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The Song Company: True Love Story

by Heather Leviston

Antony Pitts seems to be one of those exceptional musicians gifted with musical talent, a spirit of adventure and enormous energy. As Artistic Director of The Song Company, one of his multiple roles in the Melbourne International Singers Festival was to direct The Song Company’s fascinating presentation, True Love Story. Described as “An autobiographical mediaeval French Romance in time of War and Plague as told by the Poet and Composer Guillaume de Machaut” he played the role of Machaut in addition to setting the scene, reading Machaut’s poetry in versions of mediaeval French and English translation and singing as part of an ensemble that claims to be “Australia’s Premier Vocal Ensemble”. Those attending this concert would have been happy to go along with the description, such was the exceptional quality of the singing.

Machaut is not exactly a household name. Born in Rheims around 1300, he was, however, considered to be the major French poet of his time and an important composer. A lifespan of over 75 years helped. He managed to live through the turmoil of the Hundred Years War and a devastating outbreak of the Black Plague in the middle of the century. During the last decade of his life he supervised the copying of his complete works into several manuscripts, including one that took centre stage in red-bound facsimile form for this performance. Le Voir Dit(True Love Story) includes letters, love poems, songs and illustrations recounting the three-year romance between an aging Machaut and 19 year-old Péronnelle d’Armentières, whose fan letter to him initiated proceedings – or so they say. Antony Pitts’ abridged version of this tale courtly love was presented in an effective semi-staged version devised by Leonie Cambage.

Props were kept to a minimum with all rearrangements between and within the five scenes being executed smoothly; deployment of chairs, screens, letters and portraits of Péronnelle, whose dress was transformed from the blue of fidelity to Machaut’s anxiety nightmare of faithless green, provided interest without being at all intrusive. Costumes for Machaut and the ladies only vaguely suggested the period and the male trio were dressed for the most part simply in trousers and shirts in a range of muted colours. All interactions between the singers were well rehearsed and focused attention on the intricacies of the story and music.

Because of the full sound and variety of vocal textures produced by the eight singers, it was sometimes difficult to believe that everything was sung a cappella. This was accentuated by several voices acting as instruments in support of others conveying the storyline at a number of points in the narrative. In addition to at least some of the members of the ensemble having perfect pitch and all singing with pure tone and finely judged blend, an impressive feature of the performance was that much of the music was sung from memory. In particular, Antony Pitts made convincing shifts between enthusiastic announcer and lovelorn poet/composer, reciting much of Machaut’s poetry from memory.

For an audience unaccustomed to music from the Middle Ages there is a danger of it beginning to sound overly repetitive, but even the long final piece with its little rhythmic kicks of syncopation was given such a buoyantly energetic reading that it sounded fresh right to the very last note. Many humorous touches and some unexpected insights into the anxieties besetting an older admirer made for an entertaining and engaging evening.

This was a virtuoso performance without one weak link. Roberta Diamond (Péronnelle) and Chloe Lankshear (The Messenger) both possess pure, resonant soprano voices and lively personalities. Philippa Dracakis (Péronnelle’s sister) and Carmel de Jager (Lady Hope – where would Courtly Love be without Hope?) both made fine contributions as soloists and members of the ensemble, as did the male trio: Owen Elsley, Mark Donnelly and Andrew O’Connor.

Jonathon Welch, School of Hard Knocks, and other organisers of the Melbourne International Singers Festival deserve a big Bravo! for inviting Antony Pitts and The Song Company to this celebration of vocal music.

Reviewer Heather Leviston saw the The Song Company at Deakin Edge on June 8, 2018.

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