Thursday, September 21, 2017

Thoughtfully realised and eerily captivating - Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre's Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets isn't a new work but it looks and feels piquantly so in Victoria Opera and Malthouse Theatre's latest co-production and presented as part of the 2017 Melbourne Festival. Premiered in Hamburg in 1990 with music and lyrics by Tom Waits and text by William S. Burroughs, the story has its roots in the dark and unsettling German folktale which the Romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber set to a luscious and haunting score back in 1821, in the opera Der Freischütz.

Dimity Shepherd (Käthchen) and Kanen Breen (Wilhelm) 
The marriage of the daughter of a celebrated huntsman is dependent on her suitor having the finest shooting skills as dictated by her father. The young man she is in love with is desperate to succeed - to the point of entering into a pact with the devil, who supplies magic bullets in order that he accurately shoots his target. But the bargain goes horribly wrong as the price paid is a shot that takes his lover's life. 

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets runs without interval in a one-hour 40-minute showcase of diverse musical styles while employing a rich and rhyming poetic beat in its structure. In it, a marvellous and ingenious confluence of ideas are reflected which somehow - perhaps in the way in which the sense of the operatic is threaded through and refracted - manage to make the work apt material for an opera company. Including German Weimar cabaret, vaudeville, blues ballads, rock, American western and European-derived Klezmer tunes, in Waits' version, the sense of desperation, of addiction, of choice and repercussion is powerfully visceral. Under the direction of Matthew Lutton, the work is wild and eerily captivating.

Meow Meow as Pegleg
From the start, the audience is lured into a carnival sideshow of sorts, tempted by the devil, Pegleg, with the lyrics "We'll have a gay old time", and on which Cabaret sensation Meow Meow stamps her indelible dark charm. Zoë Atkinson's design mimics an ingenious oversized shooting gallery, a three-walled rectangular room that surprises with its many concealed hatches and forest-game cutouts, painted backdrops and overhead cables on which painted story-enhancing sheets are drawn in and out on. Within it all, Lutton's characters - in their befitting half-tailored colour-identifying costumes - move in captivating, quasi-mechanical ways that metaphorically make all of them a potential target, the devil's target, as well as compliment the rhythm of the text. 

Like the sideshow nature of the setting (beautifully lit by Paul Jackson's lightning design), each scene often holds its own as a unique sketch, yet together they mould the storytelling marvellously with much credit to Lutton. No less captivating is the talent that each individual performer brings to the stage. 

As the devil-host of her own entertainment, Meow Meow, the limping Pegleg, licks her text with seductive flair and sings in lush-toned and superbly crafted ricocheting style as she slyly eyes her domain. In a fabulously layered performance, Kanen Breen's agile tenor, warm sensitivity  and unstoppable showmanship come in full-strength quality as the desperate young man Wilhelm, hilariously contorting his way on the road to mastering his rifle, writhing his body through desperation and wearing his heart on his sleeve in love. 

Käthchen, his bride-to-be, is touchingly portrayed with the rich and deliciously phrased mezzo-soprano of Dimity Shepherd. In a memorable highlight in duet with Breen, Shepherd sings the dreamy and poignant "The Briar and the Rose" and later, as she waits for Wilhelm's return, brings enthralling intensified anguish to "I’ll Shoot the Moon".

Dimity Shepherd (Käthchen), Richard Piper (Bertram), Jacqui Dark (Anne)
The commanding and earthy-voiced Richard Piper adds a star to his copious theatrical credits as Käthchen's insistent father, Bertram. At his side, richly hued mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark imbues balanced control and tender motherly guard as his wife, Anne, and impresses as her penetrating top notes ring through the ensemble.

In a supporting role, Paul Capsis is a blazing sideshow unto himself with his dazzling high-wired falsetto and quirkily animated actions. Le Gateau Chocolat, in deep oratorial authority as the Duke/Old Uncle, and Winston Hillyer's brawny Robert round out the superb cast.

In the pit, 10 musicians forming the Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra play with keen attentiveness to Phoebe Briggs' musical direction to create a music breathing with dynamism, unspoiled by the odd moment of slackening brass on opening night. Jethro Woodward's sharp soundscape design adds further depth to this mysteriously conjured world.

Beware the choices made and the pacts bargained when, perhaps unknowingly, there's a price to pay. This time, Victorian Opera's fearless approach in presenting opera-wayward work has paid off well. Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets is a thoughtfully realised, engrossing and unashamedly flamboyant piece of powerful theatre.

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets
Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre
Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse 
Until 7th October.

Production Photographs:  Pia Johnson Photography

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