Friday, May 31, 2019

A Rossini rarity, Il Viaggio a Reims, exhibits itself as an exuberant modern masterpiece for Opera Australia in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun and online 28th May 2019

Rossini never intended Il Viaggio a Reims to journey beyond a few performances. Commissioned to mark the coronation of French King Charles X in Reims in 1825, it wasn’t until 1984 that its once fragmented score was heard complete for the first time. What could have remained lost is a beguiling triumph of music plump with Rossini’s magical gift for melody and lush ornamentation.

The cast of Opera Australia's Il Viaggio a Reims
Hugely demanding it is too, for the 17 soloists it requires and the company that takes up its challenges. Rising to the occasion, however, Opera Australia’s new production makes it an exuberant modern masterpiece.

Damiano Michieletto, director of OA’s recent ingeniously devised Cav/Pag, returns with an equally inventive angle on Rossini’s work concerning a menagerie of characters travelling to Reims for the coronation festivities.

Mining the eccentricity in the original, Michieletto gives the characters new identities and moves the action from a spa hotel to a white-walled modernist art gallery. Characters reside in the real world, a picture world or, what generates much comic interplay, both.

Masterpieces worth millions come to life - a Van Gogh, Magritte, Botero and Goya among them, including a Keith Haring dancing man. Michieletto seems to imply that the world we look at in art can be transformational, that art mimics life and, as he so charmingly presents it, vice-versa. It’s a tongue-in-cheek take on Charles X's big day that leads to a spectacular conclusion you eventually see coming - no spoiler here.

Sian Sharp as Marchesa Melibea and Shanul Sharma as Conte di Libenskof 
In a long list of compelling performances, radiant Rossini-fit young tenor and newish to the ranks of OA, Shanul Sharma’s passionate Libenskof deserves special mention. As art auctioneer Don Profondo, Giorgio Caoduro’s precision rapid-fire vocals impress. Emma Pearson unleashes ravishing vocal and comic treats as Contessa di Folleville, Spanish soprano Ruth Iniesta sings in divine harmony to solo harp as Corinna and Teddy Tahu Rhodes plunges deep into an emotive Lord Sidney, art restorer. 

Privileged too it is with young Australian Daniel Smith conducting. Vitality, colour and playfulness were abundant on opening night and Orchestra Victoria, showcasing superb solo work, gave perfection. Worth travelling far and wide for!

Il Viaggio a Reims 
Opera Australia 
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 1st June, 2019

4.5 stars 

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A fantastical and quirky period-set Falstaff plump with mockery beams at Palo Alto's West Bay Opera

Across centuries of storytelling through opera, the position of and outcomes for women rarely look glowing for contemporary eyes. Even when holding positions of power, they draw the short straw, often depicted with an emotional fragility and doomed by the men around them. 
Richard Zeller (centre) as Falstaff

But over the course of a day in Verdi’s Falstaff, based on the larger-than-life character from three of Shakespeare’s plays - The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 - women appear to have the upper hand. In its comic comment on entitlement, lechery and gluttony focused on The Bard’s “great whale of Windsor”, Falstaff is outsmarted and mocked after plotting to seduce two married women who want to teach him a lesson. Indeed their cheeky retaliatory efforts go to plan but does Falstaff learn his lesson? Sadly, he seems not to have, for this hard-shelled self-assured mass ignorantly believes himself victorious. 

In watertight dramatic form, Shakespeare’s intriguing plot is jauntily and snugly bound to Verdi’s swift-paced and narrative-heightened music and in tune with Arrigo Boito’s comically-polished and visually inducing libretto. It also comes staged in a fantastical and quirky period staging by Mexican director Ragnar Conde with a strong singing/acting cast from a company I had the fortune of discovering recently on a trip to San Francisco.
Ensemble cast in Act 2 of West Bay Opera's Falstaff

Smack in the land of small start-ups and global technology companies, Palo Alto’s West Bay Opera is a treasurable find. The company are celebrating their 60th season in what is a modest 400-seat theatre that feels too small than the level of artistry on show. It also seems the company have been in the business of delivering high quality opera for decades judging by photos of previous productions hanging in the lobby of the Lucie Stern Community Theatre.

Running the operation, Artistic Director and conductor José Luis Moscovich has assembled a genuinely unified cast sporting fine credentials. He also keeps the vitality and momentum of Verdi’s score well-oiled and shapely in a challenging three-level arrangement of the near 30-member orchestra. Despite a slither of the stage being utilised uniquely to house the brass section on two levels due to pit limitations, it works a treat. Notably, while presiding over strong musicianship, Moscovich shows himself to shine as a singer’s conductor and together with Conde, creatives and artists, all the boxes get ticked for a meaty and hugely entertaining encounter.

Watching and hearing the molten and smoky baritone blend of Richard Zeller’s Falstaff celebrating his belly and getting a good roasting is theatrical gold. An experienced Metropolitan Opera singer, Zeller’s animated and agile Falstaff prompts laughter both with him and at him, with continual lashings of charisma and spots of sympathy for the ridicule he receives. Zeller makes his performance all the more impressive because every moment on stage is given conviction as Falstaff engages, dismisses, plays and grapples with his townsfolk. 
Richard Zeller as Falstaff and Taylor Haines as Alice

Taylor Haines delivers assurance that Alice Ford - object of Falstaff’s lust for her body and her money - has what it takes to enact her trap for Falstaff, weighting her plush and flexible soprano superbly to the text and dishing out elegantly projected top notes. Haines is joined in spirited form by gem-studded mezzo-soprano Veronica Jensen as Meg Page. Complicit in their trickery, Patrice Houston swirls about in generous vocal richness accompanied by deep plunging humour as Mrs Quickly. As Alice’s darling daughter Nannetta, Anastasia Malliaras’ sparkling soprano improved from thoroughly delightful early on to excellence in Act 3’s beautifully floated gossamer-edged fairy song. As her young lover, Dane Suarez’s warm tenor comfortably fits his ardent Fenton. 

Michael Mendelsohn’s fine characterful rawness as a dishevelled Dr. Caius, together with Falstaff’s thieving double-crossers - Michael Orlinski’s limber Bardolfo and Kiril Havezov’s brawny Pistola - effortlessly humorise in setting the scene for trouble ahead. Completing the ensemble of nine solists as Alice’s distinguished husband Ford, smooth and muscular baritone Krassen Karagiozov gives jealousy a handsome touch. A small exuberant chorus of townsfolk and fairies fill out the picture evocatively.
Richard Zeller (centre) as Falstaff and Ensemble, Act 3

Then there is the absolute joy derived from the staging itself. The striking beauty, subtle playfulness and sophistication of Peter Crompton’s combined projections and set-build are utterly absorbing. In its implied Elizabeth-era setting, with striking, detailed costumes by Abra Berman and a cocktail of lighting by Steve Mannshardt, stepped and wandering spatial interest provide ample opportunity for Conde’s lively direction on a restricted stage. King timbers angle in expressionist boldness. Infill walls and backgrounds give modern technology and creativity a canvas for all sorts of wondrous imagery, including a monster’s open mouth in the form of roaring fireplace in Acts 1’s Garter Inn within which a pig is being roasted on the spit. Obvious?

In this all-round accomplished West Bay Opera production, symbolic mockery is comically kept alive with everyone and everything out to punish Falstaff. Perhaps his only defenders sit somewhere in his audience. Now that’s a recipe for debate!

West Bay Opera
Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto
Until 2nd June, 2019

Production Photos: Courtesy of West Bay Opera

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

A slick and stunning music video sci-fi fantasy of sorts, David Bowie's Lazarus gets an excellent Australian premiere

Chris Ryan as Newton and Phoebe Panaretos as Elly
If there’s one music album I recall that I let try suppress my sense of belonging, it was David Bowie’s 1973 studio album, “Pin Ups”. I was an 11 year-old, old enough to understand its unconventionality, not mature enough to give it any thought and kept on the outer by older siblings and their friends who ooh-aahed over the album and hogged the stereo.

Of course, brawn, brains and confidence were measuring themselves up as well to see how best they could ward off any attempts to ruin a sense of belonging. Growing up had its battles. And so does adulthood as David Bowie (music) and Enda Marsh (storybook) present in Lazarus, one of Bowie’s last works before his death on 10 January 2016. The work's Australian premiere, excellently presented by The Production Company of Melbourne and EY in association with Mene Mene Theatre, must have felt like a eternal wait for Bowie fans.

Inspired by the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis and which Bowie later appeared as the story’s protagonist Thomas Newton in the subsequent film adaptation of 1976, Lazarus premiered in December 2015 when Bowie was stricken with liver cancer. In the program notes, director Michael Kantor (former Artistic Director of Malthouse Theatre) describes Lazarus as “...a story about love. And sex. And loss. And death. And hope. And what is after death”. But, amongst all those battles and interconnecting those short sentences, Bowie also homes in on a sense of longing to belong, somewhere, where little, not even happiness, is what it seems.

Chris Ryan as Newton and Emily Milledge as Girl
Alien from a distant universe, Newton is trapped on earth, missing his sweet Mary Lou and falling victim to psychological stress, displacement, isolation and alcoholism. What plays out is the harrowing experience of a man whose fractured psyche and perspective is pumped out in an oft-pitiable portrayal. Despite not always being easy figuring out what’s in Newton’s mind and what’s his reality, the 90 minute experience certainly has its rewards and strengths. You might even, like myself, begin to believe that the whole alien backstory might itself be a hallucinatory part of Newton’s psychotic disturbance.

Like Bowie’s continual and unique journey of reinvention, Lazarus is unconventional as a musical. Kantor and his creative team - set and costume design by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Paul Jackson and choreography by Stephanie Lake - present it as something of a music video sci-fi fantasy. It’s a slick and stunning staging that cleverly divides the stage into front and rear - sometimes alluding to the real and imagined - via an element of modern architecture’s curtain wall that becomes a reflective screen for a range of visual stimuli projecting their kaleidoscopic concoctions in powerful form.

Journeying from strength to strength in the lead role, Chris Ryan was a knockout affecting presence. Both forceful and lyrical, Ryan’s immediate attachment to and interpretation of the music easily convinced from the start. Often seen writhing on the bed or the floor in pyjamas surrounded by his bottled fuel, Ryan portrayed Newton’s pathos to heartbreaking limits before he is finally suited in a dreamy atmosphere of hope and salvation. Among his music, Ryan made phenomenal work of and a strapping, soul-searching “Killing a Little Time”, one of three songs held back and redone for the Lazarus soundtrack, in a runaway highlight as glass shatters around him.

Chris Ryan as Lazarus and Teenage Girls
It’s part of 17 songs that span Bowie’s career, including “The Man Who Sold the World", released in 1970, and "Changes", a year later. Singing them, Ryan is joined by a strong surrounding cast that includes  Emily Milledge in glassy and radiant voice as Girl, a cute figure who knows more about Newton than she does of herself and comes into his mind offering hope. New Zealand-Australian singer iOTA brings creepy eccentricity and plasticity to the role of Valentine as he lurks about before stabbing happiness in the back and Phoebe Panaretos throws everything, as well as a rich and resonant sound, at her obsession with Newton as his working assistant Elly. At Tuesday's opening night the finale came with the most successful harmonies of the night from the ensemble in a soaring rendition of "Heroes" and, keeping the music pulsating with glowing clarity and a little sentimental charm, musical director and soundscape designer Jethro Woodward and his band provide impressive support from a raised platform back of stage.

I had my reservations at the start and the show sags momentarily in the second half but you don’t have to be a Bowie fan to be won over by the mystique Lazarus brings. It’s ironic that all those years ago when I thought I couldn’t belong, decades later I sense in Lazarus that Bowie was dealing with it too. We all are. And perhaps we just need to get on with it without turning against ourselves.

The Production Company
Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 9th June

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Monday, May 20, 2019

Domingo's 151st role accompanies zarzuela's great appeal in a passionately presented El Gato Montés ("The Wildcat") at L.A. Opera

The drama in Spanish composer and librettist Manuel Penella’s El Gato Montés ("The Wildcat") is intense and on the edge. Around the adrenaline-charged atmosphere of the bullfight, two hot-blooded males spin out of control like tornados around a beautiful young village girl in a love-triangle at boiling point. On the surface, it has much of the flavour of French composer Georges Bizet’s popular opera Carmen. Penella’s work which premiered in Madrid in 1916, however, is noticeably more sentimental and the music, while passionate, stirring and whirls from highlight to highlight, occasionally makes abrupt and awkward transitions that affect the dramatic flow.

Anton Chacón-Cruz as Rafael (centre) in L.A. Opera's El Gato Montés
Nonetheless, it’s a thrilling piece of music drama - seasoned with little light comic touches - that blends romance, local culture and religion with the sweeping rhythms, lyrical warmth and melodic charms that makes zarzuela what it is. Kudos to L.A. Opera for bringing director Jorge Torres’ El Gato Montés in a production from today’s epicentre of the art form, Teatro della Zarzuela in Madrid.

Of course, that has much to do with Artistic Director Plácido Domingo in the driver’s seat and he makes a strong case for its cause. It’s not the first time L.A. Opera have staged Penella’s work either. Back in 1994 it was presented for the first time in L.A. with Domingo, 35 years younger, singing the tenor role of Rafael Ruiz, the young, possessive and blinkered bullfighter. On this occasion, Anton Chacón-Cruz took to the bullfighting spotlight with ease, giving Rafael showiness and showmanship with a stellar radiant tenor to match.

In the meantime, as the fugitive and outlaw Juanillo, the "Wild Cat", the 78 year-old Domingo added his 151st role to an extraordinary career. Once again, Domingo commanded the stage with a performance that demonstrated age’s limitless possibility. At this penultimate performance, with no sign of tiring, tenor-turned baritone Domingo soared through his music with a blasting entrance as Juanillo interrupts the town festivities that celebrate Rafael’s promotion to matador at a recent Madrid bullfight. From there, Domingo unleashed in convincing voice and fine acting just how determined Juanillo could be in wanting to stand in Rafael’s way for the girl they love, Soleá. In Domingo, whose warm and molten baritone was propelled with utter ease, the bravado shone from an emotionally scarred character who, in the opera’s backstory, had defended Soleá and killed a man.

Anton Chacón-Cruz as Rafael, Ana María Martínez as Soleá
and Plácido Domingo as Juanillo
Chacón-Cruz’s Rafael stood his ground, providing the combative tension between the two and of a man who puts his faith in God. In prayer, as he prepares for a bullfight in Seville that seemingly no victory will guarantee his life while Juanillo is around, the lofty high notes rang brilliantly and the passionate rendering of Rafael’s heart for his Soleá blazed to dangerous levels.

Set to marry one but in love with the other, Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez depicted young village beauty Soleá with strength and stature. It’s not easy accepting why Soleá acts as she does. Her raisin d’être often feels like leftovers from the emphasis placed on Juanillo and Rafael’s singular desire to have her. But Martínez used her captivating style to great affect, her lush and vivid sound as decorated and resplendent as the flamenco dresses that enliven festivities. Notably, in duet with Chacón-Cruz and Domingo, Martínez demonstrated her ability to blend expression and sensuality with affecting results that tempered the testosterone around her tugged-at Soleá.

The supporting cast also rose to the occasion in splendid form. Big gravelly bass Rubén Amoretti’s vocal flexibility and assured performance coloured village priest Padre Anton with communal leadership and animated good humour. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera floated impressive dark hues as the Fortune Teller who reads the impending tragedy on Rafael’s palm and E. Scott Levin solidly and faithfully supported Rafael as his friend and picador Hormigón.

Plácido Domingo as Juanillo and Ana María Martínez as Soleá
Spanish conductor Jordi Bernàcer provided the heat and zest to hurtle the drama forward with the L.A. Opera Orchestra playing an unblemished performance in the pit. Dotted in the drama, the choreography of Cristina Hoyos and Jesús Ortega added exhilarating and forceful step to proceedings courtesy of 16 well-synchronised dancers, filling out the stage with the unified voice of the L.A. Opera Chorus of peasants. Fortunately, Torres’ clear and thoughtful direction carefully allowed drama not to be overridden by spectacle.

Clever too was stage and lighting designer Francisco Leal’s evocative and economical creation that relied on little more than a rock-hewn breadth of steps, spare projections and a few props, including a magnificent oversized elaborate mirror that hangs in Act 2 to signify the status bestowed on the matador. Elsewhere, darkness seeped into the distance to give weight to the brooding nature of events.

In bringing zarzuela to the L.A. Opera audience, Domingo shows how El Gato Montés is much more than a novelty. That said, as a repertoire title the case doesn’t stack up but what does excite is the thought that thousands of other Spanish zarzuela lie in wait for newfound discovery.

El Gato Montés ("The Wildcat")
L.A. Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, L.A. Music Centre
Until 19th May, 2019

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Bristling with energy but Opera Australia's Così fan tutte lapses in musical strength in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in edited form in Melbourne's Herald Sun on Thursday16th May, 2019

In Così fan tutte, Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte give a tough lesson on love and fidelity. Light-hearted but heated, it lays out a battle of the sexes in a ludicrous romp that has infinite theatrical adaptability. Provocative, innuendo-rich, touching and set to music of utmost pleasures, it rather serves as a yardstick from which how far society has come. 

Samuel Dundas as Guglielmo, Anna Dowsley as Dorabella,
Jane Ede as Fiordiligi and Pavel Petrov as Ferrando
As the final instalment of director Sir David McVicar’s study of the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas for Opera Australia, the work bristles with energy under revival director Andy Morton. Gorgeously staged, designer Moritz Junge's neoclassical spaces and David Finn's summery lighting add enchantment to its day of romantic reform in a time just before WWI as the world was changing rapidly.

Especially so, its six characters present their intentions with sustained intelligibility and a thoughtful balance exists between tested hearts and comic attack. But the bold and beautiful delights it began with musically and vocally lapsed across its three hours of challenging stints of ravishing arias, duets, trios and up to sextets.

Setting the lesson in motion, Richard Anderson’s dignified Don Alfonso was strong and promising. Pavel Petrov as Ferrando and Samuel Dundas as Guglielmo also opened in muscular form as his young well-bred friends he makes a wager with, asserting that their fiances won’t be faithful. 

Jane Ede as Fiordiligi, Taryn Fiebig as Despina
and Anna Dowsley as Dorabella
But all three lost out as top end of the voice faltered to privileged sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella who soprano Jane Ede and mezzo Anna Dowsley captured in eloquent voice with Dowsley particularly showing individual excellence. And easily lured in to unsaddle the myth of fidelity, Taryn Fiebig cut a figure of comic aplomb and disguise in bright mezzo form as the sisters' housemaid Despina.

In the pit, the sound warmly radiated but fell short of propulsion from conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson. Orchestra Victoria was having an unusually off night too in the brass department although the filigreed woodwinds were superb.
In the end, McVicar casts a hint of pessimism that things may not be so rosy in the future – a caution for young lovers on their first date!

Così fan tutte
Opera Australia 
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 25th May 2019

3.5 stars

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Moshinsky's Rigoletto revival for Opera Australia in Melbourne is opera at its chilling best: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in edited form in Melbourne's Herald Sun on 14th May, 2019

Us humans are often faced with the task of juggling disgust and sympathy in judgement upon others’ questionable morality and behaviour. That quality ripples through Verdi’s Rigoletto. In Opera Australia’s almost 30 year-old Elijah Moshinsky production, it was captured glaringly and poignantly.
It was also demonstrated when one disgruntled attendee with a decades-long grudge delayed the start by 20 minutes with audience sympathy (little) and disgust (pronounced) at work even before the curtain went up. In Verdi’s work, however, bitterness is spun with revenge and murder in a horrifying outcome that ends the life of an innocent and backfires on the perpetrator.

Amartuvshin Enkhbat as Rigoletto and Liparit Avetisyan as the Duke
Under revival director Hugh Halliday, part of the allure of Moshinsky’s work stems from Michael Yeargan’s splendid detailed design. As if to cement its 1960s update in its period Italianate surrounds, the hunchbacked Rigoletto transforms into something much like Batman's adversary, The Joker. Gilda, his over-protected daughter, initially feels restricted by a Sandra Dee-like exterior but both reveal far more as these archetypes are abandoned.

The opening scene - alluding to a debauched gentleman’s club rather than the original story’s 16th century ducal palace setting - could do with fine-tuning. But the central trio of youngish soloists excelled in powering and shading robust characters.

Commanding Mongolian baritone Amartuvshin Enkhbat proved himself a compelling actor and nuanced interpreter. In Enkhbat’s aggrieved, nervy and hobbling Rigoletto, assuredness and smoothness of tone dominated alongside an expansive voice with reserves of fuel through to Rigoletto’s agonised finale.

Liparit Avetisyan as Duke of Mantua and Stacey Alleaume as Gilda
In a meritorious role debut, Stacey Alleaume brought penetrating expressivity in gleaming silvery voice to Gilda’s fatal romance. Armenian Liparit Avetisyan was impressive as the lecherous Duke. A mocking “La donna è mobile” certainly won on popularity but it was Act 2’s twin arias where, with the power to seduce his audience, Avetisyan’s melting warmth and passionate tenor struck gold.

Roberto Scandiuzzi’s hulking Sparafucile headed a muscular supporting cast although in the pit conductor Andrea Licata took tempi in occasionally unsettling direction. Including one of opera’s most gripping moments in a thunderous night of terror when murder answers the door, Rigoletto is opera at it’s chilling best.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 29th May, 2019


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

A new Australian opera about William Buckley tells an incredible story from a disappointingly short-sighted perspective: Limelight Review

Published online at Limelight on 29th April, 2019.

Firstly, let’s not allow the number of stars to dampen the spirit, enthusiasm and creative vision that
inspires and accompanies new Australian work, especially those that embrace stories reflecting colonial occupation, survival and a few uncomfortable truths. On Friday evening, with little fanfare and quietly slipping into Australian operatic history, a new opera called Buckley premiered in Rosebud, one of a chain of seaside towns on the Mornington Peninsula that straddle Port Phillip Bay and morph into suburbs all the way to high density central Melbourne – a place unaccustomed to staged opera let alone a world premiere. The town is not far from Sullivan Bay where events that followed the escape of English convict William Buckley in 1803 – 40,000 years after the local Boon Wurrung people had been living on the land – are said to have given birth to the vernacular saying ‘Buckley’s chance’ which Aussies know to mean “to be as good as impossible”.

Sarah Prestwidge as Purran-Murnin and Michael Lampard as Buckley
Referred to as ‘a narrative chamber opera’ in three short acts and written by locals composer Antony Ransome and librettist Richard Cotter, Buckley celebrates the survival of a lone white man who made his way around the Bay, who was fortuitously welcomed in by the Wathaurong people on the Bellarine Peninsula and subsequently spent the next 32 years living among them. The convict settlement under the command of Lt Governor David Collins never lasted, packing up after just a few months before heading south to Tasmania.

Lucidly directed and cleverly designed by David Lampard, it’s an incredible story that began with a promising concept – a piece of local history told in opera that had the potential to educate, comment on, unite and impact on a broader Australian community. But in glorifying Buckley’s ability to survive in the face of overwhelming odds are we forgetting that it was due to the Wathaurong people who Buckley owed his life? In Ransome and Cotter’s 80-minute work, their significance felt noticeably neglected.

Much of the text of Cotter’s libretto sources historical ‘white’ documents. Delivered over a short but changeable overture, the opera begins with John Morgan (Brendan Croft) as narrator, author of the most well-known account of Buckley’s life, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, who met Buckley in 1852. Almost 200 years later, it’s from this perspective that history is interpreted. Ransome does, however, continue with a chorus of Aboriginal men and women who sing both compelling and entreating words from off-stage with the arrival of Collins and his entourage of soldiers, convicts and settlers:

“Tarebuden koolin – wida yannana murrumbinna, winda linga.
White man, where are you going? Why?
We know you took our young women to kill seals,
Mon mon deek birrkin maren mum, along Bass Strait, karberin tournet, murder surrounds you.
Urummurrua, all about everywhere, this is our country.
This country all around here is ours our mother and our sweetheart.
Bunjil made the mountains, rivers and trees for us.
Mulligan, wallert, wimba, coolup.
Birds, possum, wallaby, emu are in our care.
Tarebuden koolin! Monmaat netberet.
White man go away now, this very moment.”

But the only noteworthy Indigenous presence seen on stage comes in Act 2 when the young woman Purran-Murnin chances upon Buckley while sleeping in the bush and believes him to be one of her people’s warriors reincarnated. In Act 1, Ransome and Cotter dedicate much length to the conditions and ambience of the oft-drunken camp. Even Buckley’s appearance is sparse to this point. Closing the act, the boredom and disappointment with the place is assuaged with a rum-fuelled party to which Mozart’s Non più andrai from The Marriage of Figaro and a delightful English folk song raise both the mood of the setting and the melody meter. But this lively divertissement seems to gobble valuable time. It also raises the question of relevance, and the opportunity to elaborate on a clash of cultures felt lost.

Lucas de Jong as Tuckey
Act 2, in which the 32 years Buckley spent with the Wathaurong people is covered – marrying Purran-Murnin, having a daughter to her, then preparing her for his departure – felt too hastily swept over. Buckley’s story had the smell of Puccini’s Pinkerton from Madama Butterfly but the drama remained arid. When Buckley finally meets white colonials again in Act 3, he narrates his story through a long introspective-like aria. Buckley chose to remain with the settlers of early Melbourne but, with apparent inner struggles as a voice between Indigenous and white people, he left for Tasmania (as the narrator returns to tell the audience), where he married a ‘real’ Australian wife. Buckley’s was a remarkable life and makes a salient story. But when the final chorus rang out with accolades of persistence, bravery, dignity and blessedness, you cry out for Indigenous input and perspective.

Musically, an overall meandering, willowy quality to Ransome’s score evokes the landscape with thought and subtlety. Woodwinds feature large in the music, played by a tight ensemble of eight from the Peninsula Chamber Musicians, with flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon making up the majority of instruments. Viola, trombone and harpsichord/piano added texture, along with percussion that includes traditional bilma (clap sticks) that seemed to echo through the bush and the snare drum’s military beat that supplies cultural contrast. The issue was that the musical temperament rarely burst with drama even as vocal lines attempted to do so, the result being an uneasy tension between the two despite conductor Joseph Lallo’s attentive approach and the palpable commitment of the cast.

Baritone Michael Lampard’s reliable vocal heft, expressive colour and conviction in the title role ensured that Buckley’s journey from harshly punished convict (sentenced for stealing two pieces of Irish cloth), to Wathaurong member and later encounter with his own white people again was elevated with strong impact. Lampard’s rock-solid command of and nuance achieved in the text is to be lauded, especially so in Act 3’s lengthy retelling of his years with the Wathaurong people.

Hew Wagner as Collins
As Purran-Murnin, Indigenous soprano Sarah Prestwidge rather defeated all in coming to the rescue after Shauntai Batzke’s late withdrawal due to family circumstances. The combination of Prestwidge’s sweet, mellifluous soprano, her music’s gentle warmth and the light, graceful steps she took brought a touching presence to the only Indigenous role. Particularly striking, Prestwidge beautifully tempered Buckley’s brawny resonance for the intimate duet they shared in Act 2 as they sank into each other’s affection.

Hew Wagner put his glowing tenor to fine use as Collins, providing both the authoritative rigidity of a leader and lyrical musings of a man questioning his circumstances. Other roles, doubled with the passing of time between Acts 1 and 3, were satisfactorily supported by dark cavernous bass Steven Gallop’s Rev. Robert Knopwood/Daniel McAllenan, polished baritone Lucas de Jong’s Lt James Tuckey/James Gumm and Jerzy Kozlowski as Dr Edward Bromley/Rev. George Langhorne. Tenor Stephen Carolane’s effortless energy drew impressive life on three roles, of which Buckley’s fellow convict, William Marmon, was sung with pleasing vigour. And it seemed that a token female white role was needed for an English song but it beamed full of richness from Alexandra Oke as Hannah Power. Members of the Rosebud Theatre Group, Astral Theatre Society and Southern Peninsula Singers formed an adequately sung chorus of settlers and Aboriginals but reinforced numbers would have helped.

Lampard’s period-dressed design brilliantly resolved the needs of the opera’s setting while capturing a sense of isolation, simplicity and hardship with the enigma and depth of the bush ever-present. Stands of tea tree could be moved about in their dry landscape shaped by raw canvas, parts of which could be hoisted and lowered to create variable scenes. Projections added minor benefit to the whole picture although a camp-fire burning during Buckley and Purran-Murnin’s duet looked convincing. Notably, Lampard’s spatial eye and sensitivity in blocking kept the breadth and depth of the stage well covered and consistently visually interesting.

Before Buckley got underway, local Indigenous elder Caroline Briggs’ revealing welcome to country included the story of her ancestral links to both local Indigenous and white people from Collins’ original settlement. In those few words alone a collective emotive energy seemed to fill the room. Unfortunately, it didn’t feel that way when the lights when down on the final act.

Buckley Opera Project with the Astral Theatre Society Rosebud
Rosebud Memorial Hall
Until 27th April, 2019

Production Photos: Amanda Stuart