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Victorian Opera: Lorelei

by Heather Leviston

The opening night of Victorian Opera’s Lorelei attracted both new members of the audience as well as those who had loved the award-winning premiere at the Malthouse Theatre in 2018. One question in the minds of the initiated was whether Lorelei would have the same striking impact in the vastly bigger venue of St Kilda’s Palais Theatre. The answer is a resounding, Yes!

Even the approach to the theatre had its benefits. There might not have been too many shipwrecks in Port Phillip Bay but the waterside venue placed us in the appropriate element. The major advantage of the Palais is that its seating capacity pretty well assures a berth.

Happily, Marg Howell’s set design was not swamped by the larger stage area; the Lorelei were intensely present in their vividly lit showcases. Appropriate amplification resulted in both voices and orchestra being heard clearly at all times. Ship-shattering crescendos and the softest sighs were conveyed in all their power and subtlety. Some opera-goers deplore the increasing use of amplification, but here it was an essential component that was employed to huge dramatic effect – an integral part of the theatrical experience. And Lorelei is a work where the sum of uniformly excellent parts make an even more stunning whole.

Marg Howell’s set and fabulous couture-inspired costumes that become significant players in the action, Paul Jackson’s lighting design, and Jim Atkins’ sound design are significant components of the story. The harmonious marriage of music and lyrics is no surprise since Casey Bennetto and Gillian Cosgriff are credited with both, alongside composer and orchestrator Julian Langdon. And then there are the performers: the extraordinary Lorelei trio of Dimity Shepherd, Ali McGregor and Antoinette Halloran casting their spell with a very much in-form Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra conducted by Musical Director Phoebe Briggs. As Director and Dramaturg, Sarah Giles has ensured that these parts were seamlessly woven together.

The opening image is visually breath-taking – even if you have seen the publicity photos; the Lorelei are bathed in an oestrogen-pink glow as the music swells softly in rippling waves. Their voices gradually emerge in an eerie siren call as they gently sway like terrestrial Rhine maidens or seaweed anchored to the ocean floor. The volume gradually builds to a frantic engine throb and clanging of alarms as the sailors meet their doom. The heartless trio sing their hard-boiled song of “Hello, farewell … prepare to die”.

Deceptively fragile-looking, Shepherd has a ball vocally and dramatically, her remarkable range, and power on lower notes, making what are very witty lyrics even more so. She dances, flounces, stomps and runs her way through most of the 75-minute work with concentrated abandon. This Lorelei believes the sailors were asking for it and is the first to tell the story of a maiden betrayed. Although looking more aggressive in her flame-red gown, Ali McGregor is generally more moderate in her approach and is the first to voice flickers of remorse with “Oh, just a pause” in an up-tempo cabaret style number. McGregor’s high notes, heard at key times throughout the work, seem to emanate from another dimension, evoking the mythic aspect of the work. Halloran’s music is also infused with Latin rhythms, distinguishing the telling of her Lorelei story in a fresh way. She puts her all into persuading the others to have a night off from luring sailors to their doom.

Amidst all the wonderful blend of opera, musical theatre and cabaret we are left wondering to what extent the trio are deluded. Between the first season of Lorelei and the current one, many of us saw Victorian Opera’s double-bill of Cassandra / Echo and Narcissus in March. Two more new operas based on myth/folkore, they too explore the nature of love and the status of women. Cassandra in particular is concerned with power – women’s empowerment and the lack of it. Lorelei has a thoughtful take on this question and audience members will have fun unraveling some of the questions posed. In contrast to the tales of lovelorn maidens who wish to die, the reverse interpretation is vehemently declaimed. Were they “pushed”? To what extent are women complicit in their entrapment? Are women being disempowered/“dissed” by #notallmen? The final scene of entrapment and having the trio re-clothed by female stage assistants dressed in black as the music returns to its opening recapitulation is something to ponder.

Despite the very occasional use of coarse language, music and drama teachers should be keen to bring students to a performance later this year; the 15+ contingent would love it. All the text is there in big sur- (well, sub-) titles, the music is varied, tuneful and exciting, the performances are fabulous and the whole experience is highly entertaining. On opening night there was a curtain call glitch, but at least Phoebe Briggs and the orchestra were given their well-deserved due. The following night, the three divas could both see and hear a cheering audience give them another standing ovation.

I cannot recommend Lorelei highly enough.

Photo supplied.

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Heather Leviston reviewed Victorian Opera’s production of “Lorelei” presented at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda on June 30 and July 1, 2021.

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