Friday, September 30, 2016

Four Saints in Three Acts blessed with a heavenly theatrical Australian premiere at Victorian Opera.

Raphael Wong and Ensemble
By God, that Four Saints in Three Acts is good. Nonsense hasn't quite ever left me so entranced and uplifted, even more so than my memories of church itself. Whatever could "He asked for a distant magpie" mean? Directed by Nancy Black with co-director Dr Kim Vincs, Victorian Opera have indeed blessed composer Virgil Thomson and librettist Gertrude Stein's surrealistic delight with a heavenly theatrical 3-D experience for its overdue Australian premiere.

In the thick of the Parisian artistic milieu of the 1920s, American ex-pats Stein and Thomson's collaboration flouted with many traditional aspects of opera, no less than premiering it with an all-black cast in the USA in 1934. Stein's mashed up libretto defies any narrative sticking power, yet it binds with Thomson's frisky score with effervescent playfulness and lyrical ease.

It was all sung with gleaming strength by a cast of enthusiastic performers from the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE) alongside the young guns of Victorian Opera's professional development program and some more experienced hands.

With almost 50 performers constantly on stage, there's St Teresa and St Ignatius amongst a host of saints real and imagined, and Compère and Commère who preside from either side of the theatre balconies, appearing to both set the scene and direct it's course.

The music resounds with nourishing ecclesiastical simplicity together with folkish tunes at one with the American prairies and a sprinkle of Gilbert and Sullivan seasoning, which conductor Phoebe Briggs lets crisply bounce and ricochet marvellously. The 15-member Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra glistened on opening night with a richness of sound spreading out far and wide, a sound deceivingly richer and greater than their number.

Hayley Edwards, Imara Waldhart, Sophia Wasley and Shakira Dugan
As the one-hour performance unfolds, one moment you latch onto a thought, the next it's gobbled up by another. Stein leaves you scratching your head for meaning, then gloriously gives us the power to have faith in her explorative journey. It seems so apt then that the subject of the work revolves around something resembling a convention of saints whose own faith, devoutness and industry made them handpicked for the job to keep the mystery of faith alive.

The work's expression through the creativity of theatrical staging is paramount in making it coerce, confront and alter perceptions like few works can and the team at Victorian Opera have once again flexed their inventive muscle to do so. For it, a mesmerising fairytale-like beauty explodes in Deakin Motion.Lab's digital scenography (directed by Dr Kim Vics), under Peter Darby's low-intensity lighting. Costume supervisor Candice MacAllister uses a palette of white and ivory, effectively highlighting the higher-status saints in hooped skirts, pantaloons and ruffs.

A rotating branch you can reach out and touch in a bright cloudy blue sky, a fanciful gothic cathedral that spins and threateningly thrusts its angularity, a rambling garden and brook from which fish leap, a hovering lamb, a gigantic snake, an infinite stairway to the heavens and a lion we see scouting what becomes an Armageddon-like landscape of a burnt stormy sunset, the graphics seem rich in Christian symbology. Then, in the end, they seem to coalesce into a freakish but harmonious paradise that allows all to have a deserved place in this chaos.

That director Nancy Black has imbued the entire performance with vitality, detail and expression from her cast is a credit to her vision. The shear power of the work is realised when you walk away from it with a sense that everything you witnessed was routinely understood by all its participants, and as if the strange English language they sang was never an impediment to their proceedings.

Darcy Carroll and Ensemble
With too many talents to number, singling out just a few seems sacrilege. Nonetheless, the night was enhanced by the intellectual and gentlemanly Compère, Jerzy Kozlowski, whose robust port wine bass caresses trustingly, and the scolding-toned, bookish Commère, Margaret Arnold. Sophia Wasley shone with a bright and incisive soprano as a divinely agile St Teresa 1 while her double, St Teresa 2, was portrayed with assuredness by moody-dark mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan. Baritone Raphael Wong provided well-grounded reinforced strength as St Ignatius, Carlos E Bárcenas unleashed his now signature highly emotive and resonant tenor as St Chavez, Darcy Carroll's polished baritone accompanied his statuesque presence as St Plan, and Rhian Tuohy as St Settlement and Hayley Edwards as both St Celestine and St Anne sang with angelic prowess. Commendations to all other saints in the firmament.

Much artistic energy has been invested in this wildly scintillating production. It seems such a shame that it's over after just one preview and two performances. I pray that it'll be resurrected. Those 3-D glasses need to be used again.

Victorian Opera
Malthouse Theatre
Until 1st October

Production photographs: Charlie Kinross

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