October 2012

Arts & Letters

The Best of Australian Opera 2012

By Barney Zwartz
'Of Mice and Men', Opera Australia, 2011. © Branco Gaica

Conventional wisdom says that to survive these straitened times opera companies must offer a populist diet: Puccini, Mozart, the occasional Verdi, plus Carmen. This past year, however, opera lovers have enjoyed a feast of new or rare music, from small amateur productions up.

From IOpera’s intelligent production of The Emperor of Atlantis, Viktor Ullman’s opera written in a concentration camp – performed to only a couple of dozen at a time for a short season at Monash University’s arts faculty gallery – to Victorian Opera’s double bill of Manuel de Falla and Elliott Carter and its 2012 commission, Gordon Kerry’s Midnight Son, the common factors were ambition and flair.

Brisbane enjoyed Opera Australia’s ethereal production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Baz Luhrmann, and the State Opera of South Australia offered a bold staging of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Opera Australia’s production of Erich Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) won the critics, and required an orchestra too numerous to fit in the pit of Sydney Opera House’s theatre. The musicians had to be housed in the neighbouring studio, with the sound piped in via 97 speakers.

But the clear stand-out, across new and established works, was the powerful and engrossing Opera Australia production of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, taken from the bleak John Steinbeck novella about Depression-era drifters.

All the parts were excellent, making a superb whole, showing meticulous attention to detail. Director Bruce Beresford employed all his cinematic craft, enhanced by John Stoddart’s gritty sets and Nigel Levings’ evocative lighting. They created an atmospheric and compelling production, depicting with full force the pathos of desperate men clinging to their dreams in the face of reality, present and future.

Conductor Tom Wood drew a superlative performance of the demanding and astringent score from Orchestra Victoria, while the cast acted flawlessly. American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey was memorable, utterly inside the role of the simple-minded colossus Lennie Small. Every hand gesture, expression and movement showed what a frightening and uncertain world he inhabited.

Barney Zwartz
Barney Zwartz is a journalist and the religion editor for the Age.

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