Beware Greeks bearing gifts might have been a timely warning for the good citizens of Troy but Greek literature continues to be a gift that keeps on giving, providing inspiration for creative artists over centuries. Victorian Opera’s fascinating double bill of commissioned chamber operas demonstrate that the concerns of epic classical mythology continue to resonate with today’s audiences. The behaviour of the gods continues to act as a mirror of human behaviour, providing an opportunity for us to reflect on our own social interactions.
Transferring the action to a contemporary, glitzy luxury apartment might not have been necessary to make the point, but the combined efforts of composer Simon Bruckard, librettist Constantine Costi and the Creative Team captured the Zeitgeist tellingly. Within a couple of days of Women’s March 4 Justice rallies, we witness a clear example of misogynistic abuse of power in Cassandra. Bruckard and Costi have foregrounded Cassandra’s rejection of Apollo and his subsequent disempowering curse: she will foretell the future but her truths will never be believed. How apposite! Apollo accuses her of leading him on, wanting to see his apartment – the same old tropes of blame. As Cassandra, Shakira Dugan is coolly sophisticated, playful and flirtatious, while Samuel Sakker is appropriately vain and domineering as he applies “have another drink” pressure. Simon Meadow throws himself, quite literally, into the role of King Priam, unexpectedly depicted as another decadent, hedonistic party boy keen to enjoy the moment and indulge himself in the playground of his seemingly indestructible city. A silent fourth character acts as a kind of graffiti artist to set the “TROY AS FUCK” banner and later rearrange it to “FUCK TROY” wearing a jacket emblazoned with “AJAX” – a reminder of Cassandra’s fate at the hands of her Greek rapist. Such details offered further impact and complexity in this modernised reimagining of a shocking tale. Paul Jackson’s lighting design intensified the dramatic impact considerably, sometimes in relatively subtle ways; the change from golden-hued panels of the apartment walls to stark, crude metal reflected the shift in the relationship between Cassandra and Apollo as things turned nasty.
Having the singers amplified came as a surprise, especially given that all three are accustomed to singing in huge venues, but Jim Atkins’ sound design enabled a finely-judged balance between singers and instrumentalists. Scored for two pianos (Stefan Cassomenos and Phillipa Safey), saxophone (Luke Carbon) and percussion (Lara Wilson), Bruckard’s music moved from driving aggressive syncopation through sleazy sexy, as a sensual saxophone marked the passing of time between Cassandra’s vision of the future and the reality of it, and finally, to a more abstract contemplative quality as Cassandra wonders whether it all really matters. As a glitter of burning cinders continued to descend, we were invited consider whether truth and the destruction of human life at a particular point in time are ultimately so important. Not exactly an upbeat ending, but music and staging created an enthrallingly ethereal atmosphere.
The two operas are very different in aesthetic and musical style but have many elements beyond their ancient sources to link them. When the curtain went up on Echo and Narcissus there was an audible gasp and signs of an impulse to clap on the part of the audience – a tribute to Anna Cordingly’s set and costume design and the imaginative direction of Sam Strong. The same, but this time convex, metallic panels were centre stage with panelled mirrors as a back-drop, but most striking were the six luminous, silver-clad nymphs seated decoratively on pedestals and acting as a species of Greek chorus. Whereas the excellent diction of the singers made surtitles redundant for Cassandra, they enabled listeners to follow the interweavings of Jane Montgomery Griffiths’ libretto and Kevin March’s use of overlapping voices more easily for Echo and Narcissus. In addition to fine performances by Kathryn Radcliffe and Nathan Lay in the title roles, Elizabeth Barrow deserves a special mention as the leading chorus soprano. March has incorporated many extended passages of beautiful lyrical music for the female sextet and Sam Strong, director of both operas, knows when to use stillness to best advantage. Radcliffe’s wide-eyed longing and Lay’s narcissistic enchantment were moving portrayals of cruelly thwarted passion in their almost hypnotic focus. A small ensemble comprising viola (Katie Yapp), flutes and piccolo (Kiran Phatak), harp (Melina van Leeuwen) and percussion (Lara Wilson) brought skill and sensitivity to March’s lyrical score of haunting echoes. The reflective surfaces and final rain of glitter at once complemented and embraced the first opera in a striking display of coherent, unifying elements. A dominant feature of this double bill was the consistently outstanding quality of all performances and production values. Multi-talented Simon Bruckard conducted both operas with energy and insight.
Cassandra and Echo and Narcissus are currently being performed at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse Theatre and, thankfully, are available online for the next six months. Too often, we see contemporary music given a brief airing only to have it disappear completely. One of the major achievements of Victorian Opera is to commission new works. Due to COVID restrictions, we may have missed out on seeing full productions of the three operas commissioned for last year’s season, but 2021 has seen the gradual reemergence of productions in the presence of live audiences. These have often been coupled with one of the more positive aspects of restrictions: the sharing of performances via digital platforms. Although nothing beats a full theatrical experience, we now have the opportunity to absorb and enjoy the complexities of these operas even more fully in digital form.
Photo credit: Jeff Busby
Heather Leviston reviewed the premiere of “Cassandra” and “Echo and Narcissus” presented by Victorian Opera at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse on March 17, 2021.
Further performances are scheduled for March 19 and 20. The March 19 performance will be live-streamed and available for six months.