A highlight of Victorian Opera’s season is a commissioned work featuring their Youth Chorus. This year, Composer/Conductor Simon Bruckard and Librettist Emma Muir-Smith have collaborated with VO’s Artistic Director Richard Mills and creative team to present The Selfish Giant, a new opera that showcases the impressive talents of these youthful voices.
Oscar Wilde’s brief short story has been a popular choice for musical settings over the years. One website lists almost fifty versions, including two by Australian composers: a 1985 radio opera by Michael Easton, and Graeme Koehne’s ballet score for Graeme Murphy and Sydney Dance Company from 1982.
The ending of the original story entails self-sacrifice – a theme also at the heart of The Happy Prince and The Nightingale and the Rose – where the Giant is granted deathbed redemption by a Christ-like child bearing stigmata. In their adaptation, Bruckard and Muir-Smith have opted for a more secular version; the giant achieves peace and happiness by coming to understand that sharing his precious garden will allow it to bloom. The opera concludes with a poignant final scene of reconciliation and acceptance as the giant sinks into his armchair surrounded by the flowers and foliage brought by the children. In keeping with Wilde, even Winter is acknowledged as a passing element of Nature that will eventually be transformed into Spring. Although the religious component has been removed, an essential moral remains: generosity is crucial if we are to thrive.
The rampaging energy of children is a feature of the opera. Initially the giant deplores it; children are a destructive nuisance and should be banned. The 23 members of the Youth Chorus were certainly a lively bunch. A melodious, gently wafting “Good Morning” greeting by Spring and Fairies One and Two was followed by a contrasting eruption of ebullient children, rejoicing in their freedom from school. Bruckard’s music was deceptively simple as they skipped with ropes and played hand games in the garden. Although the part writing was unexpectedly complex, it was sung with assurance and clear, well-projected tone. The seven male members of the Youth Chorus compensated for any lack in numbers by their enthusiasm – in fact, all Chorus members threw themselves wholeheartedly into their roles. The leading children’s quartet of Eliza Bennetts O’Connor, Olivia White, Sophie McGetrick and Carmen Hammelmann displayed particularly promising vocal and dramatic talent.
Cameron Menzies’ direction and Elizabeth Hill-Cooper’s choreography were similarly demanding while being expertly designed to accommodate the abilities of the young singers and the practicalities of the set design. The many sequences involving intricate arrangements of flower umbrellas, leaves and splinters of ice were performed smoothly and with admirable discipline. Even a slight mishap with one of the skipping ropes was handled with professional aplomb by one of the young soloists.
Older members of the cast also gave strong performances. The colourfully gowned trio of Saffrey Brown (Spring), Stephanie Ciantar and Chloe Maree Harris (Fairies) glowed in rosy sunshine and were well matched vocally.
Bruckhard drew upon various musical styles to establish distinct character and mood. For the entrance of the winter trio: Michael Dimovski (Snow), Darcy Carroll (Frost), and Noah Ryland (Wind), he used a Kurt Weill cabaret idioms. References to Cole Porter could be heard in the music for Winter, sung and acted with panache by a rich voiced Olivia Federow-Yemm. She was as much femme fatale in her form-fitting white gown, luxuriant furs and icy cocktail as villain – although flashes of autocratic spite provided wintery bite. The interactions between these four incorporated a variety of extremely amusing business as objects from the shopping trolley wheeled in by the homeless trio were used to establish their squat in the Giant’s garden.
As the Giant, Stephen Marsh gave a dominant performance. A sense of greater size was created by a combination of a tall top hat, an elevated heavily raked central platform and generally having the children at floor level when he was on the upper level. Marsh made a largely sympathetic Giant even when he was banning the children. Muir-Smith’s libretto has him as a victim of their teasing and we do see some of their less endearing qualities in their rude, repeated “Na na, na na na!” and tongue-poking. His strong, mellow baritone also lacked any harshness that might portray nastiness, even though there was an edge of menace in its power and articulation at times. All this reinforced the touching quality of the final scene as he succumbed to old age surrounded by flowers and fading strains of Arvo Pärt. A diminishing solo violin echoed the soft violin accompanied by soft shimmers of percussion heard at the beginning of the opera.
Although Burkhard had initially envisaged a larger ensemble of instrumentalists, he created a rich musical world, thanks to inventive orchestration and a lively awareness of how to use his forces to best effect. Especially gratifying was the way he allowed the singers to convey their uniformly excellent diction without undue strain. Confined to the small areas adjacent to the stage, the nine splendid musicians (string quartet led by Peter Clark, harp, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/bass clarinet, piano and percussion) played with sensitivity and good projection.
Victorian Opera is keen to ensure that performances for and by young people are given serious attention. Set and Costume Designer, James Browne, and Lighting Designer, Eduard Inglés, played no small part in ensuring a high quality production.
That all four performances were sold out well before opening night is an indication that subscribers are well aware of the value of these performances. Hopefully, those who missed out this time will have an opportunity to see this outstanding entertainment some time in the not too distant future.
Heather Leviston reviewed Victorian Opera’s performance of The Selfish Giant at Gasworks Theatre, Albert Park on October 17. 2019.