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The Riders review (Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne)

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Adapting a novel into an opera is like putting a cork back into a bottle. It probably won’t fit.

The Riders, Tim Winton’s 1994 Man Booker-nominated fiction, is a particular challenge. Here is a work of absence: a longing husband, a missing wife, an emotional deprivation as devastating as it is arcane. Winton’s work is a psychological riddle, over hundreds of pages. Victoria Opera’s adaptation is a brisk 105 minutes of lyrical concentrate. There’s something vital missing, but if you haven’t read the novel you’re not entirely sure what.

Winton wasn’t at the opening of the Victorian Opera/Malthouse Theatre collaboration. He’d recognise his work, certainly. Or at least fragments of it. The soundscape is evocative, the visuals less so. But it serves as a companion piece to the book rather than an independent work. Without the understanding of motivation, the emotional intensity is lost. Frankly, it’s all a little baffling in a way bad lyric opera can be.

It’s important to separate the ambition from the execution. In its now perennial presentation of new works, the modest Victorian company stands head and shoulders above others — notably the well-feathered Opera Australia nest — as a place where contemporary opera lives. If the form is to mean anything to Australian audiences now and in the future — and that’s a live question — Australian composers adapting quality Australian literary works is a bloody good place to start.

But this is a bit of a miss, sadly. Despite the best of intentions.

Scully (Barry Ryan) is building a family home in Ireland (only the synopsis reveals this; the geographical shifts are poorly handled), awaiting the arrival of his wife Jennifer (Jessica Aszodi) and daughter Billie (Isobela Calderon) from Perth. We see Jennifer with Billie on a gangway above — she is flesh and blood on stage, unlike Winton’s novel where she is neither seen nor heard. The librettist, accomplished poet and dramaturge (and critic) Alison Croggon, has talked about the need to give Jennifer — inexplicably cruel in her abandonment — a voice. The marital duet feels ominous. But it doesn’t colour anything in.

This is a marriage on the rocks, we guess. He was too smothering, perhaps too dimwitted for her. She’s a “songbird” trapped in the “cage of his arms”, she sings, in one of the clumsier lyrical metaphors (whether that’s Winton or Croggon, I couldn’t say). Ian Grandage’s score, tightly conducted by VO artistic director Richard Mills, beautifully echoes her trill. His music is attentive, elusive in melody as we’ve come to expect from contemporary opera but vivid and distinctly Australian. The novel — and the opera translation — is as caked in red dirt as any of Winton’s fare, despite not setting foot on Australian shores.

But Croggon has so few words to explain this mystery. There’s little exposition; the lyrics — poetic in parts, a little laboured in others — attempt to capture the emotion, at least Scully’s desperation and depression. Jennifer, a ghostly presence, is much more muffled.

Dale Ferguson’s design — stark and dizzying at once — doesn’t help. It’s desperately cold, a sweep of metallic sheeting that cocoons the acoustics but leaves an unimaginative canvass. Projections of airport flight boards are used as a setting device but are too confusing to be helpful. There’s little intimacy in Matt Scott’s lighting design, too. The performers are left with a clutter of hobby horses to build houses and bars and lounges, to varying effects.

There are fine voices here, certainly. After an awarded presidential turn in Nixon In China for VO last year, and as a standout local in OA’s Ring circus, Ryan proves his top-flight status with a rumbling, anguished performance as Scully. Aszodi employed a vibrant vibrato in challenging segments. Calderon bears a heavy narrative load as Billie for a teenage performer, but she handled it superbly.

Jerry Kozlowski, David Rogers-Smith and Dimitry Shepherd act as a trio of doomsayer prophets, and play the other minor roles. Rogers-Smith, a favourite of Melbourne Opera, was typically assured; in her part as Jennifer’s former lover, Shepherd’s hysterical turn is overcooked in melody and performance.

There’s a chequered history to Australian opera works. Brett Dean’s Bliss — the last original OA work, remarkably now four years ago — had an uncomely score and struggled, like The Riders, to capture the weight of Peter Carey’s novel. At VO, the adaptation of Kathy Lette’s How To Kill Your Husband was inconsequential; its real-crime drama Midnight Sun was more substantial but had significant problems.

Under director Marion Potts, The Riders might be the most polished of recent attempts. But it’s not the landmark it perhaps could have been. There are parts that uplift, but the whole is ultimately unsatisfying. A work of transience finally evaporates with too many unanswered questions.

The Riders plays Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre until October 4. (Picture: Jessica Aszodi, Barry Ryan and Isobela Calderon — by Jeff Busby)

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