The adaptation of fine Australian literature is familiar in local opera with works based on the writing of Patrick White, Tim Winton and Helen Garner coming to mind. However, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by composer Richard Mills and librettist Peter Goldsworthy, adapted in 1996 from the groundbreaking 1955 Ray Lawler play, must rank amongst the finest. I enjoyed the Sydney based production back in the late nineties; however it was marred by poor ticket sales and perhaps a little of that well-known interstate rivalry. Stuart Maunder’s ongoing series of Lost Australian Operas for State Opera of South Australia has reached a peak with this very fine production, directed by Joseph Mitchell, wherein everything seems to go right. In fact, in this new production it would appear that the opera has finally found its worth and place.
Antoinette Halloran as Olive and Joshua Rowe as Roo. Photograph © Soda Street Productions
The production excels on all fronts – an excellent ensemble cast, great musical direction, and simple yet ingenious stage design and lighting. Here, Adelaide novelist Peter Goldsworthy’s idiomatic libretto and Mills’ score, performed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under the highly sympathetic direction of the composer, coalesced to create a taut musical drama delivered with heightened operatic passion. The music is a clever and highly effective blend of Richard Strauss, and the American modernism of Weill and Bernstein, which are successfully mixed with jazz and tango rhythms to create a highly effective score. Mills’ use of percussion to suggest car horns and tram bells also works exceptionally well. Here is a score which sits comfortably with both the milieu and time of Lawler’s tale of Queensland cane-cutters Barney and Roo heading south to Victoria to spend the off-season with their long-term, part-time partners Olive and Nancy (who has now to move on). For 16 years, Roo has presented Olive with a kewpie doll and she is unprepared to to exchange her life for any other than that which she has known.
Like the opera itself, here is a production full of roustabout charm and pathos – one wherein Goldsworthy creates a true mid-century Australian vernacular most effectively brought to life by this small but highly gifted cast. The cane-cutters – the shamed Roo, the cocky lady killer Barney, and the confident young Johnny Dowd – are uniquely Australian characters and in the hands of Joshua Rowe, Bradley Daley and Nicholas Cannon respectively show just how strong the Australian character can be within the world of opera. The women are just as effective with the vivacious if fundamentally naïve Olive (the dependable Antoinette Halloran), her ‘determined to marry’ friend Pearl (Dimity Shepherd), and the young Bubba from next door (Desiree Frahn) making the most of Goldsworthy’s impressive adaptation. It was also a great idea to have the Olive from the Sydney (Elizabeth Campbell) moving on to play her mother and moral compass, Emma.
The ASO, as always, is highly dependable with their seamless and empathetic accompaniment under the composer with the acoustics of the newly renovated Her Majesty’s Theatre leading to a performance of musical clarity underpinned by the highly evocative set design (Simone Romaniuk) in which wallpaper and a brightly painted feature wall dominate, and lighting (Trudy Dalgleish). With this production, Summer of the Seventeeth Doll has truly come of age.
The production was to have run until 20 November but due to new COVID restrictions the remaining performances have been cancelled