Quest for popularity
In 2012 Opera Australia ventured into American musicals via a vibrant production of South Pacific. The venture was artistically successful and very popular. In the quest for broadening the opera audience, I fear that opera companies may not give sufficient attention to its core responsibility to opera. In the past Opera Australia have made regular Gilbert and Sullivan offerings and performed operettas from time to time.
Singing Gilbert and Sullivan requires a somewhat different technique to opera singing. Not all opera singers can make the transition. In operetta, however, such technique is more than useful. In South Pacific OA quite properly opted for actors who could sing. In Orpheus in the Underworld, the company opted for singers who are also good comic actors. The composer, Offenbach requires singers to have an opera technique so that the more absurd aspects of opera plots may be parodied. The parody, however, lies in the music perhaps more than it does in the comedic ‘business’.
Opera Australia chose to feature Todd McKinney in its publicity for Orpheus. The actual production, however, relies on a strong ensemble of opera singers to deliver the music as well as the comedy. In this regard the return of Suzanne Johnston, in the role of Public Opinion, is more than welcome. She has this capacity to produce a gorgeous liquid mezzo sound, crack colloquial dialogue and arresting comedy in her work. She did this with enormous gusto. Her opening playfulness with the orchestra was clever and very funny. Anyone who has followed her career would not be surprised by her capacity to begin the show with a bang. The revelation for me, however, was Rachelle Durkin. She has a wonderfully agile soprano voice and she is always a statuesque presence on stage, but as Eurydice she was achingly funny – the comedy grounded in her vocal flexibility as well as her verbal and visual comic delivery. She can send up soprano pyro techniques while displaying them with great effect. Indeed all the women in the cast find a lovely balance between sight and sound.
Actors who sing: singers who act
This brings me to Todd McKinney. He is wonderful performer particularly in the iconic musicals for which he is known. In Orpheus his diction is impeccable and when he has his moments in the can-can sequence he is at home alongside the dancers. But as a singer in operetta he seemed to be lacking a little compared to his more accomplished colleagues. Perhaps he was having an off night but he seemed to be a little too bland for the roles of Aristaeus / Pluto. In contrast, Andrew Brunsdon as Orpheus, although a little awkward theatrically, does seem to strike a better balance with his character. Christopher Hillier is an energetic Jupiter: a comic housefly and a leering ageing sleaze bag. Mitchell Butel, an excellent actor who sings well, makes a lovely cameo appearance as John Styx who has risen to prominence in the underworld through service in ‘local government’.
High production values
The key to the show is, however, the high production values. The libretto, recast by Philip Scott and Jonathan Biggins is full of Australian references that expand the original intentions rather than distort them. The choreography effectively integrates the dancers into the show. Indeed the movement of a rather large cast, including a very energised chorus, is a notable feature of the production. The ever-flexible chorus was more than capable. At the centre of the enterprise is director Jonathan Biggins who locates the humour in the music as much as in the action. In the pit Andrew Greene keeps the music moving.
A joyous night
I did not expect to enjoy the show as much as I did. It probably was not the usual first night opera audience but there was attention and appreciation in the theatre. It was joyous night! Opera Australia has a hit. One only hopes that popular successes are a means of producing good productions of more challenging works and not a substitute for them. And yes Jonathan Biggins is more than ready to direct at least one of them.