Victorian Opera’s 2017 season is united around the theme of fables – stories, fairy tales and legends from a variety of eras and sources. Ottorino Respighi’s rarely performed and barely recorded The Sleeping Beauty (La bella dormente nel bosco) is a short three-act opera that was written specifically for Vittorio Podrecca’s world famous I Piccoli marionette company in Rome. It premiered in 1922, and was so popular that I Piccoli continued to perform it for twenty years.

Victorian Opera’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photos © Charlie Kinross

In this production, marionettes are replaced with stunning larger-than-life-sized puppets designed and constructed by Melbourne artist Joe Blanck’s company A Blanck Canvas, whose clients include Cirque Du Soleil, Disney and Universal. They are worked by a team of human puppeteers, and ‘sung’ by Victorian Opera singers on stage beside the puppets (vocal parts were sung from the orchestra pit in the marionette production). This is slightly disconcerting initially, and amounts to many bodies on stage, but it’s a credit to director Nancy Black that all quickly becomes seamlessly interwoven and the smallish stage never seems cluttered. Black and set designers Bluebottle make effective use of an intricate blend of lighting, projections and sets inspired by Danish artist Kay Nielsen’s extraordinary early 20th-century illustrations of fairy tales to create a fantastical, entrancing dreamscape.

Respighi’s score is vibrant, colourful and, while filled with references to earlier composers (Wagner’s writing for multiple sopranos, for instance), sits easily within the Italian operatic tradition. It’s scored for a small chamber orchestra with piano, celeste, and harpsichord added, and conductor Phoebe Briggs gave it a vivacious, robust and nuanced reading. The textural richness achieved by such a small ensemble was impressive and satisfying, and complemented by universally excellent singing from an almost entirely home-grown cast of young singers. Raphael Wong (The King) and Carlos E. Barcenas (The Prince) were particularly assured, as were Zoe Drummond (The Nightingale) and Elizabeth Barrow’s (The Blue Fairy) beautiful coloratura passages.

The Sleeping Beauty is a tremendously accessible opera, and this sophisticated, elegant production by Victorian Opera is an utter delight. Why it’s not performed more often is a mystery, and it is to be hoped that the rapturous enthusiasm with which it was received by a packed house on opening night will encourage further adventurous forays into the enormous catalogue of non-standard operatic repertoire that lies waiting to be resurrected.

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