This opera breaks the mould into smithereens.
It’s a brand new Australian work that sings the praises of a national hero – in English. Whiteley is, of course, about the internationally acclaimed artist, Brett Whiteley – a colourful, complex, quirky subject in itself. Only a capable composer such as Elena Kats-Chernin could aptly translate the artist’s life and work into music and she does so with an energetic, mischievous, sensitive score that uses a sound palette equivalent to Whiteley’s vivid, unpredictable colour palette. There are no big solo or choral moments and this makes the pace relentless which actually suits the frenetic lifestyle Whiteley led.
Justin Fleming’s libretto is a mix of colloquialism, vulgarity and metaphysical poetry, reflecting the way Whiteley fluctuated between debauched behaviour and sublime creativity.
David Freeman’s direction of this production follows a recent Opera Australia trend to move away from the conventional and flex a bit of stagecraft muscle – and that works well for a modern opera about a break-out artist. Using a series of vertical screens, around, and very effective projections, we are fully immersed in Whiteley’s art and mind.
In the lead roles of Brett and Wendy are Leigh Melrose and Julia Lea Goodwin respectively. While there aren’t any breakout solos in the music, the roles are physically demanding and require a fair bit of acting, and both leads – in fact, all the cast – fulfil that criteria effectively.
If there is a problem with this opera it is that it is too “wikipedic” in the storytelling, that is, it goes from youth to death of Whiteley’s life showing the relevant highlights, but doesn’t get deep inside the crevices. Nevertheless, it’s an involving, entertaining journey and a refreshing addition to the opera repertoire.
Until Jul 30. Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney. $47-$361+b.f. Tickets & Info: www.sydneyoperahouse.com
Reviewed by Rita Bratovich