Elena Kats-Chernin and Justin Fleming
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Opera House. July 15.
Elena Kats-Chernin and Justin Fleming’s opera, Whiteley, mixes biography and epiphany to create a study of creation and destruction, of grand vision and sometimes sordid circumstance. The bio-pic narrative, charting artist Brett Whiteley’s life through childhood, love, success and death, punctuated by peak moments of self-realisation, is unusual for opera, which tends to prefer essence over information.
Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley and Julie Lea Goodwin as Wendy Whiteley.Credit:Janie Barrett
The work sustains interest, however, through Kats-Chernin’s finely-crafted score of variegated mood, texture, tone and style, fine performances, and the themes of Fleming’s libretto which, at key points, take one to the edge of what it is to be human, to create and to cease to be.
In a drama of more traditional operatic shape some of the life events – the parties, drug-busts and OBE – would have been shed and the relationships would be triangulated against essential conflicts and archetypes. But in the age of television we tell stories differently. This was an opera not only about genius but also about the troubled birth of something new in Australian artistic consciousness, in which it became relaxed in its sensuality, transfigured by its beauty and deeply troubled by inner contradictions. In this production all of these are gloriously manifest in Whiteley’s images, whose projections dominate David Freeman’s direction, Dan Potra’s design, Sean Nieuwenhuis’s video and John Rayment’s lighting.
With tousled hair and a shambling mix of insouciant brilliance and existential anxiety, tenor Leigh Melrose sang and portrayed the precocious, sometimes unlovable Whiteley with a vocal range from wiry ferocity to ethereal dreaminess, spanning swaggering moments of elan and despair.
As muse and wife, Wendy, Julie Lea Goodwin embodied beauty and grace of voice and persona, creating gentle radiance of tone and a character of liveliness, bristling energy and quiet mystery.
Kate Amos was frank and subtly defiant as daughter Arkie, unprotected from her father’s excesses, singing with fine edge and unexpected strength.
As the younger Arkie Natasha Green sang with simple undefiled purity. Singing his mother Beryl, Dominica Matthews handsomely completed the trio of reluctant goddesses and witnesses to Whiteley’s demonic addictions which lured him again and again to the abyss, an addiction as much to the intense creative presence he attributed, perhaps wrongly, to narcotic cognitive deformities as to the substance itself.
The opera canvases Whiteley’s life through the parties, the drug-busts and the OBE.Credit:Janie Barrett
The final trio of these three women, set in Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden at Lavender Bay, ended the piece in the tradition of Strauss’s Rosenkavalier in a moment of transfiguring iridescent serenity. A large cast of lively cameo roles (Richard Anderson, Nicholas Jones, Celeste Lazarenko, Tomas Dalton, Jonathan Alley, Brad Cooper, Leah Thomas, Ruth Strutt, and Angela Hogan) represented roles from Fijian police (Sitiveni Talei) to Robert Hughes (Alexander Hargreaves), Patrick White (Gregory Brown) and the Queen (Annabelle Chaffey). They populated short scenes which propelled the setting from Longueville to the Tate gallery taking in paradise and hell along the way.
Conductor Tahu Matheson and the Opera Australia Orchestra realised the textural intricacy of Kats-Chernin’s score – its moments of denuded pointillism, chthonic emptiness, comforting minimalism, bustling tango energy and transcendence with care while saxophonist Christina Leonard created a debonair and finely grained tonal leitmotif for Whiteley’s personality.
This was an opera about Sydney and its people, one of whom, Wendy Whiteley, waved quietly during the standing ovation, having just watched the opera of her life.
Source: Read Full Article