The Opera Centre, Sydney
September 26, 2018

Opera Australia unveiled a new performance space last night when it staged Metamorphosis by Australian composer Brian Howard in the scenery workshop at the Opera Centre in Sydney – and it proved to be the perfect, grungy setting for the dark, challenging chamber opera.

Simon Lobelson. All photos © Prudence Upton 

Welcoming the audience, OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini, who played Gregor Samsa in the 1983 world premiere for the Victoria State Opera, couldn’t resist pointing out that the temporary stage constructed for the occasion is wider and higher than the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

He also announced that Julie Lea Goodwin, who was to have played Gregor’s sister Greta, had a severe throat infection and had been replaced by directing assistant Tabatha McFadyen who had begun learning the role the morning before. And what an amazing job she did too, more of which later.

Based on Franz Kafka’s famous 1915 novella about Gregor Samsa, an overworked, under-appreciated travelling salesman who wakes one morning to find that he has been transformed into a gigantic insect, Howard used Steven Berkoff’s existing stage adaptation as the libretto for his version of Metamorphosis.

This new OA production, which is directed by Tama Matheson, with sets and costumes by Mark Thompson, is staged on a three-storey set created largely with scaffolding. The floor level includes period furniture, Gregor’s bedroom is on the next level in a space that resembles a cage, while there are platforms on either side above which characters can sit or lie.

There is a pit in the middle of the stage where 10 of the musicians perform, with three percussionists playing a section of instruments to the left of the stage. A pile of chairs leads from the floor to Gregor’s bedroom, which he crawls up and down on occasion. A tumble of old wooden chairs can also be seen beneath the front of the stage. There are grey drapes on either side of the stage on which lighting and images of insects are projected.

John Rayment’s striking lighting adds another dramatic element to the inventive staging. With the audience in a bank of seating facing the stage, it’s just the right, immersive setting for the disturbing story about alienation, self-disgust, human greed and vulnerability.

Howard has written demanding vocal lines that sit above a complex, restless score, which shimmers and slides with atmospheric sounds suggesting a slithering insect-like feel, and an expressionistic style with a foreboding, ominous quality. The use of an electric guitar works very effectively alongside the other instruments. Howard also uses a lot of percussion from bell-like rings to throbs and drum crashes as Gregor’s insect-like behaviour intensifies. Leading the small orchestra, conductor Paul Fitzsimon does a wonderful job of finding all the colour and drama in the score.

Matheson finds both the grotesqueness and pathos in the story along with dashes of humour. He also draws a highly physical performance from Simon Lobelson as Gregor, which literally sees him crawling walls and hanging from the ceiling, with a frilled paper protuberance on his back to suggest an insect shell.

Taryn Fiebig, Adrian Tamburini, Julie Lea Goodwin and Christopher Hillier

Gregor’s Father (Christopher Hillier), Mother (Taryn Fiebig) and sister Greta (McFadyen) give stylised performances reminiscent of silent film or cartoon characters, with Matheson choreographing them as a trio at times, arms ticking like a clock, shuddering like insects, or moving in slow motion.

Matheson is well served by the excellent cast, all of whom perform with a coherent dramatic style. Lobelson’s dark, emotive baritone and detailed physicality, from arms and legs flailing initially to scurrying, crawling movement, is very visceral and works a treat for Gregor. His attempt to communicate with his unsympathetic family, but only repulsing them, is tortuous to see, and his final demise is achingly sad.

Simon Lobelson

You would never have known that McFadyen had stepped into the role of Greta at such short notice. She sings expressively and captures Greta’s dramatic trajectory beautifully. Fiebig is outstanding as the Mother, portraying her as slightly daffy and subservient to both her husband and the Chief Clerk (Adrian Tamburini), but also conveying her love for her son, despite her horror at what has happened to him, and she sings with a gorgeous clarity. There is also impressive work from Hillier as the selfish, pushy father, Tamburini as the Chief Clerk and Benjamin Rasheed as the Lodger.

Running one hour and 45 minutes, the opera feels a tad overlong but it’s very rewarding to see the piece given such an impressive revival. Having Howard himself in the opening night audience was pretty special too.

Metamorphosis runs at the Opera Centre, Surry Hills, Sydney until September 29 and at the Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse, Melbourne, October 25 – 27