|Vampires have plagued popular culture for decades, but not often penetrated the realm of classical music. Australian composer David Stanhope’s opera fleshes out the bloodthirsty villain’s finest tale. Dracula opens with an orchestral blast, before weaving an unnerving narrative. The feel is classically dark with moments of demented dissonance; the title character is performed by bass Jud Arthur, his thick timbre sitting well among a team of singers, which also features impressive soprano Lorina Gore (as victim Lucy and as a vampire) and mezzo Silvia Colloca (Mina Harker and a vampire). “Ah, time for love,” the vampire women sing, turning quickly from otherworldly trance to intense obsession.|
The notes include libretto with stage directions, which allows one to visualise the opera while reading along (though the singers’ diction is clean). It’s explicitly sexy, violent, and insane, drawing directly on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. Stanhope himself writes: “It is hoped that this recording will demonstrate the opera’s potential for successful stage presentation.” In my view, it’s reached that potential – and while Dracula is certainly not a new tale, this contemporary realisation would be enormous fun should it be staged in full.
The album also contains a premiere recording of Stanhope’s revised Three Poems by Gwen Harwood; and the composer’s folk suite String Songs – a work dedicated to and worthy of Percy Grainger.
Limelight November 18, 2019
Composer David Stanhope describes the virtual "orchestra" that he used to make this recording: it's comprised entirely of digital samples rather than live musicians. The composer layered and manipulated those samples using sophisticated music-sequencing software and thus, with enough skill and countless hours, realized a fully synthetic orchestral recording. You can understand the need for this kind of procedure; the enormous cost of hiring a large symphony orchestra to record an unproduced opera can be prohibitive, On the other hand, consider the moral consequences of using a synthetic virtual orchestra that puts instrumentalists out of work. At this rate, there could soon be no live music!
There – now we can turn to the work in question. In creating his Dracula, Stanhope has condensed the story (and conflated two characters), but the dialogue in the libretto is taken verbatim from the book. The musical treatment is grand and gothic, with a sophisticated musical language that is often harshly and ominously dissonant yet clings to tonality almost as a hat-tip to the classic origins of its story. (Bram Stoker's novel Dracula was published in 1897, right on the brink of the twentieth century.) At times the opera is plodding, but otherwise Stanhope's fertile creativity and ability to sustain tension, along with uniformly excellent work by a well-cast group of singers, keep you engrossed. The repetition of certain musical motifs provides guideposts through the often dense aural soundscapes and recitative-style vocal lines. And Stanhope is particularly good at building cataclysmic orchestral passages to signal that something unspeakable is taking place. In fact, he's often at his best in these "instrumental" interludes, some of which could be successfully presented as concert showpieces.
As the bloodthirsty Count, Jud Arthur has a cavernous bass that communicates both charisma and menace, even when he sings quietly. Arthur is the kind of musical performer who can bring full credibility to lines such as "When my brain says "Come!" to you, you shall cross land or sea to do my bidding." He also gives compelling shape to Dracula's centerpiece Act III aria, which is a gripping setting of Psalm 109 ("For the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me").
As Lucy, the aptly named Lorina Gore offers some lovely vocalise in her first, somnambulant appearance and sustains the same sweet purity when singing actual text. She is both alluring and frightening in Lucy's undead scene during the tomb sequence. Silvia Colloca, as Mina, delivers convincing melodrama in the final sequence, as the vampires and Van Helsing struggle over her soul, and she gets the chilling last word of the opera. Gore and Colloca – along with soprano Catherine Bouchier – also appear in Act I as a delectably creepy trio of vampires.
Barry Ryan, as Seward, the asylum's chief doctor, and Peter Coleman-Wright, as Van Helsing, the vampire hunter, are both dramatically adept, with commanding baritones and remarkably similar vocal colorings. As Renfield, the asylum patient, tenor David Hamilton skillfully handles the character's mercurial utterances – sputtering, angular and lyrical. And Nicholas Jones, as Jonathan Harker, a guest at Dracula's castle in the opening scene, has a mellifluous tenor that is well suited to Harker's rapid, slightly nervous lines.
The second disc is filled out by Stanhope's appealing Three Poems by Gwen Harwood, which are rendered by Gore with delicate, unalloyed beauty, and his String Songs, a folksong suite for string orchestra, dedicated to the memory of Stanhope's fellow Aussie composer Percy Grainger.
The synthesized orchestral realizations (billed as "David Stanhope and his Orchestra") are actually very impressive, particularly in Dracula. You can tell it's not the real thing, but the technology is getting alarmingly good. You could also make the case that this digitized soundscape is an appropriate backdrop for a macabre, unsettling story set in a warped reality. Still, someone should produce this opera. It deserves to be heard with real musicians.
© Joshua Rosenblum
OPERA NEWS October 2019
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