Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A new Australian opera magnifies the life of an artist in composer Elena Kats-Chernin's Whiteley for Opera Australia

In celebrated Australian artist Brett Whiteley’s output, a voluptuous sense of line, a panoramic sense of space and an often vivid but restful sense of colour combine in an unmistakably identifiable mood that characterises his work. But behind the art, addiction never went away. You’re either heading away from it or heading towards it as Whiteley lays bare in Opera Australia’s newly commissioned work, Whiteley. Dead at 53 in 1992 from an opiate overdose, his tumultuous life was exactly the kind of story that opera could magnify.

Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley
A purely biographical angle, however, would never have worked. Substance was required to fuel a drama and give something to cling to its characters. Teaming together, Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin and librettist Justin Fleming combine both in a work that initially struggles to find a footing but eventually rises with insight to rewarding heights. 

Kats-Chernin, a bowerbird of sorts who decorates the pit with a staggering assortment of finery to allure her listener, has constructed a richly textured score incorporating her ingenious orchestral knack for melodious, imposing and meandering soundscapes. Her music holds the life-story together as Fleming’s text moves between raw conversational and somewhat forced poeticism, including a little humour and oft-esoteric rumination on art and existence which Whiteley raises and challenges as he looks for the answers in a drug and alcohol-sozzled and zoned-out state. 

Those dark scenes, as Whiteley oscillates between reality and precipice, are perhaps only a veneer on the work’s raison d’être. What Fleming attempts to portray is the contrasting ‘ways of seeing’ between Whiteley and his wife Wendy, he setting up an argument with nature, while she wishes to commune with it. Most of all this lifts off in Act 2 and the more Whiteley collapses into bouts of delusion, the more his wife Wendy finds strength and tranquility. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition that sets up a poignant finale in which Whiteley’s lone death is followed by a mother’s pain and a calming, ethereal trio of mother, Wendy and daughter Arkie giving rest to his soul and purpose to his legacy. 

Julie Lea Goodwin as Wendy and Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley
It leaves Act 1’s swiftly moving scenes from childhood through to his expulsion from Fiji with Wendy and Arkie, feeling somewhat dramatically undernourished. Along the way much is packed in - Whiteley’s first meeting with Wendy, his move to London, the voices of critics and his unforgettable meeting with the Queen, the move to New York and onto Fiji, the art prizes and the demon of addiction he shares with mentors Charles Baudelaire, Piero della Francesca and Francis Bacon, the later move to Sydney, the partying and extramarital affairs just some of the chronological line of scenes.

David Freeman’s direction cuts to the chase in well-resolved vignettes that serve as best they can in the shortcomings of some of the libretto’s touched-upon events. There is lots to take in on its overloaded sequence but, utilising high-definition LED screens that slide in and out vertically and horizontally depicting art and context, Dan Potra’s visual design delivers marvellously in breadth and imagination with Sean Nieuwenhuis’s video work and John Rayment’s lighting. 

In the title role, living life riskily under a curly mop of sunny hair, English tenor Leigh Melrose gave opening night a performance of riveting driven intent and flexing muscled voice. In declamatory, tender, fierce and reflective mode, Melrose shaped the multi-dimensional Whiteley to compelling effect and never lost sight of the challenges.

Leigh Melrose in the title role and cast of Opera Australia's Whiteley
Soprano Julie Lea Goodwin was equally effective as Wendy, giving penetrating strength and lustrous meaningful voice to her part in portraying the uneasy but indisputable bonds and contrasting ideology with Whiteley. As daughter Arkie, soprano Kate Amos sung with radiance and acuity, growing up and growing concerned about her father’s condition, serving up one of the most emotional highlights as she shares time with Melrose’s Whiteley as he attempts to shake his drug dependency in a white-light Japanese Zen garden.

Natasha Green sang with delicacy as the younger Arkie. Mezzo-soprano Dominica Matthews was suitably and superbly plush in voice as stalwart mother, Beryl Whiteley, and a long list of cameo roles were sung with vigour, notably Nicholas Jones’ Michael Driscoll, Gregory Brown’s Patrick White, Richard Anderson’s Joel Elenberg and Angela Hogan’s Janice Spencer.

Kats-Chernin’s score goes a long way in marrying the turbulence, persona and celebrations in Whiteley’s life to music and conductor Tahu Matheson actualises it with particular verve and beauty, leading the Opera Australia Orchestra in strong form. But by the time Whiteley comes to its tranquil close, curiously revealing and evocative as the work can be, amongst all the shoe-horned storytelling, there seem to be gaps that could do with either removal or filling. 

Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 30th July, 2019

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

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