Monday, August 26, 2019

Aviation and operatic history take flight together once again in an unfussy and beautifully cast revival of Barry Conyngham's Fly from Melbourne Lyric Opera

Two flights of stairs below ground level at central Melbourne’s fourtyfivedownstairs, an Australian opera took to the stage for the first time since it premiered 35 years to the day. Composer Barry Conyngham’s Fly, about Australian aviation pioneer Lawrence Hargrave, was commissioned by Victorian State Opera for Melbourne’s newly built State Theatre which opened in 1984. Since then, the state opera company has been drastically reshaped and pared down considerably. To some extent, Conyngham’s Fly has too, but nothing feels lost in small local enterprise Melbourne Lyric Opera's unfussy and sensitively lit staging that retains the work’s musical integrity and is beautifully cast with a strong vocal outfit. Sadly, it appears Fly won’t be recorded for the nation to listen to on ABC Classic FM and that’s the disappointment.

Sam Roberts-Smith as Lawrence Hargrave
For those who handled the Australian $20 banknote between 1966 and 1994, the white-bearded Hargrave, surrounded by some of his gliders, was a familiar sight. A NSW coastal road that begins near Stanwell Park, where Hargrave flew his varied apparatus, is named after him, as is a Qantas A380. Fame, however, was the last thing he sought. And make no mention of patents because Hargrave wouldn’t have a bar of them, much to his wife’s annoyance. We learn this through Murray Copland’s direct and informative libretto in which Hargrave’s story is told in just 4 episodes. Its 80-minute duration, however, feels generously ripe and, in combination with Conyngham’s delightfully and deeply evocative music, Hargrave’s intelligence, mild eccentricity and humility radiate through.

Based around his home with his wife and three children, far more is explored than merely biographical storytelling. The two-act work moves from 1904, soon after the first successful manned flight, to a scene on New Guinea’s Fly River in 1876 when Hargrave was an engineer on Italian Luigi D’Albertis’ expedition and finally at his home in Woollhara in 1915 where news of the death of his only son Geoffrey at Gallipoli is received. It’s an achingly emotional conclusion for a man who demands his son’s name never be mentioned in his presence - tellingly, Geoffrey is a figure mentioned and never given form - and who recognises the race against death to share the fruit of his perennially inventive mind. Just as he believes Geoffrey died doing his duty, we presume Hargrave will too, doing his.

Shakira Dugan as Meg and Caroline Vercoe as Mrs Hargrave
In Lara Kerestes’ keenly perceptive direction, a sense of both drama and immediacy is created that glides along effortlessly and variably, from the hypnotic reading of Hargrave’s notes to candlelight by his wife and daughters Olive and Meg around ripples of music to the altercation between Hargrave and his wife over his disinterest in patenting his designs and the poignantly played out arrival of the priest who bares bad news. Around a simple design concept by Zunica that draws inspiration from Hargraves’ strung lightweight devices, the cast work wonderfully with her.

As Hargrave, Sam Roberts-Smith is in view most of the time, even when not singing, and when he finally comes forth from having been working at the rear, his baritone launches with well-oiled smoothness firing resonance and power to revel in. Further, in an Aussie accent that marks place like no other, Roberts-Smith’s interplay with his characters deftly shows Hargrave’s behavioural changes in the relationships around him, making engaging three-dimensionality of the man known to be called the mad kite flyer.

Sam Roberts-Smith as Hargrave and Cameron Silby as young Hargrave
Often seen frowning as his wife Margret, treasure-rich mezzo-soprano Caroline Vercoe gives a compelling performance that exposes the heart of her character with an aching sense of melancholy, usually singing at her husband rather than to him in her frustration. Shakira Dugan is the most effective in being understood, her lighter mezzo-soprano delivering pristine diction with vocal elegance and flexibility as the matter-of-fact, slightly sarcastic Meg. Lisette Bolton soars with dreamy delight with her pure and bright soprano that perfectly suits the wide-eyed and cheerful Olive. In the central scene on New Guinea’s Fly River that plays out a tad too long, a fine muscular tenor accompanies Cameron Silby’s earnest young Hargrove and warm baritone Cameron Taylor drips with mistrust as a sinisterly Luigi D’Albertis.

The ethereal threads, intoxicating translucency and uplift of tension in Conyngham’s music are brought to highly satisfying heights in artistic director and conductor Pat Miller’s resolute and tactful approach. Electronic keyboard players Louis Nicoll and James Dekleva add particularly fine atmospheric colour, as does Kim Tan on flute, alto flute and piccolo amongst the Lyric Ensemble of nine. Barry Conyngham was there to take a bow as well. Let’s hope he has the opportunity to do so again in the not too distant future.

Melbourne Lyric Opera
fourtyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Until 1st September 2019

Production Photos: Lachlan Woods

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