Tim Winton’s acclaimed novel comes to life in stylish new opera.

Merlyn Theatre/Malthouse Theatre

September 26, 2014

Any new contemporary opera reignites the spark of debate about the future of the art form as a whole. The Riders, a new co production between The Malthouse and Victorian Opera is no different. Based on the novel by celebrated Australian novelist Tim Winton, this adaption is penned by librettist Alison Croggon and composed by Iain Grandage.

The opening stage was stacked with wooden trestles, and backlit with a dark blue wash; an ominous setting for what was to come. Our protagonist, Scully is renovating his home, waiting for his wife Jennifer and his daughter Billie to arrive. On either side of the stage, trestles were stacked in spires, climbing up to an overhanging balcony that lined the upper section of the stage. Through the use of projections, we learned that Billie and Jennifer have arrived at an airport. Jennifer dwells on the claustrophobia that suffocates her, and Billie is busy discovering the story of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The trestles were reconfigured, and we were now at Shannon Airport. Scully patiently waits, but only Billie comes through the arrival gate. He harangues his daughter for an explanation of the whereabouts of her mother, but to no avail. She breaks down in tears, rendered mute by her traumatic journey.

Scully, with Billie in tow, retraces his wife’s previous steps in the hope to find and confront her. As the journey progressed, the audience learned the depths of Jennifer’s infidelity and Scully’s suspicions are confirmed. He descends further into hysteria as her disappearance raises more questions than answers.

Scully, is described as a loveable rogue, but Barry Ryan characterises him as more brutish and brash. Ryan sang with a full, and present sound, but lacked support in his upper register, losing some of the rich quality in his tone. ‘Bird-like’, skittish and flighty Jennifer was created by soprano Jessica Aszodi. Grandage chose to represent this nightingale quality through frequent, florid passages in her upper register. While Aszodi blossomed above the passagio at fortissimo, she lacked the same freedom in her lower or quieter registers. Isabela Calderon, who portrays the young Billie, sang with a smaller voice appropriate for the youth of her character.  This primary trio were supported by a matching troupe comprising of singers Jerzy Kozlowski, Dimity Shepherd and David Rogers-Smith, who sang admirably in unison. Rogers-Smith featured as Alex, the painter, in a fiendishly difficult aria that pushed him beyond the limits of his range. Kozlowski possessed a mature baritone, which suited the stately nature of his characters. Shepherd portrayed Marianne, the French friend of Jennifer with an impetuous and throaty quality.

From the opening prelude, Grandage’s score is wonderfully colourful, and phenomenally orchestrated. The composer evoked the international flavour of this story through his ensemble writing. Grandage must have known the abilities of his players, as so much of the writing is brilliantly targeted for the soloists used. Particular mention must go to Genevieve Lacy, whose virtuosic recorder playing (sometimes two at the same time) was jaw dropping. It was clear that the composer had intimate knowledge of the talents of his ensemble, and utilised them as such.

The production, though satisfying, had some flaws. There was an absence of love in the central relationship between Scully’s and Jennifer. This made it difficult to reconcile his blind desperation to confront such a cold, difficult woman. The plot (though fast-paced), doesn’t allow enough room for emotional weight to be thoroughly explored. In the second Act, Alex is found dead, and Scully is notified that he is wanted for questioning by the police. Aside from declaring the urgency and desperation of his situation, he seems to escape without much difficulty.

Most controversially, the whole performance was amplified through individual microphones. The theatre at the Malthouse is notorious for its unforgiving, dead acoustic, but this is still a contentious issue. Amplification impacted the performer’s abilities to control colour and dynamic contrast but it undeniably helped them project in a difficult theatre.