Following a highly successful production of Malcolm Williamson’s Our Man in Havana in 2016, Lyric Opera of Melbourne continues to add to Australia’s cultural heritage, this time with a revival of Barry Conyngham’s opera, Fly. Commissioned by Victoria State Opera, it was premiered in 1984 in a form that differed significantly from Lyric Opera’s incarnation.
Instead of the comparatively vast State Theatre, fortyfivedownstairs provided a significantly more intimate experience. The orchestra was reduced from the original fifty to ten musicians, with three playing several instruments, and a heavy reliance on electronic keyboards to convey complex colours and textures of Conyngham’s initial instrumentation. It was not clear to what extent conductor Pat Miller alone had arranged the orchestral score, but since Barry Conyngham was present, it appeared that he had, at the very least, given this chamber version his blessing. Having the instrumentalists spread along the side walls in full view of the audience added to the immediacy and intensity of the experience but sometimes made it difficult to hear the details of Murray Copland’s libretto, in this particular acoustic.
As a fairly raw, basic venue with an industrial edge, fortyfivedownstairs was well suited to the opera’s themes in that it offered a link with the nature of Lawrence Hargrave’s engineering work and his quest to live simply, despite his wife’s yearning for the sophisticated life in London that fame and fortune would bring. Tom Petty’s streamlined set design married with both the space and the central concern of the opera, with adjustable “wings” suggesting flight while Hargrave’s expeditions up the Fly River of New Guinea find a reference in the central tent-cum-sail canopy at the rear of the stage.
Against this backdrop, we were presented with an uninterrupted 80-minute plus exploration of Hargrave’s passions, conflicts and heartbreak. The first Act is set in 1904 at the Sydney home of Hargraves, his wife Margret and their two daughters Olive and Meg. Act 2 begins with a flashback to 1876 and Luigi D’Abertis’ expedition up the Fly River in New Guinea where Hargrave is making a collection of drawings and designs, contemptuous of D’Albertis’ destructive methods of exploration and his self-aggrandising motives. In the final scene, back in Sydney in 1915 we learn that Hargrave is regarded as a traitor because he had passed on his aeronautical research to a German museum – the only one willing to make use of his labours. The opera concludes with a visit from a clergyman bearing the devastating news that his son Geoffrey, a promising engineer, has been killed in Gallipoli. After a moving quartet of grief, Hargrave quietly returns to his workshop.
Although the opera largely deals with frustration and conflict, it is far from being relentlessly negative. The opening Prologue, where the 12-year-old Olive twirls around the stage singing “Fly … flying” as she watches her father fly his kite, encapsulated the spirit that inspired Hargrave. As Olive, Lisette Bolton’s clear, youthful soprano and vibrant personality (and accomplished pirouettes) generated the enthusiasm and sense of excitement that matched Conyngham’s light swirling music. Interactions between Olive and Hargraves as they enthused about the beauty of the bird of paradise feathers in a hat that has just been delivered for Margret, and waltzed together in celebration of Geoffrey’s win in the yacht race provided melodious relief from the tension just below the surface. Caroline Vercoe’s Margret aroused sympathy; her strong mezzo-soprano voice and dramatic passion was a well-judged balance to the strong tenor voice and equally passionate conviction of Sam Roberts-Smith.
As Young Lawrence Hargrave, Cameron Sibly gave an outstanding performance. He has appeared in several Lyric Opera productions and has always put in more than creditable performances, but he seems to have really come into his own in this role. His lyric tenor has developed a burnished lustre – always beautiful even at full strength. He gave a forceful characterisation of idealistic fervor as he confronted the arrogant D’Albertis, convincingly portrayed by Cameron Taylor. Perhaps Sibly’s engineering background gave him a special affinity with Hargrave. Mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan was dramatically and vocally effective as the serious daughter Meg.
Lara Kerestes’ direction was imaginative without being overly busy; the focus was always on communicating a demandingly dense libretto and musical intention as powerfully as possible. Pat Miller excelled in terms of clear musical direction. His championing of this opera is to be highly commended.
It is heartening to see the audience support given to Lyric Opera and to significant Australian works, but the fact still remains that, although this was a fine performance, we will have to wait more than 35 years to hear Barry Conyingham’s original version again.
Heather Leviston attended the performance of Barry Conyngham’s “Fly” by Lyric Opera of Melbourne at fortyfivedownstairs on August 31, 2019.