Composed immediately after World War 1 and as the world was recovering from the ensuing Spanish flu epidemic, this opera could not be more pertinent. The most obvious parallel is our experience of “lockdown” and the way the fairy tale kingdom falls into a prolonged deep sleep. There is a reversal, however, in that The Princess suffered from the spindle prick whereas the world, hopefully, will find salvation in the vaccination needle.
Who would have thought that an opera composed in 1921 could resonate so strongly one hundred years later? Of course, it is not just Ottorino Respighi’s La bella dormente nel bosco itself that presents such timely references; Victorian Opera’s enhanced remount of their 2017 production of The Sleeping Beauty reveals an awareness of how relatable COVID-afflicted audiences would find Respighi’s reading of this particular fairy tale.
When Victorian Opera first mounted The Sleeping Beauty in 2017 as part of an ongoing quest to nurture children’s interest in opera, I was astonished to see the huge investment of effort and skill and thought it a pity that many opera lovers had missed seeing it. Production values have been, even in pared-down versions of various works for children, more than commendable, but The Sleeping Beauty took things to a new level. I heartily applaud Artistic Director, Richard Mills’ belief that it is wrong to condescend to children, but I do have some reservations about his choice of having operas sung in their original language, especially for young children. Fortunately, instead of brief projected synopses, the current version comes with full surtitles. There were many children in the audience on opening night and they appeared to enjoy the performance immensely. The adults certainly did.
I had wondered whether the move from the intimacy of Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse Theatre to the cavernous space of the Palais Theatre would detract from some of the impact of the initial production, but Nancy Black’s direction, and Morwenna Schenck’s intricate, enlarged set design coupled with Philip Leathan’s equally inspired lighting, worked splendidly. As part of an array of striking visual features, projected images, Balinese-type silhouettes, and a spectacular use of the theatre’s golden proscenium in the final Act added further dimensions to the telling of a tale where hope and love triumph over loss and grief.
Respighi and his librettist, Gian Bistolfi, wrote this work for the puppet theatre in Naples. Unlike the original version, where the marionettes were used and the singers stood in the pit, we saw huge puppets being manipulated onstage by expert puppeteers while the singers joined the action onstage, sometimes acting as puppeteers themselves. The bond between singer and corresponding puppet was clearly apparent at all times. Even though the singers were virtually all dressed in black, costume designer Mel Serjeant had included sometimes subtle details to reflect the role of the character – suits for the King and The Ambassador, a subdued check top for The Woodcutter, a short skirt for The Princess, a sparkle here a touch of fur there. The only exceptions to singers shadowing puppets were The Prince and The Princess, with masked dancers playing these avatar roles, and a quartet of singers dressed as comical doctors. It was perhaps inevitable that a certain ex-President should make an appearance complete with orange face and red tie – perhaps not quite as convincing as Daniel Sumegi’s Baron Ochs in Melbourne Opera’s 2018 Der Rosenkavalier but a good fit as Mister Dollar Cheque, who makes off with The Prince’s summarily dumped love interest.
Among the many entertaining delights were dancing frogs, a giant spider and a feisty cat, the last played with her customary gusto by Dimity Shepherd, who also sang the contrasting role of The Queen with distinction. The puppet Queen is an absolute masterpiece of expressive puppetry design by Joe Blanck, enabling the puppeteer to evoke an extraordinarily nuanced range of emotions and convey The Queen’s desperate grief most touchingly.
The voices of most of the singers carried well in the larger space. Michael Lampard launched vocal proceedings with a confident, well-projected performance as The Ambassador. Rebecca Rashleigh was a sweet, vocally agile Nightingale, and formed an appealing duo with Shakira Dugan’s Cuckoo. Always a committed actor, Kathryn Radcliffe impressed with her strong delivery and mastery of vocal pyrotechnics as The Blue Fairy. Georgia Wilkinson was an ideal Princess, the warm beauty and ease of her voice lending poignancy to the role. To see her sing while a masked Nadine Dimitrievitch took centre stage as the “puppet” Princess was a reminder of an occasion in reverse when Kathryn Radcliffe sprung in to voice her arias from the pit while Wilkinson gave, despite laryngitis, a vivacious performance as Alice in Victorian Opera’s 2019 Alice Through the Opera Glass – another excellent production designed for young people.
As her Prince, Carlos E. Bárcenas was in splendid voice, reminding us how lucky we are to have this refined lyric tenor in our State opera company. That other company favourite, Stephen Marsh, was a substantial Woodcutter, the smooth, fine-grained timbre of his warm baritone always a pleasure to hear. Liane Keegan made a feisty Old Lady, although she was somewhat upstaged by her puppet counterpart and The Horse when singing The (dumped) Duchess. Raphael Wong (The King), Kirilie Blythman (The Frog / The Spindle, Timothy Reynolds (The Jester / Mister Dollar Cheque), Juel Rigall (a wonderfully menacing Green Fairy with crystal clear diction) and Douglas Kelly (Villager) were an energetic bunch who embraced their various roles. The ensemble singing was a highlight of the opera.
A smallish band of guest musicians and selected players from Orchestra Victoria brought Respighi’s melodious, often tongue-in-cheek, score to life under the baton of Phoebe Briggs. Their playing was uniformly excellent.
Victorian Opera’s Sleeping Beauty is just what the doctor ordered. The children discovered that opera could be a lot of fun, and for many adults in the audience it was a blessedly entertaining first step back into a world where we could be in the presence of live performance at its creative best. For everyone, it was simply magical.
Photo credit: Jeff Busby
Heather Leviston reviewed the delayed opening night performance of Victorian Opera’s production of Sleeping Beauty at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda, on February 23, 2021. Further performances will take place on Wednesday 24, Thursday 25 and Friday 26 of February.