If only everyone could share in the experience of just how nourishing and enlightening opera can be. Of course, that’s not going to happen. We are all wired differently and life has an infinite array of options out there. Well, not quite during a pandemic. For almost a year, opera, along with all other performing arts, was locked out from the theatre. That didn’t so much rob you of who you are but did so of what it could bring to you. Happily, we’re all back together and two new short works commissioned by Victorian Opera and produced during lockdown exemplify the power and purpose of the art form as well as showcasing the company’s spirit of teamwork and adventure.
Simmering with passions and pertinence, composer Simon Bruckard and librettist Constantine Costi’s Cassandra heads this double bill in a powerfully synergised and lightning-strike work. Following a short interval, composer Kevin March and librettist Jane Montgomery Griffiths’ Echo and Narcissus dapples the senses and touches the soul with its ethereally woven threads and glittering rays of hope.
Shakira Dugan as Cassandra and Sam Sakker as Apollo
Dusting off their stories’ Ancient Greek mythological foundations, both artistic teams imbue them with contemporary relevance and identifiable characters. They stand apart musically but are splendidly aided and integrated by the miracle-making hand of Sam Strong’s fastidious direction and Anna Cordingley’s spiffy and sparkling sets and costumes.
Cassandra is a muscular stand-alone work which perfects the art of binding words and music with the dynamic range of spoken language. In all its seriousness, however, a little wit and playfulness add flavour. Having been rejected by Apollo’s slimy advances, all the while desperately trying to exhibit strength in the face of masculine toxicity and dominance, the work elevates a familiar issue. Cassandra is cursed to foresee the future yet believed by no one. Having warned of the fall of Troy and the death of her father Priam to no avail, she later addresses her audience with the wisdom that “Fate is sculptured by our hand”, and, in so saying, suggests a call to action, a call for change.
The instrumentation is spare (two pianos, saxophone and percussion) but presents deliciously evocative hues and jazzy sounds across its unpredictable, meandering course - a treat conducted by the composer Simon Bruckard himself.
The cast of three engaging artists fired all engines impressively also. Mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan displays superlative maturity in the title role as the elegant and spirited Cassandra with singing as lush and seductive as the figure she embodies. Without fail, Dugan has her audience behind her, fearing for her and hoping for her. As Apollo, it’s welcoming to see Sam Sakker back in Melbourne resonating the air with his large, shapely and unforced tenor, his gaudy image of a black velvet track-suited and gold-chained sleaze bucket perhaps not so welcome. And muscular baritone Simon Meadows celebrates a little too early in party-like fashion with groove in his step while throwing caution to the wind in outstanding form as Priam.
In the final scene, it appears Troy falls and a glittering rain of confetti comes down as a symbol of the devastation of its buildings and statues. It’s a stunning stage image which integrates cleverly when the curtain goes up on Echo and Narcissus. What was the debris of glitter from Cassandra becomes the statuesque figures of an ensemble of six female singers who play a large and pivotal part in its more allegorical telling - Elizabeth Barrow, Emily Barker-Briggs, Heather Fletcher, Louise Keast, Jane Magao and Ursula Paez’s singing, harmony and balance are impeccable.
Nathan Lay as Narcissus and Kathryn Radcliffe as Echo
For being too talkative, Echo is cursed to repeat the last words of others. Narcissus is likewise cursed for breaking so many hearts and is doomed to fall in love with his own reflection, which he does so after rejecting Echo who has fallen in love with him.
March’s score for viola, woodwind, harp and percussion is a delicate blend of subtle and melodious music that shimmers throughout. As Echo, soprano Kathryn Radcliffe is radiant as ever, her pure and crystalline tone floating and lingering wondrously, albeit melancholically, as she suffers rejection while warm and glowing baritone Nathan Lay is deeply focused in his performance and his own image as Narcissus. Both succeed in imparting the meditative quality of the work. Nevertheless, as divine as it sounds, it feels a tad longer than it needs to be.
The two works couple nicely, giving ancient myth modern light in reminding us, like they always have again and again, of the flaws and truths about ourselves. In that respect, they’ll forever inspire new work.
Cassandra and Echo and Narcissus
Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 20th March 2021
Production Photos: Jeff Busby