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Victorian Opera: The Riders

by Heather Leviston

Victorian Opera director Richard Mills hoped to create “something of lasting value capable of speaking to an audience”, and Iain Grandage’s music and Alison Croggon’s libretto have combined to create exactly that. What is more, six excellent singers and a band of star-studded musicians have brought their score to life within a superlative production.

Anybody expecting a literal translation of Tim Winton’s novel into a 90 minute condensed operatic version will instead find a powerful reimagining of his story of love, loss and healing.

A revolving stage provides a vehicle for Scully as he travels with his young daughter, Billie, from Ireland to Greece and to Paris in search of his missing wife, who has failed to arrive from Australia with a traumatised Billie. The curved mesh wave covering the back of the stage acts as an airport arrival board at crucial stages of the opera and a screen for the surtitles. Halfway down this backdrop is a walkway from which Scully’s absent wife, Jennifer, performs much of her role. Trestles are scattered around the stage, initially serving as the house Scully is renovating in Ireland as he waits for the rest of his family to join him. They are used variously and ingeniously as the horses, which may or may not be in Scully’s imagination, a tavern in Greece, horses on a carousel, the interior of Notre Dame, and an assortment of furniture. Most effectively, they are piled up at the sides of the stage in the threatening images of horses, which Scully mounts in the final Act, thereby evoking images of both Quasimodo and Christ.

It is a busy production with a great deal of shuffling around of the trestles and it is a credit to Director Marion Potts and Set Designer Dale Ferguson as well as the singers that everything appeared to run like clockwork on opening night. The amount of movement was perfectly judged to suggest the setting without becoming at all distracting and cumbersome.

Barry Ryan’s concentrated portrayal of Scully was compelling in all respects, but right from the outset his singing did raise the question as to whether amplification was really necessary. He has a wonderfully gathered, focused voice that needed no amplification at all, especially in the Merlyn Theatre. And certainly not to the degree that his and others’ voices were amplified. Surely one of the joys of live opera is that fine voices can be heard unfiltered through any electronic medium. In this case the amplification was so loud that it was intrusive and at times unpleasant.

This was most problematic in the case of David Rogers-Smith singing the role of Alex, the painter Scully falsely accuses of having an affaire with his wife. It may well be that a character who is anguished beyond endurance at the loss of his sexual and artistic powers should sound strained, but any stretching of vocal resources on a series of high notes would have been more effective without amplification. Similarly, the effect of Dimity Shepherd’s tirade as Jennifer’s Parisian friend Marianne tended to be diminished by the aural assault. Shepherd is more than capable of making a telling dramatic point without this kind of “assistance”. In his role as a British expatriate, Arthur, Jerzy Kozlowki’s rich, velvety tones suffered less. All three, however, blended beautifully as they undertook diverse functions within the story.

Isabela Calderon impressed from the outset as the young Billie travelling on the plane with her mother while engrossed in her favourite book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Although she is older and larger than would be ideal for the role, her musicality and an ability to present the vocal and dramatic character of a younger person made her convincing. Her light voice was doubtless the reason for the amplification.

As Jennifer, Jessica Aszodi was a strong dramatic and vocal presence. Noted for her versatility, she is at home with a contemporary score. Attractive, easy, top notes made her singing a pleasure to listen to despite her angry, contemptuous character sometimes being unappealing. Jennifer is only referred to as an absence in Winton’s novel, but Alison Croggon has made her an integral part of the action and of our understanding of what would motivate her to abandon husband and child. It is certainly an arresting and thought-provoking interpretation. On the one hand we see a certain callousness in her egocentric despair; on the other hand much of her music, with its mellifluous birdcalls, suggests a more positive dimension.

It is a complex libretto complemented by a complex score. The music is largely melodic and varied in mood and character. Apart from the birdcalls, played with astonishing virtuosity by the brilliant Genevieve Lacey, Joe Chindamo’s piano accordion and sampler evoke other settings. The incorporation of On Raglan Road at the beginning of the opera is a nod to Winton’s use of this piece of Celtic music as a linking refrain and establishes the tone for the Irish setting and the mystical appearance of the riders. Grandage also uses chimes to great effect in the final of the three continuous acts in a score of sustained creativity.

With new work at the centre of the artistic practice of Victorian Opera, there is always an element of risk involved. Under the musical direction of Richard Mills and with masterful staging by Marion Potts and Dale Ferguson, the creative team and performers of Victorian Opera have successfully presented an important new opera that is not to be missed.

Heather Leviston reviewed this performance at Merlyn Theatre, The coopers Malthouse on September 23, 2014.


The picture is by Jeff Busby.

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