How do you sing a dance of passion? The Song Company shows us how in Dances of Passion, a semi-staged production of music by Granados, Juliana Hall and Brahms, weaving together passion (not the Lenten kind), song, dance and drama.

Dances of Passion, The Song Company. Photograph © Peter Hislop

Principal artist, soprano Roberta Diamond, with ensemble artists mezzo-soprano Janine Harris, tenor Ethan Taylor and baritone Hayden Barrington are joined by Associate Artistic director Francis Greep at the piano and Artistic Director Antony Pitts as non-singing actor and pianist, in a production directed by Robert Macfarlane, performed to a comfortingly full house.

Greep’s introduction set the context for the performance. Dances of Passion has been curated for the developing voices of the ensemble giving them the opportunity to sing in different languages, styles, in solo and ensemble and to explore the words and emotions beyond the music.

We hear nine of Enrique Granados’ nostalgic Tonadillas en estilo antiguo (Ballad tunes of Castille in the ancient style), a throwback to the early 19th century and sung in Spanish. They are inspired by the paintings of Goya. Essentially theatre songs, brief and accompanied by small forces, they are performed in costume as an entr’acte and they tell the story of working class Madrileños.

In staging this, Macfarlane takes us to a present day ‘school of life’ where the singers are young students, discovering themselves and the ensuing complexities. Pitts acts as the life-coach supporting his young charges through a range of emotions and experiences. A diffident tenor is besotted with his impervious soprano and an intense rivalry builds between soprano and mezzo-soprano for the affections of the handsome baritone. It is heartening to see the pianist recruited to the drama.

Taylor opens with a light and lyrical song of reminiscence, La maja de Goya, Barrington’s El majo olvidado is beautifully controlled and sensitively performed, Diamond gives a coquettish rendition of El majo timido, while Harris’s El mirar de la Maja is exceptionally polished.

Contemporary American composer Juliana Hall’s Fables for a Prince is an engaging collection of six songs for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, and piano, set to fables by 17th century poet Jean de La Fontaine, with English translations by Marianne Moore. This is indeed a magical song cycle with its evocative piano score performed with sensitive support by Greep. It is reminiscent of stories like Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges in which animals and objects develop human qualities, commenting on human behaviour and its values.

Each song is written for all four singers. In contrast to the folk-like texts of Granados’ tonadillas, the texts of Hall’s piece are elaborate and the ideas are complex. The performers tell their tales well through excellent diction and emotion. Song and drama remain steadfast through some tricky, unaccompanied harmonic shifts.

Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzes Op. 52a are pure joy and express the many moods of three-quarter time, with words by Brahms’ favourite poet, Georg Friedrich Daumer. Pitts and Greep play the four-handed piano accompaniment, as the ensemble waltzes, rages and imitates nature through the 18 cameos. Written in popular style and intended for the intimacy of the salon, they are best not overthought, leaving the listener free to relish the songs as simple expressions of passion.

The singers perform with great focus and stamina. Diamond’s ringing soprano tones are better developed and at times outweigh the other voices. Harris’ rounded mezzo-soprano is best suited to the Brahms. Taylor is a promising tenor, and Barrington is a powerful and charismatic baritone. The ensemble is cohesive but more fragmented when moving about the stage.

The Cellblock Theatre has a great acoustic and is a ‘captivating’ venue. However, sightlines can be challenging and the deluge thrumming on the roof during the opening moments competes with the singers, but mercifully subsides.

The question at the end of the evening is, whether the dramatisation is necessary? As a training exercise for the singers, it has value. However, the small stage, shared with the grand piano does not lend itself easily to the choreography, some of which is gratuitous and distracting. Footfalls and moving of furniture are noisy, and costumes are mis-matched. I dare say though, there isn’t a single performing company that is not working furiously to claw back the losses of 2020.

Dances of Passion is a fantastical, cathartic, escapist experience. That The Song Company is not only performing but running a development program as well, is to be lauded. The musical values of Dances of Passion and its strong vocal performances alone, adroitly carry the production.

Dances of Passion will be performed at The Street Theatre, Canberra on 20 March


Supported by the City of Sydney

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