Victorian Opera is Malcolm Turnbull’s sort of company: agile, innovative, turning fresh ideas into action. It is truly the most exciting time to be an opera lover in Melbourne.
Or in most capital cities, as it turns out. The company’s latest project, in collaboration with chamber champions Musica Viva, will tour north and west (and be broadcast nationally on ABC Classic FM). It’s a unique opportunity to hear Baroque music the way it was meant to be sung. The vocals, indeed, are thrilling, even if the mish-mashed, semi-staged production is just slightly less harmonious.
From a company that, in the last decade, has birthed more original opera than any other in Australia, Voyage To The Moon is another unique package: a Baroque pasticcio — a mega-mix of recitative and arias, if you will — of 18th century work stitched together by a new English libretto and book from Australian playwright Michael Gow.
It’s heavy on Handel of course, George Frideric that is, with doses of (Antonio) Vivaldi, (Sigismondo) Molino, (Christoph) Gluck and other permed heads of the period artfully jimmied in. Played with a flawless buoyancy by a seven-person ensemble, led by harpsichordist and musical director Phoebe Briggs, it’s sweet music to the ears of Baroque devotees.
Your reviewer — a survivor of hours of long-form Handel — wouldn’t exactly call himself one. But Gow’s merciful gift — a 75-minute mix-tape featuring Australia’s finest vocal talent — is a more joyous one than you might imagine.
Emma Matthews, arguably Australia’s leading coloratura soprano, has wrestled Handel before in Melbourne: a 2013 Opera Australia production of Partenope. Her instrument, with its vivid colour and vigorous vibrato, is well suited. We’ve also seen her play mad: the exhausting title role in OA’s Lucia di Lammermoor in 2012. She gets to do both here, wearing pants this time, more playfully but with the same stringent command.
Gow, who also directs the piece, digs into 16th century Italian Ludovico Ariosto’s poetic saga Orlando Furioso to find a magical tale of mateship. And what could be more Australian than that?
Matthews’ Orlando has had the missus leave him for another man. And it’s driving him mad. Matthews winds up in the aria Tutti tremar dovrete from Gian Francesco De Majo’s Ricimero, re de’ Goti. It’s a fearsome performance, first highlighting the tight control Matthews has in the score’s many treacherous runs.
His mate Astolfo — Sally-Anne Russell, an impressive match for Matthews at every turn of tune — is on hand to calm him down. Drawn by the power of their bromance, the all-knowing magician Magnus (a prodigious Jeremy Kleeman, a young bass-baritone on the rise) is summoned to offer advice. Take a chariot to the moon, he sings, home to lost things, where they might just find Orlando’s missing sanity.
Standing guard is Selena — Matthews again, in a ravishing frock seemingly stolen from the Queen of the Night (all designer Christina Smith’s costumes are spectacular) — who must be convinced Orlando is worth saving. A luminous moon rises above the stage, the only set piece of Smith’s to speak of, really, along with a clutter of music stands and roadie cases. There’s a lack of creativity in the staging, it has to be said, even accounting for the cut-price, tour-ready nature of the piece. And a little awkwardness in some of the scene changes. Matt Scott’s lighting is effective, if unsubtle.
But for 75 minutes you can probably just close your eyes. The music and voices will carry you away, bookended by Vivaldi’s arousing overture (from L’incoronazione di Dario) and final triumphant trio (Doppio i nembi e le procelle from Il Giustino). Both Russell, an accomplished performer on world stages, and Kleeman deserve time in brighter spotlights. And to hear Matthews in the acoustically refined climes of the Elizabeth Murdoch Hall is a rare treat.
Grab a program and read the synopsis before the lights go down — even in English, the libretto inevitably gets a little lost. The affection in music now centuries old doesn’t.
Now that’s operatic innovation.