★★★★☆ A musically sublime but visually slight journey to Baroque heaven.

Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre
February 15, 2016

Presenting a new opera can be a bit of a gamble. As one of the more eye-wateringly expensive art forms, mounting a work without an already established following can be a game of box office roulette; the failure of an extravagantly financed production to put bums on seats can mean economic ruin for an opera company. However, Richard Mills and Carl Vine, both composers as well as the Artistic Directors of Victorian Opera and Musica Viva respectively, have found a loophole in this scenario. Drawing on a catalogue of tried and tested Baroque operatic favourites, knitted together via the Pasticcio tradition popular during the 18th-century, Voyage to the Moon is new wine in old bottles, offering something aesthetically familiar reframed to tell a different story.

Sally-Anne Russell and Emma Matthews (photo: Jeff Busby)

Writer and director Michael Gow has also sourced a historically sympathetic narrative for this work, using Ludovico Ariosto’s 16th-century epic poem, Orlando Furioso, as the foundation for his plot.

Orlando (Emma Matthews) is a brave and honorable warrior, but his mind has been warped by jealousy and rage after he discovers his lover, Angelica, has betrayed him and run away with a knight from the enemy forces. Orlando’s kinsman, Astolfo (Sally-Anne Russell), tries to reason with his friend, but Orlando’s crumbling sanity is unsalvageable – his mind is lost. As Astolfo laments the undoing of Orlando, a wise sorcerer, Magus (Jeremy Kleeman), appears, drawn by the depth and devotion of Astolfo’s friendship. He transports Astolfo to the Moon – the place where all lost things go – using a magical chariot, but in their quest to find Orlando’s missing wits they must first overcome the wrath of Selena (encore Emma Matthews), the cruel, unfeeling guardian of this celestial realm.

Gow is keenly aware of the historical resonances that marry this plot to its collage of arias, sinfonias and recitatives. Voyage to the Moon taps into the psyche of the Baroque, dealing with topics of morality, sanity, nobility and courtly love using magic as a dramatic lens to focus this narrative. Where Voyage to the Moon makes a departure from its historical roots is in its execution. Led by Musical Director Phoebe Briggs from the harpsichord, this is not an authentic period performance, opting instead for modern instruments and contemporary standards of sonority and tuning. This isn’t a failure, but rather a conscious wink to the audience, reminding us that while this opera is Baroque in spirit, its flesh is of the present day.

Emma Matthews as Selena (photo: Jeff Busby)

Musically, the opening night performance was stratospherically accomplished. With just three singers on stage and an accompanying ensemble of only seven players, the economy of this scale could easily have lacked the heft to communicate the lofty expanses of the story. However, Victorian Opera and Musica Viva have proven to be a formidable collaboration: every performer involved has been cherry picked from amongst the ranks of Australia’s finest musicians and the results are sublime.

The selection of music has been carefully considered by arrangers Calvin Bowman and the late Alan Curtis, who sadly passed away last year during this opera’s development. These arias, which include works by Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck, De Majo and Telemann, are united by the elegance and hyperbole of the Italianate style, popular during the Baroque. Replete with opportunities for both instrumentalists and singers to peacock, Voyage to the Moon is a brilliantly conceived musical journey, supplying virtuosic pyrotechnics and thrilling drama on a cosmic scale.

Sally-Anne Russell and Emma Matthews (photo: Jeff Busby)

Emma Matthews’ nimble coloratura is put to expert use in almost every aria, with her pliant yet crisply articulated singing traversing the full spectrum of her voice to the outer extremities of her range. Playing two roles, both imbued with a furious character, Matthews delivers this fractious drama with faultless commitment and rock-steady technique.

Equally impressive is Sally-Anne Russell, who plays a crucial role in this opera’s narrative exposition. Her rich, robust mezzo-soprano filled the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall with ease while also ensuring the wordy recitatives were clearly annunciated.

Sharing the stage with two of Australia’s most distinguished opera stars would be an intimidating experience for most young singers, but baritone Jeremy Kleeman appeared to take this challenge in his (moon walking) stride. Delivering an impressively assured performance as the mysterious magician Magus, he projects a stately nobility, occasionally allowing a welcome hint of comedy to disturb the surface tension of this character. Australian opera lovers should expect to see a lot more of this superb talent in the future.

Emma Matthews as Orlando (photo: Jeff Busby)

However, for a performance so generously rewarding for the ears, Voyage to the Moon is, unfortunately, mediocre visually. The set is minimal to a fault: a pile of gig-cases for transporting theatre equipment (ironically a far larger collection than must have been required for this simplistic set), are stacked on one side of the stage opposite a small island of music stands. Aside from a pleasantly surprising moon-rise and some well observed historical costumes, the ultra-stripped back design of this production feels unnecessarily meagre and lacking in any dramatic logic. With so little to work with, the repetitive da capo arias that make up this opera often left the singers with very little to do theatrically, and this blunted the emotional intensity and element of danger crucial to communicating the drama and scope of this story.

There is of course any number of legitimate reasons for having such a bare-bones design – the logistics of regional touring, budget constraints or a lack of resources, for example. However, for a new production by two of the country’s major arts organisations, featuring such a world-class level of music making, the lack of finesse and sophistication in Voyage to the Moon’s set and lighting is a disappointing lapse in quality.

Musica Viva and Victorian Opera present Voyage to the Moon, at the MRC until February 19, before touring Australia until March 6.