Friday, October 26, 2018

Awakened by Opera Australia, Brian Howard's Metamorphosis proves its excellence in an extraordinary theatrical and inquiring experience

Far from being of the same ilk, I was undergoing my own developmental transformation when composer Brian Howard’s world premiere adaptation of Franz Kafka’s 1913 novella, Metamorphosis, opened in Melbourne courtesy of Victorian State Opera in September, 1983. Now, 45 years later, Opera Australia has taken the work’s insightful fusion of disturbing drama and discordant soundscape and transformed it into an extraordinary and inquiring theatrical experience. The work, to a libretto by Steven Berkoff, traces the bizarre story of salesman Gregor Samsa’s nightmarish awakening to find himself metamorphosing into a beetle and his subsequent demise at the mercy of his family. For current OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini, Metamorphosis holds a special place, no doubt, given the fact that he sang the lead role at its 1983 premiere.

Simon Lobelson as Gregor Samsa
It’s a physically and vocally highly demanding part that, in this impressive new production by director Tama Matheson, buff baritone Simon Lobelson invests incredible athleticism and sensitivity. In the painful adjustment Gregor makes during his withdrawal from a bourgeois world outside, Lobelson climbs across, scuttles about and takes flight across his cage-like room with a ghastly protrusion on his back that references the burden of work of business papers. Even when hanging upside down for minutes from an overhead light fitting, Lobelson maintains exhilarating power, balance, conviction and burnished quality of voice as one of six cast members who enact their characters impeccably.

Metamorphosis challenges your idea of opera, questions how far can you go in accepting change and crawls under your skin while it works its beguiling ways. Written when social democratic parties were on the rise in Europe, Kafka’s work can appear to comment on ideals that ironically resulted in alienated relationships, bureaucratic government order and increasingly sterile spaces. Via Lobelson’s remarkable performance, one is confronted with how usefulness turns to uselessness and ostracism, even when ‘love’ flickers around.

Taryn Fiebig, Adrian Tamburini, Julie Lea Goodwin and Christopher Hillier
Matheson intriguingly emphasises stunted social behaviour to characterise the family. Foundation-firm baritone Christopher Hillier heads a household clinging to respectability with a militaristic air and a cantankerous nature as the Father. Richly textured soprano Taryn Fiebig brilliantly tempers compassion and loss in the face of dilemma as the somewhat batty Mother. “You’ll awaken and see it’s a nasty dream”, she sings to a large doll in Gregor’s likeness, a prop all the family hold in their heart as a memory of what was. Bringing clarion bright vocal appeal, soprano Julie Lea Goodwin is Gregor’s amiable and cheery sister Greta, whose care turns to disgust. In one way or another, all go through their own transformation, none more so than Greta who blossoms into a sexually awakened young woman.

As the honoured Chief Clerk, who turns up to find out why Gregor has neglected to arrive at work, resonant and authoritative bass baritone Adrian Tamburini acts a treat in capturing the brusque and bumptious official in a spy-like, woodenly fashion. Precipitating Gregor’s final tragedy, the Samsas take in the Lodger, who broad-voiced Benjamin Rasheed effortlessly plays with pompous and punctilious distaste.

Howard’s score, one bereft of any melodious continuity or aria formation, begins with its challenges to the ear but it quickly sets the tone and allows the syllabic clarity of vocal lines to counterbalance it. Part of the score’s allure is its disquieting release, on which Howard works a mild comic patina that adds relief, then creates an affecting climax that comes close to an operatic trio before dishing it for a 180-degree turn towards frivolity. Screeching strings, warbling woodwinds, croaking brass and bass drum outbursts as part of beating percussion are alive in the score, adeptly managed by conductor Paul Fitzsimon and a small chamber orchestra sunken in the fore-stage. The result is time feeling irrelevant throughout its 105-minute duration with Matheson deserving just as much credit.

Simon Lobelson as Gregor and Julie Lea Goodwin as Greta
It’s hard to imagine Matheson’s direction being other than stitched to Howard’s score from the start. Matheson mixes various acting techniques that include quasi-mechanical movements and light-hearted choreographed vignettes into an equally exciting and shocking whole across its six scenes. Matheson makes exceptional use of space, giving the Merlyn Theatre great voluminous sense as part of set and costume designer Mark Thompson and John Rayment’s knockout artistic contribution.

Thompson’s set is an elaborately framed spatial marvel - a three-level industrial scaffolded structure incorporating stairs either side of the second-level caged room and flanked by ivory-coloured drapery on which projections of insects and spiders scatter. The Samsa home is evidently in the process of its own metamorphosis as period timber furniture vies with an industrial steel aesthetic around their staid, conservative demeanour. How much change is too much when it becomes a major test on our capabilities to adjust?

Not since Kate Miller-Heidke’s The Rabbits, which premiered in 2015, has Opera Australia presented Melbourne with either an Australian or chamber work that challenges audiences outside the grander repertoire. Signs are increasingly optimistic for future works like Metamorphosis that contribute greatly to opera’s richness and definition.

Opera Australia
Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse
Until 27th October, 2018

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

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