Respighi’s music is mostly familiar through such works as Ancient Airs and Dances, The Birds, The Fountains of Rome – all works of great descriptive charm illuminated by exemplary orchestrations. I had heard a few of his solo songs, and been struck by his mastery of vocal writing too, so it was with considerable excitement that I approached the Victorian Opera production of Respighi’s Sleeping Beauty.
The story is much as we have known it from our childhood experiences of books and animation, though this telling evokes a strongly magic-driven natural world as a more active participant, which rather heightens its charm, and feeds the creative elements of the staging. It also makes us more mindful of the random nature of catastrophe, and our fascination with our responses, and our striving for recovery.
Staged as a fully live opera with the singers giving voice to exquisite puppets playing the characters was a fascinating challenge both for audience and performers, but the questions of how to deal with the fantasy of this staging were dealt with in the first ten minutes. There is a witty playfulness with which the physical parameters of the possible in this world are explored. I heard children near me gasp with delight as we saw one creature – the frog – whose head seemed to be attached as elastically as in a cartoon – suddenly lose it to a game of catch, and then have it re-attached. The stage relationship of the singers and the physical theatre – puppetry, mask and shadow play – was established early on in such a way that we were able to make the connections necessary to suspend any disbelief.
Much of this production is presented as a huge tribute to Tim Burton, placed in the organic Art Nouveau of Kay Nielsen. It’s not just the visual appearance and lighting states, but also in the detail in the movement of the puppets. The puppetry was a delight throughout – witty, sophisticated, and yet at times primally expressive. There are so many moments to relish – the birds, the cat, the spinster – but the appearance and ultimate slaying of the giant spider is certainly a highlight. There was also the brief appearance of a blustery politician, whose speech and appearance had a comic contemporary relevance.
Musically, the textures were clear and simple enough for the lyrics to project with clarity, though sung in Italian it was very easy to follow the excellent translations on the screens at the sides of the stage. I took delight at the thought that this might usher children into the polylinguistic world of opera. The orchestral textures were stunningly varied, always in the service of the drama, as colourfully orchestrated as befits a magical animation world, and the score draws from a surprising range of styles – from the naturesque to the antique dances, through a romantic climax with all the intensity of Wagner then finally evoking something between a Can-Can and a Broadway show tune kick line near the end. Eclecticism, yet handled with wit, depth and originality. For me, Respighi’s score was as much a star as the performances. Orchestra Victoria under Phoebe Briggs captured the range colour and expression beautifully.
Victorian Opera’s voices are young, but exceptional. All of the score was beautifully handled by all performers – every moment was delivered with delightful accuracy, clarity and expression throughout. It is visually sumptuous, musically stimulating, dramatically engaging – a deeply satisfying synergy pervades the entire work. The program notes reveal how much interaction of art forms presenting this work produced. The joy with which direction, singers, puppeteers, orchestra, sound and lighting approached this collaboration was evident throughout. Victorian Opera once again is to be congratulated on presenting such a joyous delight as this piece. This work achieves the almost impossible – it speaks to all age groups, without compromise. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers – anyone with children in their care – children – take any adults in your world to see this – it is exquisite!
Editor’s note: It seems Victorian Opera is enjoying the patronage of children and their families, with more than one attraction! The opera, The Princess and the Pea, was a recent example, as our correspondent Freda Hirsch writes:
“I was delighted to attend the performance of the opera The Princess and the Pea on Saturday March 25 at 2pm. This opera was performed by the Victorian Opera in the Playhouse at the Arts Centre in Melbourne. The Princess and the Pea is based on a fairy tale. Taking children at an early age to the opera is a wonderful experience, and wonderful to experience a love of opera as they mature. The opera is long enough at 45 minutes to keep the attention of the young audience. The moral of the story is ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’.
“The story is easy to understand for a young audience and to keep them interested. Also the standard of the singers and the musicians was excellent. I hope that the Victorian Opera perform more operas for a young audience.”
Classic Melbourne agrees whole-heartedly!