Covent Garden production visits Hobart’s baroque haven

Why transforming Tasmania into an island no longer uninhabited by opera was definitely a labour of love.

Back in the 1986, a young director/designer team arrived to work with the Australian Opera, later inexplicably re-badged as Opera Australia. Though well known in Europe, particularly for their work with Welsh National Opera, the Swedish director Göran Järvefelt and his principal costume and set designer, German-born Carl Friedrich Oberle, were virtually unheard of in Australia. Not for long. Their first opera for the national company was a glorious staging of The Magic Flute, adored by critics and audiences alike. Dubbed, with typical Australian irreverence, Underfelt and Overlay, this charmed artistic collaboration came to a tragic halt in 1989 with the sudden death of Järvefelt from a brain tumor at just 42 years of age.

For his stagings of the Mozart operas, Järvefelt was clearly inspired by the gorgeous little late 18th-century theatre in the grounds of the Royal Palace at Drottningholm near Stockholm, described by one former artistic director as “the Swedish jewel in European cultural heritage’s crown of centuries-old theatres.” During one of their stints in Australia, Järvefelt and Oberle visited the Theatre Royal in central Hobart. Built between 1834 and 1837 in the earlier, late Georgian style, it’s the only theatre of its vintage in Australia (and, as far as is known, in the southern hemisphere) that has been in continuous use since it opened.

Despite possessing a superb acoustic, the theatre has rarely been used for opera. The last time a serious production was mounted there was in 1988 when, with financial assistance from the Federal Government’s Bicentennial Fund, Australian Opera brought George Ogilvie’s production of Don Giovanni to Hobart. That year, every capital had to have a major celebration; Mozart’s masterpiece, coinciding with the first landfall in Australia of the splendid fleet of sailing vessels from all over the world, was Hobart’s. Interstate visitors flocked to Tassie for the occasion and soon the word was out: Hobart had a jewel of a theatre. Many actors, Laurence Oliver and Noel Coward among them, had previously recognised its rarity and beauty, but now that awareness was heightened.

After Järvefelt’s death, Oberle was inspired to found in his memory The Van Diemen’s Land Opera Company, specifically for performances of early operas. Many colleagues including Moffatt Oxenbould and Nigel Levings, and opera lovers including the late Margaret Whitlam and this writer, chipped in, but the scheme never came to fruition. Eight years ago I bought a house in Tasmania with the intention of splitting my time between here and the place that some Tasmanians like to refer to as The Mainland (while more insular types refer to it as Australia). Having directed nine major international arts festivals, I felt I had another one in me and began to canvass the idea of a modest early music festival centred around an operatic rarity at the Theatre Royal.

Last year, I found a supporter in the then director of Tourism Tasmania, Tony Mayell. He took the idea to government, the Premier Lara Giddings gave it her endorsement, it was publicly declared an annual event, as all good festivals must be – and bingo! – we were off.

Well, almost. Enter businessman philanthropist Graeme Wood. He loves Tasmania, had come to the rescue of the popular Falls Festival and followed it with support for Hobart Baroque. During the 1960s, when I lived and worked in London, I was a weekly visitor to Covent Garden. Some friends who knew about my hopes for Hobart had seen L’Isola disabitata (The Uninhabited Island), at Covent Garden and suggested it for the opening festival. I listened to the music, loved it and began to gather material about the London production, which boasted a clutch of dazzling reviews. The next step was to ask if Covent Garden might re-stage L’Isola to inaugurate Hobart Baroque; I received a positive – nay, enthusiastic – response from the ROH team and the revered musical director Antonio Pappano. I found astonishing collaborators in the Melbourne-based producer Jarrod Carland and that superb harpsichordist and polymath Erin Helyard.

For the first time since it was premiered in 1779, Haydn’s little jewel of an opera will be heard in Hobart’s little jewel of a theatre. Oh, by the way, if any erudite Limelight reader writes to tell me Haydn isn’t really a Baroque composer, I know. But given the formidably short lead-time we had to put the festival together, let’s pretend he was. Next year’s opera will be pre-1740.

Hobart Baroque runs from April 12–20 at the Theatre Royal.

Copyright © Limelight Magazine. All rights reserved

This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of Limelight Magazine.

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Covent Garden production visits Hobart’s baroque haven
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