Victorian Opera: Voyage to the Moon

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Published: 19th February, 2016

Melbourne audiences have come to anticipate innovation and adventurous collaborations from Victorian Opera and their latest venture lives up to expectation. Presented as a “A brand new opera of love, loss and hope”, Voyage to the Moon is the product of a collaboration between Victorian Opera and Australia’s major presenter of chamber music, Musica Viva. An association with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions adds a further dimension as the emotional journey of the creative artists, performers and even the audience become the objects and beneficiaries of scholarly research.

Voyage to the Moon is a 75-minute work based on part of Ariosto’s 16th century epic poem, Orlando Furioso. Australian playwright Michael Gow, who also directs the opera, worked with Baroque expert Alan Curtis to write a libretto that acts as a framework for what is essentially a vocal and emotional extravaganza. The singers themselves collaborated in the selection of arias by Baroque composers such as Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann and de Majo, choosing works that best showcased their individual strengths. Although much of the opera had been written, the untimely death of Alan Curtis came as a major setback so Calvin Bowman was commissioned to complete the remaining orchestral arrangements and recitatives that link the arias and advance the plot.

Ariosto’s narrative tells of the great warrior Orlando, who suffers “a great madness” when his beloved Angelica elopes with a knight from the enemy forces. In Voyage to the Moon, Orlando (Emma Matthews) rages while his devoted friend Astolfo (Sally-Anne Russell) tries to pacify him and eventually travels to the moon, home of lost things, with the mysterious Magus (Jeremy Kleeman) in order to save him. The fierce Guardian of the Moon, Selena (a dual role for Emma Matthews) is only moved to compliance when Astolfo offers up his own life in exchange for Orlando’s sanity, stored as vapour in a jar. It all ends happily with Orlando no longer a slave to passion.

For this “pasticcio”, arias encompassing frenzied madness, anger, affection, pathos and loss were chosen with the aim of “moving the affections”. Emma Matthews is no stranger to operatic madness and the vocal pyrotechnics this inspires, as her triumphs as Donizetti’s Lucia and Bellini’s Sonnambula have illustrated. As Orlando she ignites the stage with her fury. Her first aria “Torment and rage assail me”, from de Majo, and the brilliant showstopper “As strong as an army”, from Hasse, were displays of astonishing virtuosity. The cheers that greeted the latter sprang from sheer excitement. At times the story itself seemed secondary – even the music was more a vehicle for display. The exhilaration of astonishing technical mastery was the key emotional ingredient as cascades of precise coloratura, stratospheric top notes and beauty of tone provided the shock and awe. Matthews’ fine acting contributed to the thrill; she reveled in her dual roles, committing to the affect.

Sally-Anne Russell is also an accomplished actress with a warm, smooth voice capable of tossing off bravura passages with ease. Although it felt a little strange to hear Cleopatra’s “Piangero” in this incarnation, Handel’s aria was given its due in terms of pathos. The two female voices complemented each other in the duets and trios, and Jeremy Kleeman’s bass-baritone added to a pleasing blend in ensemble passages. He negotiated florid passages securely in his arias and used his wide range to good effect. Perhaps on the young side for a Magus, he exuded enough gravitas, both vocally and in his stage presence to be credible.

With Musical Director Phoebe Briggs at the harpsichord, Emma Black on oboe/oboe d’amore and Rachael Beesley leading a quintet of virtuoso string players – all with expertise and extensive experience in Baroque style, this was music making with real emotional impact. As they played the opening Vivaldi Overture, I for one would have been happy to listen to the band alone for the next hour or so. Emma Black’s playing in the Telemann Sinfonia was particularly affecting: gorgeous tone, beautifully shaped phrasing – quite breath-taking.

Since this is a touring production, staging has been kept fairly minimal. There was, however, nothing minimal about the costuming of the three singers, who wore striking, elaborate Baroque style creations designed by Christina Smith. Orlando’s furious red, Astolfo’s vivid green, Selena’s flowing blue and Magus’ rich brown enlivened the stage. Smith’s set design with its piles of black storage cases and forest of music stands reflected the character of a musical tour in more than one sense. A couple of music stands served as vehicles for the voyage to the moon and violin cases featured among the lost objects on a moon looming large and bright at the back of the stage. Matt Scott’s lighting did much to intensify the varying emotions on display.

Voyage to the Moon was a truly fantastic way to launch the 2016 season of two of our major classical music companies. Hats off to Richard Mills and Carl Vine for dreaming up such a transporting piece of lunacy – and to all who were part of realising such a visionary artistic collaboration. It is tempting to say that the trip was truly out of this world.

Heather Leviston reviewed this performance by Victorian Opera at the Melbourne Recital Centre on February 15.

 The picture of Emma Matthews is by Jeff Busby.

 Read more about Victorian Opera’s forthcoming productions.