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Brett Dean [Photo: University of Louisville]
07 Jun 2010

Bliss, Tosca and La Sonnambula at Opera Australia

Opera Australia regularly commission new work. Usually serious subjects drawn from notable Australian literature or dealing with an event or hero from Australian history.

Bliss, Tosca and La Sonnambula at Opera Australia

Above: Brett Dean [Photo: University of Louisville]


One, The Eighth Wonder, even dealt with the creation of Opera Australia’s main venue, the Sydney Opera House.


The most recent commission Bliss, is by Brett Dean and based on the novel of the same name by one of Australia’s most celebrated living authors, Peter Carey. Unusually it is not a serious historical work, instead it is a grotesque satire on the Australian Bourgeoisie worthy of Gogol, inspired by the author’s early life in the advertising industry.

Carey satirises the industry with the same ferocity Barry Humphries satirises the rest of Australian culture. Harry Joy heads an ad company, is rich and successful but, as the opera opens, is felled by heart attack on his birthday. Clinically dead for a few minutes Harry is convinced he has awakened in Hell. Delusional he visits his favourite restaurant and sees the place over-run with circus performers and an elephant that sits on his car.

Recovering his composure Harry determines to be good and run a socially responsible business, his family, however, are far from good as he discovers. Peering through his window he witnesses his wife Betty in the throes of an affair with his business partner and, through another window, his daughter Lucy exchanging sexual favours with his son David in return for drugs.

Retreating to a hotel the lonely Harry calls an escort agency only to be bewitched by the call girl, Honey B. a part-time prostitute who lives in the country producing honey.

Convinced Harry is mad his family have him committed but a colleague, Alex, visits him when the psychiatric team arrive and Alex is taken by mistake. Alex refuses to change places with the real Harry when he is finally brought in. Betty purchases Harry’s discharge and takes over the business, displaying a talent for advertising that astounds Harry. Betty is diagnosed with cancer, caused by exposure in her early life to petrol at her father’s service station. A petroleum company is coincidentally the major client of the agency and Betty ignites a can of petrol at a company meeting, immolating herself, her lover Johnny and the entire board. Harry deserts his son and daughter and goes with Honey to her bushland retreat and finds solace in planting trees.

Bliss may be Dean’s first opera but its decade long evolution has coincided with his development as a composer of international stature. His work features in concert throughout Australia, Britain, the United States and Europe and he was the winner of last year’s Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.

The libretto is by Amanda Holden who will be known as the senior editor of the admirable Viking Opera Guide. Holden encapsulates Carey’s 1981 novel with only minor changes and creates from it many ensembles and opportunities for arioso, particularly in the opera’s most dramatic moments such as Betty’s ‘petrol aria’ and the sublimely simple – Candide like - concluding scene.


Ethereal and mystical themes prompt Dean to some of his most successful creations. Ariel’s Music (inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest) is one while Beggars and Angels is an earlier and highly praised merging of otherworldly beauty and brutal baseness not unlike the music of Bliss. In the opening scene, when Harry briefly dies Dean creates a magical, otherworldly sound to accompany the experience. For Harry’s Hellish surroundings the music is infused with a course, satirical edge, appropriately for this Gogol-esque fantasy, sounding particularly in the early interludes, like Shostakovich at his ironic best.

Dean’s multi faced score even suggest further playful references to other opera’s with similar situations. Harry’s fascination with the prostitute Honey B, for example, evokes Berg’s Lulu. Throughout Bliss Dean depicts this vulgar world but concludes the opera with a return to magical simplicity describing Harry’s new, simpler and purer life with the now angelic Honey. Scored for a coloratura soprano Lorina Gore is Lulu-like to look at and listen to, praising her favourite variety of honey in seductive, high melisma.

The tranquil ending, where Harry opts to tend the garden returns the music from blustering satire to ethereal simplicity much like the brief episode at the beginning.

The role of Harry is tour-de-force requiring the baritone to be on stage and singing for most of the opera. Peter Coleman-Wright is exceptional. The present cast all have the luxury of having the opera tailored to them and the effect is rather like listening to the pioneering recordings of a Britten opera with the role creators.

An Ad Man’s dream must be to see his work illuminated on glittering sign boards like in New York’s Times Square. Harry’s surreal vision is played out in a nightmare inversion of that dream. The entire scenic design is created on a LED light screen enveloping the stage. Programmed lights achieve locations and effects, even the elephant incident and the boardroom inferno. In the asylum a violinist plays referencing the Bedlam as depicted in William Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress.

Director Neil Armfield has supervised some of the company’s most important and artistically acclaimed productions and has done so again with the careful, 10 year, generation of Bliss.

Bliss — Peter Coleman-Wright: Harry Joy; Merlyn Quaife: Betty; Lorina Gore: Honey B; Barry Ryan: Alex; David Corcoran: David; Malcolm Ede: Neighbour/Asylum Doctor/Managing Director 3; Taryn Fiebig: Lucy; Teresa La Rocca, Jane Parkin: Nurses; Kanen Breen: Johnny; Shane Lowrencev: Reverend Des/Police Officer 2/Nurse; Henry Choo: Aldo/Nigel Clunes; Milijana Nikolic: Mrs Dalton, Matron of the psychiatric hospital; Stephen Smith: Police Officer 1/Betty's Doctor. Erkki Veltheim: Onstage Violinist. Sam Sakker, David Lewis, Christopher Hillier, Sam Roberts-Smith: Company Directors. Opera Australia Chorus. Orchestra Victoria. Elgar Horwarth: Conductor. Neil Armfield: Director. Kate Champion: Choreographer. Brian Thomson: Set Designer. Alice Babidge: Costume Designer. Nigel Levings: Lighting Designer. State Theatre Melbourne, April 20, 23, 27 & May 1, 2010.

This production of Bliss will travel to the 2010 Edinburgh Festival with performances on September 2 & 3. The European premiere will be staged staged, in a new production, by the Hamburg State Opera on September 12, 15, 19, 21, 25 & October 2, 2010.


For thirty years Opera Australia maintained a production of Tosca by John Copley, closely modelled on his famous Covent Garden production for Maria Callas. With this in mind, perhaps audiences became over familiar the “shabby little shocker” (as the music historian Joseph Kerman memorably dubbed it) its shocks predictable and its shabbiness almost literal!

Collective memories were challenged by the importation of Christopher Alden reworking of Tosca, first mounted by England’s Opera North in 2002, and which drastically modernises the opera in time and dramatic conception. Tosca has been updated before, but Alden’s interpretation goes much further. Alden cites an “aspect to 19th-century art and opera … less connected to our modern sensibility…” and so updated the setting to contemporary Italy where political corruption and the machinery of justice is, as the press regularly remind us, as rife as ever. Judging from his interpretation

In his vision of contemporary Italy (the locations having been neutralised along with references to Napoleon or any other historical events and persons) Alden would also have us believe the Roman Catholic is just an extension of the State where the Sacristan now sells lottery tickets and assists in Cavaradossi’s torture and imprisonment.

The entire proceedings take place in a church basement where ‘Forza Italia’ posters adorn the walls. The confessional, plaster saints and religious brick-a-brack have been put into storage here and Cavaradossi is engaged, not as an art creator, but an art restorer, mending the pictures littering this basement.

Alden has added plot twists and complications, some of them implicit in the story, others not at all. And not all of them work. Anyone knowing the libretto or speaking Italian will notice names and places still sung although they are omitted from the English translation projected above the stage. So confusion, even frustration reign as one attempts to reconcile tradition with innovation. When the Sacristan announces that the, unnamed tyrant (whose name, Bonaparte, is still uttered by the singers), has been defeated, the chorus enter in a curious slow motion walk that signifies, perhaps, that the following scene is not very real (or that Alden has not quite worked out how to incorporate the action into his new scheme). Even more confusing, they proceed to trash the artworks that Cavaradossi has concentrated so much attention, even more attention that he paid to Tosca during her brief visit, on restoring. When the Te Deum is eventually sung, the chorus are not participating in a sacred service but are buying lottery tickets!

Angelotti’s sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, actually appears and, concealing herself on top of the confessional and watches the entire proceedings including the torture and execution of Cavaradossi as well as substituting for the off–stage shepherd’s voice in act three.

When act two begins Scarpia is eating pizza. There is no elegant dinner table for Tosca to perform her knife discovering dumb show, and you certainly don’t get cutlery in take-away pizza boxes. Instead Spoletta, barely concealing his hatred of Scarpia and, by brandishing a packing knife and placing it conveniently within Tosca’s reach, sets up his despised boss’s death. In this soulless environment, Tosca is actually raped, and Scarpia is murdered ‘in flagrante delicto’.


The third act takes place as a fantasy, the traumatised Tosca only imagining her final meeting with Cavaradossi who was apparently dead even before she entered into the fatal bargain with Scarpia. Snapping back into reality by Spoletta and Sciarrone who have been present the entire time, they fake surprise and, finding Tosca cowering in the corner, shoot her.

Although details like police firing cannons to alert that a prisoner has escaped seem odd in this contemporary setting Alden connects it, as he had hoped, to our modern sensibility. As one of the most often performed operas, Tosca, despite its violence, has assumed a bizarre normality. Like cartoon violence, it is shrugged off as melo-dramatic make believe, much the same way Shakespeare’s plays, are revered and excused. Alden attempts to re-establish the horror by turning it up several notches, taking away familiar cues such as Scarpia’s dinner knife, and bring back the uncertainty and mounting tension that must have been felt by an original audience. Wearing cheap trench coats and indulging in uncensored violence the opera strays from the world of grand Italian art to the lurid world of Italian exploitation movies.

The original story is of course badly compromised. While relationship between Tosca and Scarpia remains almost unscathed, Cavaradossi’s character is drastically altered, no doiubt frustratingly so to any tenor hoping to play the traditional hero. Alden’s smudging of the relationship between the libretto and Puccini’s musical setting can be frustrating too. The scurrying music, for example, after Tosca has left and Angelotti’s and Cavaradossi conspire his escape is ignored. But if one disregards these minor details, what emerges, instead, is an unforgettable account of the opera’s central crisis where a psychopath terrorises his victim with horrific results. And in the act two encounter between Tosca and Scarpia, there is as more mounting tension and catharsis as a traditional production with Tosca in gloves and tiara and Scarpia with decent catering. In act one Tosca is a self-assured, calm, sunglasses sporting woman. In act two, her self-assurance evaporates.

Despite any misgivings about the staging, the musical performance was first rate. The conductor, Shao-Chia Lü, guides the climaxes and paces the music underlining the dramatic action with great conviction, the familiar arias and scenes seeming to unfurl.

Youl has an exciting voice and can apply a powerful, cutting edge. But it is in the middle voice, particularly in the almost spoken exchanges with Scarpia, that she impresses most with a power of declamation worthy of Tebaldi. Wegner is a gifted, singing actor. A splendid Wagnerian, he can produce a pulverising sound or project the barest whisper. His presence is as commanding as his voice and he enters into the inhuman spirit of this newly conceived Scarpia with astounding assurance. The way Youl and Wegner use the stage space speaks volumes as his sadism escalates her defiance evaporates. Rosario La Spina is challenged by the shift in Cavaradossi’s character. His voice is warm and genuinely Italianate, perfectly suited to the two famous arias but, as a less than enthusiastic ex-lover in act one and robbed of the night sky, impending death and firing squad for his death, his new role makes less impact. With the Sacristan and Spoletta transformed from stock characters to newly motivated participants in the tragedy, even the smaller parts give new insights to their singers and they are cast from strength. Fyfe, for example, sings the Sacristan with a malevolent edge, almost matching Wegner’s Scarpia.

In stripping away familiar dramatic landmarks Alden revitalised what is, after all, one of the most horrific scenes in opera. With the comfort of knowing that Tosca will be chased three times around the sofa, fall on her knees to sing “Visi d’arte”, discover the knife and use it before Scapria claims her, gone, the viewer no longer knows what to expect only that it will be something dreadful. As performed by Youl and Wegner it is hair-raising!

This new production continues to confront and occasionally confuse by its clash of naturalistic and non-naturalistic acting but in shattering this familiar work Alden delivers a shattering experience.

Tosca — Nicole Youl: Floria Tosca; Rosario La Spina: Cavardossi; John Wegner: Scarpia; Jud Arthur: Angelotti; Warwick Fyfe: Sacristan / Gaoler; Graeme Macfarlane: Spoletta; Andrew Moran: Sciarrone; Sian Pendry: Marchesa Attavanti. Opera Australia Chorus. Orchestra Victoria. Conductor: Shao Chia Lü. Director: Christopher Alden, Rehearsed by Cathy Dadd. Set & Lighting Designer: Charles Edwards. Costume Designer: Jon Morrell. State Theatre, Melbourne. April 14, 17, 21, 24, 28 May 1, 4, 10 & 13, 2010.

La Sonnambula

While Tosca is mainstay of Opera Australia’s repertoire, Bellini’s La Sonnambula has not been professionally staged here since Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge included it in their touring company in 1965. Seizing on the success of a new I Capuleti e I Montecchi last year, Opera Australia are promoting the star of that production, Emma Matthews, in a new staging of La Sonnambula. Recently returned from her debut at England’s Royal Opera as Janacek’s Vixen, Matthews actually possesses a formidable coloratura voice and technique and is developing her repertoire along those lines. This is her first Amina and she displays a keen understanding of the style of the role and the genre it belongs to. The high lying notes were delivered with a sense of effortlessness, high notes clear and strong without being strident. Matthews also demonstrates what bel canto is all about. Runs were executed faultlessly, the individual notes of ascending and descending scales clearly articulated, and her trill is genuine and seemingly endless. She can apply a soft focus without losing any of the clarity in her singing and, for a role where the character is asleep as often as awake, that softness of tone lends the music a ‘dreamy’ aspect.

Emma-Matthews---Joshua-Bloo.gifMatthews is also a very engaging actor and, aided by a deceptively simple production by Julie Edwardson, creates a moving Amina, her dreams giving way to a melancholy perfectly intimated by the music in the two sleepwalking scenes. Both Matthews and Edwardson understand that character is created through music and both base their interpretations in Bellini’s this ingenious music.

As Elvino, Jorge Lopez-Yanez, has the kind of ‘tenorino’ voice that, we would believe, prevailed in Bellini’s time and he sang with the same softness of tone as Mathews. He and Joshua Bloom as Count Rodolfo were able to display a similar elegance of style thanks to the encouragement and beautiful shaping of the score from conductor Richard Bonynge.

In the same way Taryn Fiebig’s solo when she briefly becomes Elvino’s betrothed was made into a telling dramatic moment as her music echoed Amina’s in the first sleepwalking scene as Amina’s imagined her marriage to Elvino.

Edwardson has reconceived the opera to the early 20th century. Richard Robert has designed a single set with a central raked, revolving platform and costumes that at times look like a kind of alpine Albert Herring. Edwardson suggests, without overplaying, the Jungian and Freudian fascination with dreams happening at this time and the nocturnal palate of Matt Scott's lighting created a visual parallel to the nocturnal and dreamlike music. Other touches, like Amina slipping into a trance in the act one ensemble where the phantom that haunts the village is mentioned (and is of course, really Amina) are brilliantly subtle and dramatic additions.

Bonynge knows this opera inside out and breathed long phrases into the music without affecting the drama. The charm and intimacy of the music came through from the very start, despite the expansiveness of the large auditorium. His decisions about tempo and keys and selection of embellishments for Matthews’s key arias added to the success of the production.

La Sonnambula — Emma Matthews: Amina; Jorge Lopez-Yanez: Elvino; Joshua Bloom: Count Rodolfo; Taryn Fiebig: Lisa; Elizabeth Campbell: Teresa; Andrew Jones: Alessio; Kanen Breen: Notary. Opera Australia Chorus. Orchestra Victoria. Richard Bonynge: Conductor. Julie Edwardson: Director. Richard Roberts: Set & Costume Designer. Matt Scott: Lighting Designer. Presented by Opera Australia. State Theatre, Melbourne April 30, May 3, 6, 8, 12, 15 & 17, 2010. Sydney Opera House August 5, 7, 9, 11, 14, 17, 19, 21 & 24, 2010.

Michael Magnusson

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