Richard Strauss’ Enoch Arden Op. 38, composed in 1897, is an unusual work, and one written in a style which has rather profoundly gone out of fashion. For narrator and piano, it’s one of a rather surprisingly high number of 19th-century works that enlist an actor, but when was the last time you saw a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique sequel Lélio, for instance? Likewise, other than Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, not much of the 20th-century narrator/accompaniment repertoire gets performed as regularly as it should, either.

Matthew Connell in a still from Enoch ArdenMatthew Connell in a still from Enoch Arden. Image © Jak Scanlon

Perhaps the comparative neglect of this genre of music is because the audience’s attention can become a little one-sided; Strauss’ music here is very much secondary to the work of the narrator reading Lord Tennyson’s poem of the same name. If you imagine the turn-of-the-century equivalent of an audiobook – plenty of speech, music is secondary – then you’ll be in the right headspace.

Tennyson’s poem isn’t far off from a retelling of the myth of Odysseus; in Enoch Arden, Enoch, wanting to support his beloved family, sets out to sea, is similarly shipwrecked on an island, and eventually, years later, returns home. Unlike the ancient equivalent, Enoch never reveals that he is alive to his wife (who has remarried) and children, and dies.

In this performance, Brisbane Music Festival’s Alex Raineri collaborated with Victorian Theatre Co’s Matthew Connell. This was actually a livestream of previously recorded performances, so we had a brief introduction noting that Raineri’s audio and video was recorded in Brisbane, and Connell’s in Melbourne. However, the twist in the performance here is that working with the duo was, among others, director and cinematographer Jak Scanlon. His work became a third element to the story, providing supporting visuals to Tennyson’s tale.

The work begins with Strauss’ ominous arpeggios rippling across the keyboard, paired with the image of ocean waves, setting the scene for Enoch Arden’s fate. Strauss’ expertise at creating imagery with music comes to the fore here and it’s not long before the spoken text introduces Enoch himself, and with it his leitmotif that returns throughout the piece. Strauss’ music here colours the text wonderfully – twisting, turning, and pivoting with Tennyson’s words at the appropriate moments.

A still from Enoch ArdenA still from Enoch Arden. Image © Jak Scanlon

The visuals provided by Scanlon were a mixed bag. While in some cases they worked perfectly (the phrase “dark hour” being met by a setting sun), in others they felt rather at odds with the text and music. At one point, the spoken phrase the “doubt and gloom” of a “miserable life” was conversely met with a beautiful blue cloudy sky. Some of the imagery wound up looking a little too obviously stock footage-esque, too.

I think I’d have preferred a more subtle use of this footage – we saw a lot of it, and comparatively little of the performers. Raineri, for instance, wasn’t truly seen performing for a full 20 minutes, when his hands appeared superimposed over a field of wheat gently swaying in the breeze. Footage of Connell’s acting appeared more often, but ideally I’d have liked to see even more of both him and Raineri, instead of the rather tightly shot close-ups that we had of each of them. There was power and intent in Connell’s well-acted performance, but with primarily head-and-shoulders in view, not all of it came across as well as it could.

The combination of Strauss and Tennyson’s work is, to modern ears, rather different to what we normally encounter, so I’m certainly glad that this collaboration did something more than just a simple performance. While both Connell’s acting and Raineri’s playing were very good, the accompanying visuals too often took away from the story rather than added to it. An interesting experiment, if not a completely successful one.

Brisbane Music Festival and Victorian Theatre Co’s Enoch Arden plays again on 31 March and 1 April

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