bass line – what bliss!
This was a satisfying concert even though it ran more than half an hour overtime, and there was a good-sized and appreciative audience in the Town Hall. Despite some last-minute absences and replacements due to Covid, it was a worthy return to performance for the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic after the 2021 and 2022 lockdowns. A final note: it would have been helpful if the program with its comprehensive notes had been available to download from the RMP website, as is the practice of other arts organisations.
Kristina Macrae reviewed “Tchaikovsky, Angel of Music”, performed by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra at the Melbourne Town Hall on July 30, 2022.