Friday, September 7, 2018

From Gertrude Opera, Heggie's To Hell and Back resonates with its near claustrophobic experience of joyless life.

In just 40 minutes, within the intimate space of St Kilda’s Theatre Works, the ugly reality of spousal abuse was told in confronting and unsettling form on Wednesday evening. Presented by Gertrude Opera, American composer Jake Heggie’s one act opera, To Hell and Back, swings a powerful punch that leaves a lasting impression. Commissioned by San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Heggie’s work premiered in 2006 in Palo Alto, and received its Australian premiere courtesy of Gertrude Opera two years ago at the short-lived Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival. 

Desiree Frahn as Stephanie and Dimity Shepherd as Anne
As they did back then, two wonderful exponents of opera cut and carved a deeply expressive and harrowing account of male brutality - soprano Desiree Frahn as the young abused wife Stephanie and mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd as the mother-in-law Anne. Together, they share the stage in an affecting, rapidly paced and near claustrophobic experience of joyless life. 

Frahn channels the pain, the bruises and dilemma Stephanie suffers in domestic spousal abuse yet denies herself the label of victim. Stephanie ponders, “How does a girl of dreams become the Queen of Hell?” and Frahn gives her agonising life,  singing radiantly through a broad range full of emotiveness, notably fine top notes and a purity that demands one’s sympathy. 

Dimity Shepherd makes it appear effortless in portraying Anne with a hardiness and matter-of-factness melded with a supportive heart, her voice luscious of tone and striking in depth. These two artists captivated with the synergy they created, demonstrated in the work’s high proportion of duet. Pivotally, Gene Scheer’s tight libretto keeps the perpetrator out of sight, giving him neither the time of day nor a voice to commend. 

Desiree Frahn as Stephanie and Dimity Shepherd as Anne
Heggie wrote this 5-part fluidly moving work for period instruments, including harpsichord. In this reduced piano version with Brian Castles-Onion as music director, pianist Peter Baker plays with stridency but what felt lacking was the heavy-bearing bass and lushness of sound that would have intensified the hellish mood. 

Greg Carroll’s poignantly drawn direction makes occasional steps out of realism  into a stylistic rendering that verges on poised dance. On a raised square base, Peter Corrigan’s design features a white-high curtained ‘wall’ on three sides and little more than two simple chairs. Intended or not, in its scale, I had thoughts of a boxing ring come to mind - two women within it fighting their predicament with a man who is rupturing their lives. Simple spring frocks carrying bold floral designs draw on the women’s shared time gardening.

In the end it comes as a shock when Anne tells Stephanie never to call/see her again. It seems a cruel blow after what appeared to be a tenderness she gave her in support as a confidante. If we look back at the garden scene, however, we find a hint there when Anne talks of giving seeds space and roots room to grow. Released from torment, a message of hope for a brighter future unfolds. What’s left to address is educating society that no room exists for domestic violence.

To Hell and Back
Gertrude Opera 
Theatre Works, St Kilda
Until 9th October 

Production Photos: 

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