The Coopers Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre
November 3, 2018

A prolific commissioner of new works, Victorian Opera presents another world premiere with this operatic cabaret that wears its feminist intellect on its sleeve. Directed by Sarah Giles, Lorelei showcases a trio of talented actor-singers who embody an ancient myth, then pull it apart with contemporary humour, rage and despair. From music and lyrics to set and costumes, it’s an engaging package whose appeal goes well beyond the usual opera crowd.

Dimity Shepherd, Ali McGregor and Antoinette Halloran in Victorian Opera’s Lorelei. Photo © Pia Johnson

Inspired by the sirens of Greek legend, the German story of Lorelei is about a creature who sits on a rock overlooking the River Rhine, luring sailors to their deaths with her beauty and song. In this new work, we get an unholy trinity of Loreleis, who each relate a slightly different version of her back story. In essence, however, her beauty was a source of temptation for men, her lover was unfaithful and, after being condemned to live out her life in a convent, she fell from that rock and was reborn a siren.

The three Lorelei prepare to sing their deadly song as a boat approaches, then wonder if they should let these sailors pass for once. It crashes anyway, much to the sirens’ amazement. Their different personalities become more evident as the emotional and existential rollercoaster ride begins. They never caused those countless shipwrecks, so why were they blamed? Who set them up as sirens in the first place, and what should they do now?

Dimity Shepherd. Photo © Pia Johnson

A physical, comic actor with a dynamic mezzo, Dimity Shepherd at first interprets Lorelei A as a vengeful woman who is then overwhelmed by the shame of her complicity in this conspiracy-myth. Ali McGregor, whose concept was the catalyst for this new work, is the playful quasi-leader Lorelei B who becomes caught up in the other sirens’ strong reactions. Her performance is a masterful display of comic timing, facial expressions and gestures, and McGregor’s top notes bring an ethereal beauty to the trios. Antoinette Halloran’s slightly world-weary Lorelei C is overjoyed by the realisation that they aren’t guilty of killing countless sailors, then falls into despair. Vocally and theatrically, the soprano’s performance becomes increasingly dark and powerful through the 75-minute show.

The trio first appear like fashion plates of yore, posing dramatically in an abundance of fabric and bold hats, each occupying a small, plain room on a raised platform surrounded by darkness. All designed by Marg Horwell, and enhanced by Paul Jackson’s dramatic lighting, which intermittently drenches the simple set in pure colour, it’s more than just visually striking.

Ali McGregor. Photo © Pia Johnson

The glamorous, impractical costumes are easily peeled away by the rebellious sirens. The three rooms are linked to each other, and the dark netherworld beyond, by a series of doors that (with the aid of a body double) turns Lorelei A’s attempt at escape from funny opera buffa farce into something more disturbing. Like lab rats in a maze, there appears to be no escape for these goddess-puppets.

The libretto by Casey Bennetto and Gillian Cosgriff lays the blame for the Loreleis’ situation squarely at the feet of men. They look beyond this mythic figure, noting how men create female characters (including Juliet and Cio-Cio-San) who have little or no self-determination because they exist as repositories of male fear and desire.

Antoinette Halloran. Photo © Pia Johnson

Ultimately pointing out all manner of ways in which women are subjugated by men, Lorelei is briefly overloaded with ideas, and some may find the language becomes offensive. Otherwise it’s a clever, engaging exploration of female myth and reality, with many an amusing moment (a personal favourite being Lorelei A’s jeering observation that those on the passing ship are “asking for it”, because they’re revealing too much flesh and not wearing life jackets).

Subtitles on LED screens below each performer are overkill (perhaps really only there for the occasional amusing emoji), because the performers’ English diction is clear and they are miked – though amplification is only rarely apparent for mild atmospheric effects.

Composed by Julian Langdon with Bennetto and Cosgriff, Lorelei’s score is an accessible, melodic journey across several musical styles. The opening pastorale is laced with Yuko Tomonaga’s harp and the three divas’ wordless lilting sighs. It segues into a big, moody sound reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s soundtracks for Tim Burton’s films, there’s a brief moment of novelty silent movie instrumentation, passages that conjure Wagner, hints of gypsy jazz, and a whole lot of light, likeable Latin rhythms in the middle.

Dimity Shepherd, Antoinette Halloran and Ali McGregor. Photo © Pia Johnson

Led by musical director Phoebe Briggs, the 12-strong orchestra is well-rehearsed and in tune with the score’s frisky energy. It boasts Doug de Vries on guitar, and Arwen Johnston and Kaylie Melville are kept busy with a large arsenal of percussion.

Most contemporary operas quickly disappear into oblivion, but Lorelei is such a fun, accessible work driven by powerful contemporary ideas that it may well live on. In any case, it’s a wonderfully energetic, entertaining farewell to the 2018 season by Victorian Opera.


Victorian Opera’s Lorelei is at Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre until November 10

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine