Creepy enough for Halloween

Purgatory by opera company L’Arietta transports the one-act opera by composer Gordon Crosse, based on the drama by Irish writer W.B. Yeats.
Purgatory by opera company L’Arietta transports the one-act opera by composer Gordon Crosse, based on the drama by Irish writer W.B. Yeats.PHOTO: JAMIE CHAN

REVIEW / CONCERT

PURGATORY

L'arietta

54 Waterloo Street/Tuesday

Halloween night was an apt occasion to witness local opera company L'arietta's production of Gordon Crosse's one-act opera Purgatory (1966), a musical setting to W.B. Yeats' disturbing play of the same title from 1938.

Unlike last year's macabre barrel of laughs that was Operacalypse Now!, Purgatory was deadly serious, but made topical by veteran director Eleanor Tan's transforming of an Irish saga of familial decline and degeneration into a Peranakan one.

The hour-long opera benefited from the "immersive experience" offered to its audience by means of acting, dance and portraiture in addition to purely musical values.

Before it began, listeners were ushered into a Straits-Chinese decorated ante-room where the back-story was played out.

A well-heeled Nonya girl has an affair with a lowly commoner, but dies after giving birth to a son, who grows up to become the troubled Old Man in the opera.

Singaporean tenor Reuben Lai must have gained a headful of white hair singing the Old Man, for his was one of the most exacting and convincing portrayals of descent into psychosis ever witnessed on the local operatic stage.

Opposite him, Malaysian tenor Peter Ong was the blase and not-so-innocent Boy, whose Oedipal antagonism with his father was palpable.

This uneasy chemistry between both stage veterans was excellent. The only female presence was provided by a six-member women's chorus, representing the Old Man's dead mother and spirits of the dead who observed and reacted to goings-on like some spectral Greek chorus.

Crosse's music was tonal but dissonant, much in the manner of Benjamin Britten.

The chamber orchestra led by Aloysius Foong comprised cello, flute, keyboards and percussion, the latter providing ominous hoof-beats which spelt doom besides ratcheting up the ante to heart-stopping highs.

The set design by Grace Lin was darkly evocative, dominated by an arc of wooden slats from a burnt-down house under the shade of a haunted banyan tree, which revealed a hung skeleton during the latter stages.

Only the Balinese music that accompanied village scenes before the opera came across as misplaced.

It is said that the sins of the father are visited upon the children and it was up to the Old Man (who as a 16-year-old had killed his own father) to stop that endless cycle of death and free his mother's soul from purgatory.

The purging of his emotions and downward spiral, so vividly played by Lai, would lead to another death in his hands, but could two wrongs ever make a right?

Short as this opera was, there was no shortage of dramatic tension and one was led on a noose to its bitter denouement.

This was so effective that one individual in the front row was seen to make convulsive stabbing motions all through to the end.

If that does not give one the Halloween creeps, nothing else will.

Correction note: The name of the director was incorrect. It should be Eleanor Tan instead of Eleanor Wong. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2017, with the headline 'Creepy enough for Halloween'. Print Edition | Subscribe