Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Emma Matthews' world-class performance lights a torch for opera in The Space Between at Arts Centre Melbourne

Two years have passed since the premiere of composer and pianist Paul Grabowsky and librettist Steve Vizard’s Banquet of Secrets, a Victorian Opera commission I reviewed as “ intricate journey of emotional impact delivered with a sense of sleek operatic approachability.” In a sense, the same could be said for their latest collaboration in a work commissioned by Arts Centre Melbourne, The Space Between. It’s a pleasure to have them back. So, too, it is to relish being up close to one of Australia’s all-time greatest and highly acclaimed sopranos, Emma Matthews. 

Emma Matthews in The Space Between
The Space Between, written with Matthews in the spotlight, is an inventive and absorbing 70-minute one-woman show in the form of an eclectic song cycle, assisted by Leticia Caceres’ vivid direction. Matthews sells it with excellence in nothing less than a world-class performance. Since taking on Head of Classical Voice and Opera Studies at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Matthews’ stage appearances are sadly rarer but that plush, lively and nurturing soprano sound you wish you could bottle hasn’t faltered. 

Beginning, dressed in a flouncy, flesh-toned period gown as the emotionally fraught and powerless Lucia from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Matthews launches into the cadenza of the opera’s terrifying “Mad Scene”, one she knows ever so well, with captivating virtuosity. When the final top note is taken over and electronically mimicked, so begins the journey with Matthews into an existential abyss. In the space between the notes there is so much more to contemplate in this powerful and personal exposition.

While not being completely biographical, the work explores memories and emotions as an opera singer in what is an ode to the operatic heroine. Vizard’s libretto is often poetic and searching while Matthews’ delivery is always intoxicating and dramatically driven. Questions and observations are at its core, reflected by such lines as “How can it be that I am here?”, “Where is love?”, “The conditions of life are utterly fragile.” and “I will live and keep on living”.  

If questions are elicited by the audience, there are no answers. If you’re lost, that’s fine as well because you’re still there in the moment, which Vizard makes reference to in the text. And Matthews is there tirelessly throughout, inviting her audience into her world and engaging with ease as she covers the stage and a range of emotion with unerring energetic flair. Pathos, heartbreak, anger and resilience are evident but their dark colours are also cleverly contrasted with wit and light-heartedness, as seen in a little music lesson in which Matthews animates her singing teacher espousing, “The music is before the note, between the note, around the note...”

Emma Matthews in The Space Between
Relying on piano, violin, cello, percussion, saxophone and recorded sound, the score is rich in variety, mood and creativity. Grabowsky, at piano to one side, has fashioned a complex, often eerie soundscape that rather beautifully bridges influences such as the atonal music of Alban Berg, the repetitive hypnotic rhythms of Phillip Glass, of folk, jazz and lounge music. Expertly mellow on saxophone, Jamie Oehlers makes occasional moves into Matthews’ space with the other musicians performing behind long lengths of translucent sheets. Roy Theaker’s violin work especially stood out. 

Vocal lines meet and depart from the music with exciting results and it’s challenges are comfortably realised. Most impressive is the way in which Matthews’ signature coloratura eloquence makes a leap into contemporary music-making territory. I’m confident I wouldn’t be alone in wishing back such operatic vocal splendour as more and more a part of modern composition.

The performance unfolds fluidly on set and costume designers Esther and Rebecca Hayes’ centrally placed oblique arrangement of steps, platform and ramp that provide ample scope for Matthews to utilise. Touching subtlety is achieved with Nick Schlieper’s superb lighting. 

It was a busy Wednesday evening at Arts Centre Melbourne. The Australian Ballet’s bold production of Spartacus danced across the stage of the enormous State Theatre. Jakop Ahlbom’s homage to the horror movie genre, Horror, would terrify audiences at the Playhouse Theatre. But at the smaller Fairfax Theatre, a little collaborative work lit a torch on the possibilities for the seductive sound of the operatic voice. And if Emma Matthews isn't nominated again for a Green Room Award, I'll make the assumption the panel were absent.

The Space Between
An Arts Centre Melbourne commision
Fairfax Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 23rd September, 2018

Production Photos: Mark Gambino

1 comment:

  1. I am prepared to wear adverse comments by critics when they are true but your comments about the orchestra in Gurtrude opera's Cosi were so wrong that they sadly exposed your ignorance.