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Rochelle BEASLEY (b. 1971)
Leonardo's Code (2005/6)
Dan Mann (ten) : Bruce Windrush
Mona Lisa (nine) : Margie Sloman
Sophie Niveau (eight): Katrina Puszcik
An Albino Monk (seven) : Andrew Fox
Richard Langley - A 'Paraseismologist' (six) : William Binns
'Admirable' Crichton - A Novelist (five) : Malcolm Suffrance
The Voice of Opus Dei (Scat singer - four): Hurlbuth O'Keefe
 Chorus and Orchestra of the University of Northern South Australia , Rochelle Beasley (conductor) Recorded in the Great Hall, 24-29th January 2006
 UNIVERSAL OPERA CD 20051-2 (2 Discs) [130']

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Yes, you did read the heading correctly; the singers' voices are listed as numbers, there's a character called 'Admirable' Crichton in this opera, and it was performed and recorded in Northern South Australia. But this isn't Peter Schickele's Hoople and  Hurlbuth O'Keefe is as real and remarkable as Gavin Bryars' hymn-singing tramp.

Rochelle Beasley studied with Peter Sculthorpe, Tan Dun and  John Williams (she's a guitarist turned composer) and she sounds like a true original. Her first attempt at opera, a re-working of 'The Seven Deadly Sins' called Absolvency, was never completed but it provided her with practice for her artistic preoccupations, musical riddles, puns and puzzles: all explored fully in this fascinating work.

Because of copyright restrictions, the opera's working title, The Real Da Vinci Code was changed to Leonardo's Code and  the textual emphasis shifted. Dissatisfied with the anagrams in the Dan Brown book, Rochelle Beasley made a story with bigger challenges. 'I cracked the Da Vinci Code in minutes,' she writes in her particularly frank programme notes, 'and  thought that a toddler could do better. Call that intellectual, does he? Let's see what he makes of this then.'

Driven by her determination to 'outmodern post-modernism' as she puts it, the new libretto is 'a riddle inside a rebus wrapped in a cant.' 'There is a solution', Ms Beasley says firmly, and then adds with  typical Aussie forthrightness, 'but you have to be bloody bright to see  it, mate!'

The result is musical Sudoku, although very much better than pastiche. There's a Berg-like mathematics in this score (and more - see below) as well as Birtwistle's many - layered textures, but all are intentional foundations for a distinctive voice. Melody  is everywhere in this closely woven tapestry and what makes it so unusual are the limitless half-hints and allusions to musics from by-gone ages. I heard six  puzzle canons for example, and the ghost of Antoine Brumel stalks the 'paraseismologist's' music. 'Et ecce terrae motus,' Langley sings to Sophie in their final love duet, 'How was it for you, my dear, my dove? '

Including the awful puns  (Sophie Niveau has an aria called, 'I'm on the level') which Ms Beasley considers a grudging homage to 'today's clever-dick comedy', the libretto is crafted carefully . While posing for Leonardo, who never actually appears in the opera, Mona Lisa - 'older than the rocks on which she sits. Like the Vampire, she has been dead many times', according to Walter Pater in 1869 - muses on the polymath's character and genius. After praising the glories of the Italian Renaissance, she dreams about the future and imagines  'Art' in the present day. 'Will Cremona's 'green hill' flourish, will the fiddle's voice ring clear?' she yearns, to a clever amalgam of  Monteverdi and Stradella.

Definitely not, according to Rochelle Beasley. Instead, there is dumbed-down hack-work dressed up in ersatz 'significance.' The would-be writer Dan Mann (not Mr Brown but a kind of commercialised Everyman) consults the works of successful authors including the 'Admirable' Crichton. Sex, sadistic violence and covered-up secrets with world shattering consequences seem to be the ingredients for a winning formula, although each must be packaged as scholarship. 'Piffle to that,' says Ms Beasley metaphorically, 'Let's have some skill back. Let's make an opera with tunes and brains.'

And she has. This is one of the most engaging scores to have come my way for ages, performed by everyone with great energy and affection. As the piece progresses, the musical clues are updated and spotting the references is fun. The section called 'Only Just Intonation' (an gentle parody of Stockhausen's Stimmung in which Harry Partch's 43 note octaves can be clearly heard) is particularly effective and is played on copies of genuine Partch instruments: Chromelodeon, Diamond Marimba and Cone-Gongs, with a Dean Drummond Zoomoozophone added for extra metallic resonance. (See the instruments here  and read Paul Serotsky on  Partch's mathematics here.)

The recording's best singing comes from Windrush and Sloman but no-one lets the side down at all - no mean feat for a student group. The chorus are excellent as Cathars, Critics and the Public but they surpass themselves in the second act closer, 'Shed, Boat, Shed? Shed Both!' where they're joined by O'Keefe the Scat singer (didgeridoo, didgey do, do doo do, do wap wap, doo wap.) He's almost worth the discs by himself.

Did I solve the puzzle? Well, the numbered voices were easy, but the rest is a work in progress. Try it for yourselves - you'll enjoy it.

Bill Kenny

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