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Victorian Opera: Love and Chance

by Heather Leviston

Classic Melbourne was given a preview of an exciting and imaginative year for Victorian Opera as reviewer Heather Leviston found recently when she attended a special performance at  Robert Blackwood Hall. As the curtain raiser for Victorian Opera’s “Chapter Two” season under the direction of Richard Mills,  Games of Love and Chance abounded in highlights.

The title, however, may have been a little misleading. Certainly we had the Card Scene from Carmen and quite a few love oriented items, including one of Delilah’s sensuous arias from Samson et Delilah, but on the whole the great operatic themes on display did not focus on luck and sometimes only obliquely on love. There were no numbers from The Queen of Spades, or card scenes from La Traviata or Manon, or anything involving the famous star-crossed lovers. And yet the stated theme did inspire reflections on the relationship between love and chance and opera.

Perhaps the dominant theme for the evening was best encapsulated in the work that provided a fanfare for the season: Wagner’s Prelude from Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. The combination of musicians who are masters of their trade and young “apprentices” from Monash University Academy of Performing Arts resulted in a wonderfully stirring reading of a work that is calculated to lift the spirits.

The orchestra also shone in the Prelude to Act Three of Lohengrin, which opened the second half of the program, as well as in the concluding Wagner and Strauss items. With Richard Mills conducting and Roy Theaker as concertmaster, the quality of the playing was high throughout all sections of the orchestra, with beautifully full string tone and well coordinated winds. Fabian Russell deserves a huge pat on the back for his excellent training of the brass.

A similar combination of varying levels of experience was a feature of the singing contingent. On one hand there was the pinnacle of achievement in the form of the glorious Lisa Gasteen singing Wagner and Strauss; on the other hand there were some members of the Master of Music (Opera Performance) program who had never sung with an orchestra before. Roxane Hislop and Douglas McNicol impressed as vocally and theatrically mature role models, whilst the exciting tenor of Carlos E Barcenas figured amongst some terrific performances by up and coming singers who showed that there is plenty of talent deserving of careful nurture.

Richard Mills’ choice of program was also a thoughtful combination of the tried and true and the more adventurous. Along with an excerpt from his Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Olivia Cranwell sang an arresting aria from Marshall-Hall’s opera, Stella, and eight past and present members of the Masters program sang a very catchy number from Blitzstein’s Regina.

Looking at what is on offer from Victorian Opera for 2014, a similar blend of standard and less familiar repertoire, catering for a wide audience, is evident. In the chancy world of opera, it is clear that some sure bets have been placed. The perennial favourite, La Traviata, has the added attraction of a star who has well and truly ascended. Jessica Pratt’s phenomenal recent success as Lucia at La Scala has made her one of the opera world’s hottest properties.

The concert version of Norma sold out long ago, making many frustrated opera lovers wonder why there was only one performance. Anybody who has a ticket is certainly in luck. As for Into the Woods: how could one of Sondheim’s most popular musicals be risky, especially after the success of Victorian Opera’s brilliant production of his Sunday in the Park with George?

A more dicey proposition is always the commissioning of new opera. Nevertheless, it would seem that the rendering of Tim Winton’s gripping novel, The Riders, into an opera by composer Iain Grandage and librettist Alison Croggon is well on track to being an artistic and commercial hit.

Victorian Opera audiences are attracted by the variety of the programming and the excellent quality of the productions. In addition to nurturing the talent of young opera singers, future generations of opera lovers are also being cultivated by including works such as Hansel and Gretel and The Play of Herod. Other community events are designed to reach as wide an audience as possible, promoting opera as an ultimate experience of inclusion to engage hearts and minds.

It would seem that Victorian Opera is on a very long winning streak.


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