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Published: 25th September, 2018

As the recipient of an unprecedented seven Helpmann and nine Greenroom awards, amongst other accolades, you would think that Emma Matthews’ career trajectory would be a juggernaut of unremitting triumph. Watching her perform what pretty well amounts to an almost 80-minute aria of dazzling coloratura bravura invested with kaleidoscopic emotional intensity seemed to affirm that her phenomenal gifts would ensure a career that would continue on its happy way for many years to come. But her portrait of a diva’s life and her own personal story reveals significant challenges.

The “Mad Scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor could be regarded as the pinnacle of an illustrious career and that is where this performance began. Mounting the shallow tiers of a rostrum Matthews’ performance took flight. There was no warm up preamble just a virtuosic full-voiced cadenza accompanied by a glass harmonica – a reminder of the authentic flute substitute for her celebrated Opera Australia Lucia. Instead of a short blood-spattered nightie, she wore a pale costume of layered ruffles that conjured up an archetypal 18th / 19thcentury bel canto heroine – except that she went barefoot. The jeweled cascade of blood on her shoulder, which she soon openly unfastened, accentuated the distance between theatre and reality: another “space between”.

Writer Steve Vizard is best known for his comic flair and this libretto has one or two laugh-out-loud moments such as when Matthews recalls being told to use her ears and the space between her ears, but this work is very much a collaboration encompassing highly stressful experiences. Paul Grabowsky’s jazz-influenced score serves to illuminate rather than dominate the emotional rollercoaster. He interpolates fragments of other works of importance in Matthews’ musical life into a composition that is sometimes melodic, but generally provides a soundscape driven by the text. An appreciation of Matthews’ considerable vocal armoury and sensitivity to the emotional trajectory of the piece informs each section of what has been called “a dramatised song-cycle”.

From a grand piano on one side of the rostrum Grabowsky directed his small band of musicians who were seated behind a dark translucent curtain. Roy Theaker (violin), Paul Zabro (cello) and Matthias Schack-Arnott (percussion) worked their magic from the shadows while Jamie Oehlers occasionally walked across the stage playing saxophone, just as he has crossed Matthews’ path in real life.

Leticia Caceres’ direction allowed the focus to remain on Matthews’ singing, but it was far from static. Matthews has an endearingly vivacious personality and an extraordinarily expressive face capable of conveying a wide range of emotions, so physical movement became another means of reinforcing communication with her audience. The ramp at the side of the stage and the pool at the front of the stage were used effectively. Her final stepping into the pool of “blood” that tinged the edge of her dress almost seemed like an operatic equivalent of The Red Shoes, although this maynot have been the intention of set and costume designers Esther Hayes and Rebecca Hayes. Audience members will have brought different interpretations to a work that is dense with information, allusion and meaning.

It is virtually always difficult to understand sung text unless there is a great deal of repetition (which there wasn’t in this case) even when it is in your native tongue. I regretted not being able to attend a performance until almost the end of the season, as I would have welcomed a second opportunity to absorb more of the details. Vizard’s poetic language accentuated the difficulty at times and the use of amplification was a mixed blessing to say the least. The Fairfax Theatre provides a sense of intimacy entirely suited to the work but Emma Matthews has the vocal power to fill an auditorium many times larger. Perhaps a filtering of the sound was a further “space between” along with the space between the notes, and the space between the madness that descends on operatic heroines and the psychological pressures placed on the singers who portray them.

Although seen too seldom on the operatic main stage of late, despite her command of the medium, this production allows us to witness Matthews’ artistry in what has to be described as a vocal and dramatic tour de force. It deserves many more performances both here and abroad.

Heather Leviston  reviewed EMMA MATTHEWS: THE SPACE BETWEEN at the Arts Centre Melbourne on September 21, 2018.