Victorian Opera has struck Rhine gold with Lorelei. Classed as “operatic cabaret” VO’s latest commissioned work, created by composer Julian Langdon in collaboration with Casey Bennetto and Gillian Cosgriff, is a witty and unexpectedly thoughtful reimagining of the Lorelei legend made famous by Heinrich Heine’s 1824 poem. There are also connections with the Greek myth of sirens luring sailors to their death with their song and even Wagner’s teasing Rhine maidens. Different versions of the “femme fatale” abound, beginning with Eve herself; this one tells the story from a perspective that resonates with contemporary audiences both in terms of content and musical idioms.
Lorelei began with watery undulations featuring the harp – a gently atmospheric soundscape that soon became increasingly savage. The curtain opened to reveal a vision somewhere between the windows of an exclusive department store and the fleshpot showcases of Amsterdam’s Reeperbahn. This was a very special red light district, however. The lights of the elevated three display rooms were more pink than red and the ladies more intent on destructive vengeance than pleasing the men who entered their territory.
Dimity Shepherd, Ali McGregor (the originator of the concept) and Antoinette Halloran were the three aspects of Lorelei. And they did indeed convince as distracting beauties sitting atop a rock on the curve of the Rhine to sing sailors to their doom. All three singer actors are physically attractive and have classically trained voices that sounded equally alluring alone or as a duet or trio. Each has a distinctive timbre that enhances the other two. A contrast to the crashing climax of tubular bells, McGregor’s voice emerged beautifully as the beginning of the siren song. The amplification of the voices was skillful with the singers knowing how to use it to best effect.
The three sirens were at once dissimilar and complementary. All were dressed in elaborate exaggerations of haute couture that served to hamper movement. Even when they eventually dispensed with swathes of fabric, hats, platform shoes and hairpieces, constricting undergarments remained as a reminder of the way women’s bodies have been manipulated to create an illusion. They may have thrown off the outer trappings but they were still not free. After being deftly trussed up again in their finery by three black-clad female stagehands, the concluding repetition of their opening words: “Hello. Goodbye.” further emphasised their powerlessness. The finality of the immediate blackout that followed made for a chillingly dramatic ending as we were left wondering with them just who is pulling the strings.
Their journey to disillusionment, however, was highly entertaining for the audience. Doll-like and dressed in masses of frothy pink tulle, Dimity Shepherd made the role her own as she swung her long blonde pony-tail. It is difficult to imagine anybody else bringing to it her particular combination of talents. She has the dainty physique of a dancer and moves like one. Sinuous and graceful, she was deliciously wicked as she took gleeful delight in her supposed powers of vengeful destruction. The rich dark colour of her lower register and expressive range of her voice was also at captivating odds with her appearance.
Gorgeous in a magnificently structured red gown, Ali McGregor was a more stately presence whose later bewilderment revealed a much more vulnerable side. Antoinette Halloran relished her role as a sultry temptress, her shiny sea green garment reminiscent of Hollywood sirens of the 1940’s.
The screens positioned below each room ensured that no word was lost but may have been unnecessary as the diction of all three singers was exemplary. Even so, they made for a more ready appreciation of the libretto and enabled some amusing emoji-type images.
Whether tango, pop, Latin or a more abstract layering of rhythms and harmonies, the music was performed with committed vitality and precision by the singers and the twelve-member orchestra under the musical direction of Phoebe Briggs. Split-second timing was evident when pink tutu figures magically opened and slammed shut multiple doors in a frantic attempt to escape while the music kept strict pace with their progress. It was a fascinating spectacle of virtuosic control on the part of Briggs and the orchestra.
Paul Jackson’s colourful lighting design, Sarah Giles’ inventive direction, that exploited Marg Horwell’s stylish costumes and set to hilarious effect, plus the polished performances of the orchestra and, above all, the Lorelei themselves combined to do justice to a brilliant work – one that deserves national and international recognition. An enthusiastic reception suggested a thoroughly successful seduction of the near-capacity audience.
Heather Leviston attended a performance of Victorian Opera’s “Lorelei” at The Coopers Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre on November 7, 2018. The season runs from November 3 – 10.