Thursday, October 17, 2019

A little moral and endearing magic in the world premiere of Victorian Opera’s The Selfish Giant


In a simple tale with a simple message, theatrically drawn with affecting heart, youthful life and a touch of wit, Victorian Opera’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant made it’s world premiere at Albert Park’s Gasworks Theatre this week. The latest in years of new works commissioned by this energetic and inclusive company, The Selfish Giant adds a little moral and endearing magic to the long list.

Stephen Marsh as The Giant and youth chorus, Victorian Opera
Most remarkably, the compact 70-minute work highlights the talents of, among many, two young artists in composer Simon Bruckard and librettist Emma Muir-Smith. Indications are that they have a bright future in musical storytelling. Bruckard’s music is variegated with aplomb and features some excellent pounding rhythms, dissonant ambience and pensive lulling passages. It’s achieved through a small ensemble of nine players and a solid balance of instruments including the unblemished work of Peter Clark on violin, Julie Raines on harp, Jasper Ly on oboe/cor anglais and Phillipa Safey on piano. Taking ownership of his composition, Bruckard conducts with an instinctively good sense of tempo and attentiveness to his team.

Muir-Smith’s libretto feels natural and direct. It also eschews the religious connection to the Christ Child in its abridged version of Wilde’s tale, one which reads much like a parable and part of a collection of children’s stories first published in 1888 as The Happy Prince and Other Stories.

In the title role, top-hatted and distinguished, the attractive, brooding and roasty baritone that Stephen Marsh characteristically exhibits is a perfect match for The Giant whose gloomy demeanour is lifted when he learns that sharing his garden gives him happiness. Bruckard has written with a deep sensitivity for The Giant and Marsh makes a sturdy and memorable portrayal of a solitary figure who comes to understand the consequences of his actions. Great at gruffness and a joy to watch skipping with the children (to a near heart-attack), Marsh reveals the gentle giant within in a warmly resonant and touching transformation. Next Wednesday, Marsh joins the finalists of the Herald Sun Aria in partnership with Melbourne Opera and, without a doubt, he has won a few more fans.


Noah Ryland as Wind, Michael Dimovski as Snow,
Olivia Federow-Yemm as Winter and Darcy Carroll as Frost
After the opening introspective bars, Spring (Saffrey Brown) and her Fairies (Stephanie Ciantar and Chloe Maree Harris) bring sweet melody and beautifully harmonised singing to The Giant’s garden.
It’s the only piece that lingers and repeats for a tad too long, giving way to the children who appear with gusto to play in the garden. The almost 30-strong members of the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE) and youth opera artists are an instant delight. In their broad-checked uniforms, their vibrant singing and spirited but never over-acted acting is praiseworthy. So too is Cameron Menzies’ amply extracted and searching direction together with Elizabeth Hill-Cooper’s nimble choreography. 

Taking over The Giant’s garden, Olivia Federow-Yemm’s Winter is a confident and classy horned beauty with a tendency to lash out and a fine mezzo-soprano with breadth and agility. Arriving as a noisy trio of jovial vagabonds, Michael Dimovski, Noah Ryland and Darcy Carroll are a brilliantly comic and musical threesome as they set up camp in the garden as Snow, Wind and Frost respectively. But everyone glows on stage.

And it also looks a treat in its quirky use of perspective with so much wondrous dimensionality and colour-mood as part of James Browne’s expressionist design and Eduard Inglés’ lighting. The Giant’s little cottage and armchair are a particularly evocative rendering of scale. The setting also comes with a choreographed touch as well with the chorus of children adding botanical life with painted umbrellas and icicle sharpness with cut-outs to the picture. 

But the one thing noticeably lacking in a work that Oscar Wilde wrote for children and that Victorian Opera have staged with  panache and youth was a young audience to go with it. With four sold out shows in the 200-seat theatre, it’s not only a sign that The Selfish Giant sells, but we shouldn’t be seeing the last of him.


The Selfish Giant 
Victorian Opera
Gasworks Theatre, Albert Park 
Until 19th October 2019


Production Photos: Charlie Kinross

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