Australian superstar soprano Dame Nellie Melba is the perfect subject for a new Australian musical: she was a ground-breaking and pioneering Australian artist who suffered enormous personal pain and found herself challenging late Victorian era expectations of how a woman should live when it comes to family and morality.
But perhaps most importantly, Melba is an inherently musical and theatrical subject: a woman whose professional and personal form of expression was as an opera singer.
Lyricist and book writer Nicholas Christo and composer Johannes Luebbers have cleverly crafted Melba, a musical which traces the singer’s meteoric rise to fame while her family and personal life comes under immense pressure.
Christo has decided to focus on just a few years of Melba’s life, with the accomplished singer, played by a luminous Emma Matthews, looking back to when she chased her dreams of being a star halfway across the world, and was forced to pay a huge price for her ambition. The action unfolds as a kind of memory play, with Annie Aitken playing the younger Nellie.
The musical doesn’t quite live up to its subject’s potential, but is buoyed by a smartly structured book and some excellent vocal and dramatic performances in its premiere production at the Hayes Theatre.
Melba is about very many things, but at its core is a woman struggling within the straitjacket of societal expectations. On the one hand, she’s a devoted mother to her young son George (Samuel Skuthorp), but on the other she has extraordinary passion for her international musical career. Melba, being a “modern woman”, knows that she can certainly be both committed mother and touring operatic superstar, but neither the public, nor her manipulative and short-sighted husband Charles (Andrew Cutcliffe), agree with her assessment.
Can a woman from the Victorian era really “have it all”? Not easily.
Eight years of development have clearly allowed Melba the space necessary to find its focus and for the creators to understand precisely the story they’re telling. They don’t, however, seem to quite trust the audience to figure out this overarching exploration on their own, and try to punctuate and comment on the action as it unfolds through the lyrics, in rather bare, exclamatory terms.
Christo’s scenes are largely very good, and his characters feel authentic in their evolutions, but most of the lyrics lack any great sense of adventure or excitement. Given the rich colours in some of his dialogue, it’s surprising that his lyrics are only occasionally more than serviceable.
Luebbers has found a contemporary musical theatre style that matches the melodrama of Melba’s story and the operatic world she called home. The score certainly has its moments — and the recurring Here to Be the Best motif will stick with you in a very satisfying way — and it owes a great debt to the operatic-influenced mega-musicals coming out of Britain in the 1980s and early ’90s.
But the musical heart and soul of the show is the arias — selections from La Traviata, The Marriage of Figaro, Tosca and Carmen — performed by Matthews. Several of the arias were actually performed by Melba at her 1902 homecoming concert in Melbourne, which is the framing device for this retelling of her story.
Matthews is an extraordinary coloratura soprano, and many opera fans would pay good money to hear her sing this material in an intimate recital setting. In Melba, they’re seamlessly integrated into the storytelling and performed with a small musical ensemble, led by musical director Michael Tyack. The unity of sound from the backstage band and the singers on stage — who can only go off a small TV screen projection of the conductor at the back of the auditorium — is impressive, and the subtle amplification of Matthews voice doesn’t distract too greatly.
Matthews has performed several of these arias before, so they’re beautifully worn-in, but it’s a thrill to hear her tackle Vissi d’arte from Tosca. Generally, Matthews’ lyric soprano wouldn’t generally be the perfect fit for the role of Tosca, but in this intimate setting she delivers something very fresh and heartfelt.
Director Wayne Harrison draws parallels between Matthews and the wonderful Annie Aitken, who plays the younger Melba with a significant degree of pluck and does most of the dramatic heavy-lifting. There’s a lot happening on stage, but a simple circular white platform in the centre (production design by Mark Thompson) helps to draw these two women together and keep the spotlight on Melba’s various dilemmas.
The handling of Melba’s son — played by Samuel Skuthorp with the help of a few puppets — is less successful. It’s more a design flaw than a staging issue: Skuthorp and the puppet he manipulates wear matching sailing outfits that look a little comical and out of step with the rest of the visual world created by Thompson. Surely they don’t both need to be dressed that way. Surely the audience’s imaginations could be put to better use.
The supporting performances are strong across the board, with Caitlin Berry particularly excellent in a variety of roles, including Melba’s fabulously gossipy friend and patron Gladys de Grey. Genevieve Lemon is as irresistible as ever as Melba’s teacher Madame Marchesi, while Samuel Skuthorp and Andrew Cutcliffe form a believable fractured family unit with Aitken’s Nellie.
There’s a sense that Melba has left some dramatic depth left unplumbed — particularly in the original score — but it remains a very confident and competent piece of storytelling. The greatest thrill is inevitably in hearing one of Australia’s greatest sopranos perform a selection of showpiece arias in an intimate setting. That the story of Nellie Melba doesn’t fade into the background is an achievement in and of itself.