Having a standing-room-only audience contributed to the tropical vibe of Lyric Opera’s latest mounting of rarely performed operatic gems by notable Australian composers. Hailed at its triumphant première as “the greatest first-opera since Peter Grimes”, the ensuing neglect of Malcolm Williamson’s Our Man in Havana reflected the personal misfortunes of its composer.
With a libretto by Sidney Gilliat, who collaborated with Graham Greene to write the screenplay for the film version of the novel, Williamson’s ingenious score realises the black comedy of Greene’s spy thriller with the sinuous command of a calypso diva. Ranging from get-up-and-join-them dance rhythms to film noir drama and edgy post-modernism, his music creates an emotional landscape of masterfully integrated shifting styles. Even in this slightly condensed version, such a virtuosic work demands of the performers three hours of concentrated attention. Lyric Opera’s indefatigable artistic director, Pat Miller, has assembled an impressive band of accomplished musicians as “Members of the Buena Vista Antisocial Club” to bring Williamson’s score to vivid life.
Placed in tiers at one end of the Athenaeum’s upstairs confined performance space and without the benefit of a pit, the comparatively large ensemble occasionally overwhelmed the singers. Even so, Williamson’s scoring generally allowed the voices to be heard and good diction ensured that the text was intelligible, especially when singing was in the upper registers. The intimacy of the cabaret setting enabled most of the audience to feel in close contact with the singers and Suzanne Chaundy’s direction further promoted a sense of connection as members of the energetic Ensemble (Jessica Leslie Harris, Alison Lemoh, Matthew Hyde, Cameron Sibley, Kerrie Bolton, Timothy Daly and Timothy Newton) addressed the audience directly in their dance numbers and shared the “Wonder Bar” space.
Lucy Wilkins’ extravagant pink costumes and watermelon pink set, featuring amusing signage and cutouts of a giant Cuban dancer and palm trees, along with the tropical shirts worn by the instrumentalists and Lucy Birkinshaw’s atmospheric lighting evoked not only a sense of place, but reinforced elements of comedy and irony. Audience members further contributed to the ambiance by wearing suitably colourful tropical clothing, white hats and a general air of being at home in pre-Castro 1950s Cuba.
There was no discernible sign that the production had encountered some unforeseen challenges such as a flooded ceiling causing electricity outage for the dress rehearsal and the late replacement of the main character. Pat Miller announced at the beginning of the evening, the latter required Martin Thomas Buckingham to learn “three hours of music in three weeks”. In the event, Buckingham was excellent as Jim Bramble, vacuum cleaner salesman for Phast-Kleeners turned “Our Man in Havana” for MI6. His attractive well-focused tenor voice, strong musicality and dynamic stage presence gave his portrayal considerable dramatic force. There was a bite to his acting that heightened the absurdity of Bramble’s acceptance and manipulation of his secret service role.
In resonant voice, Michael Leighton Jones made a suitably bluff Hawthorne, the MI6 recruiter, as he appealed in ludicrously naïve fashion to Bramble’s British loyalties. Instead of patriotism, Bramble finds greater motivation in the promise of cash. A single parent, his almost-seventeen-year-old daughter’s extravagance has kept him short. As daughter Millie, Kate Amos was a stereotypically pretty and pert Fifties blonde. Radiating youthful vitality, Amos brought a vibrant voice and personality to the role.
Elizabeth Stannard-Cohen was equally assured and in fine voice as the woman sent to support Bramble after he thrills the London office with his “discoveries” of secret weapons that look strangely like vacuum cleaner parts. The farcical element is further accentuated by the idiosyncrasies and fate of Bramble’s friend, Dr Hasselbacher. After singing the role of the elderly doctor in Stella last year, Matthew Thomas must be wondering whether he is destined for this type of role, despite his youthful appearance. Although the bottom notes of his bass baritone were at times overwhelmed by the orchestral forces, he sang with rich tone and emotional commitment, managing to mingle comedy and pathos successfully.
Baritone Stephen Marsh gave a well-projected, vocally secure performance as Captain Segura of the local secret police and Raphael Wong used his appealing tenor to good effect for the short role of Carter.
Thanks to the artistic enterprise of Lyric Opera, we have been given a rare opportunity to experience this operatic tour de force performed with skill and panache. So, make the most of it and unearth your Hawaiian shirt or frilly frock, click those Cuban heels and enjoy an entertaining evening of intrigue and laugh-out-loud black (and not so black) humour with a daiquiri or mojito by your side. Just don’t light the cigar.
Heather Leviston reviewed this production by Lyric Opera of Melbourne at Athenaeum 2 on September 17, 2016.