In this wrap of reviews for the latest on stages around Melbourne, our critics look at the new Bob Dylan-based musical Girl From the North Country, Opera Australia’s luscious production of La Traviata, a gender-blind Hamlet, the compelling century-old opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, a suave Musica Viva concert, an indie theatre treat called One Hundred Words for Snow and a must-see from Melbourne Theatre Company: Heartbreak Choir.
La Traviata ★★★★★
Arts Centre Melbourne, until May 28
Opera Australia have been performing this version of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata on and off since 1994 and from the moment the curtain opens, it’s easy to see why. The audience is immediately immersed in 19th century Paris and a confidence radiates from everywhere; the set, the performers, the orchestra – it’s a beautiful interpretation of a well-crafted opera.
La Traviata roughly translates to the fallen woman, and follows the story of Violetta (Stacey Alleaume), a Parisian courtesan. She is admired by Alfredo (Ho-Yoon Chung), who unexpectedly declares his love for her. The young woman then struggles to decide whether to gamble on love. She is starting to realise that tuberculosis is consuming her from within. This echoes a key theme of the story – that even if she does everything right by societal standards, her history as a fallen woman will never be erased.
It’s easy to forget, over 150 years later, that Verdi was taking a risk telling a story like this. The opera is inspired by a play which was inspired by a book, which in turn was inspired by a real courtesan, Marie Duplessis, who died of consumption in 1847. La Traviata was first staged in 1853 and was written, at least in part, as social commentary. Raw emotion and a feeling of injustice run through the opera’s core. You feel it in the sadness of the strings, in the brief snatches of joy through the upbeat ensemble numbers.
This production doesn’t rest purely on the strength of the base material. Each act presents different and complex challenges for the soprano playing Violetta, and Alleaume excels, making a technically difficult role seem easy. The entire cast is strong: baritone Mario Cassi as Alfredo’s father Giorgio is the closest match to Alleaume, their duets in act two a particular highlight. Chung is not a particularly forceful tenor, which means the famous Brindisi – a drinking song – in act one isn’t as energetic as it might be, but this aligns with his depiction of Alfredo as a tentative and vulnerable suitor for the gregarious Violetta, and his acting talent shines throughout. And keep an ear out for Karina Filipi on the cimbasso – a brass instrument rarely heard outside of the opera.
Everything comes together on this production to make the story feel intensely personal. La Traviata isn’t a story of heroes and villains – it’s a tragedy showing how stuffy ideals and societal pressure ruin lives.
– Elizabeth Flux
The Girl from the North Country ★★★½
Comedy Theatre, until June 4
The Girl from the North Country is high-concept musical theatre with the entire Bob Dylan catalogue at its disposal. That alone will attract and intrigue fans of the Nobel laureate’s music, which lifts folk song into a sphere of poetic timelessness, and still speaks deeply to the spirit of the Boomer generation and the counter-cultural quest that came to define its youth.
You shouldn’t go expecting a musical in the traditional sense. This is a play with songs, and the songs possess a vitality and a strangeness – full as they are of familiar yearnings, cryptically expressed, and the echo of voices calling from life’s margins – that resist any sort of mainstream Broadway treatment.
No one wants Dylan done with high kicks and jazz hands, and Conor McPherson has created an expansive ensemble drama that’s as ambitious, in its way, as the music.
Set during the early 1930s, the rambling work bears more than a passing resemblance to the style and concerns of great American playwrights of that period, especially Eugene O’Neill and Clifford Odets.
We weave through a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota (Dylan’s birthplace) in the grim aftermath of the Great Depression, where a large cast of downtrodden characters gathers to take tenuous refuge from the economic storm.
The place is run by gruff proprietor Nick Laine (Peter Kowitz), whose wife Elizabeth (Lisa McCune) has succumbed to a madness shaped by the times. Mental illness is just one of the frailties that pattern the lives of the Laine family and the many guests who flutter in and out of their sanctuary.
Disability and infidelity, poverty and crime and racial injustice all stalk the motley group, and their stories emerge tangentially, as transient dramatic fragments, with a depressed doctor (Terence Crawford) hovering in ghostly narration.
An ideally cast ensemble excels at drawing out mystery and melodrama, humour and thwarted romance from these liminal figures; the production sports very fine, unselfish acting – much more nuanced than musical theatre usually allows.
That said, there are so many characters, and their stories flow so rapidly into a profusion of crosscurrents, that it’s hard to get your emotional bearings and sometimes the show’s exposition is challenging to follow (in this sense it differs from something like Come From Away, where a host of stories were interwoven with great dramatic clarity).
The musical arrangements can be sublime. They range from aching soul to a huge gospel chorus, and if you’re devoted to Bob Dylan you should make a beeline for The Girl From The North Country: you won’t have heard his oeuvre performed quite like this.
You could argue, though, that the music and the drama are too good for one another. Some brilliant numbers collide with the theatre in elliptical, if not outright bizarre, ways and perhaps they’d be stronger separated out into an 80-minute play and a 50-minute concert.
Yet there’s a wealth of talent in this Depression-era drama, and I’m struggling to imagine how the production could be bettered. Best to let it all wash over you and take the moments of inspiration as they come.
– Cameron Woodhead
Arts Centre Melbourne, until May 14
This Hamlet from Bell Shakespeare stars Harriet Gordon-Anderson in the title role, though gender-blind casting should hardly raise eyebrows in 2022.
Shakespeare’s works deliberately play with gender (boys played female parts on the Elizabethan stage, after all) and that fact that women can act with the same conviction and lustre as male actors do should be obvious to all.
Women tackling Shakespeare’s men did cause needless controversy in Australia a decade ago when the brittle feminism of the MTC’s Queen Lear undermined its own project. The adaptation did a disservice to Robyn Nevin – a flinty, uncompromising actor who deserved a chance to scale the mountain of Lear as written.
But the issue has long since been put to rest.
In the UK, Glenda Jackson triumphed as Lear in 2019 and Kathryn Hunter will play it at the Globe next month. Here, Kate Mulvany spearheaded a riveting Bell Shakespeare production of Richard III in 2017, and if Harriet Gordon-Anderson doesn’t always command the stage the way Mulvany did, she outclasses most blokes I’ve seen try their hand at Hamlet.
Depression dominates this Dane. We bear witness to a Hamlet light on glamour and unafraid to be unlikeable, often played with deliberately flat effect. Inner turmoil is wrested to life in soliloquies that seem less self-dramatising for being the only outlet for unexpressed grief.
Distinctive histrionic insights make Gordon-Anderson’s performance consistently interesting – from playing the very like a whale exchange with Polonius as a cold assertion of power to the immature spite and performance anxiety that marks Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia – even if those moments aren’t quite stitched together into a coherent reading of the character.
There’s more sympathy for less traditionally sympathetic figures.
Lucy Bell’s Gertrude is an innocent – a woman deeply in love, who both adores her son and is terrified by his behaviour, her anguish more affecting for its quiet intensity. Robert Menzies plays Polonius as an affable, intelligent, well-meaning courtier who is overprotective rather than punitive towards his daughter.
If Peter Evans’ direction had been able to get the nuance in those two performances across the board, it would have been a terrific production. Some actors are left to their own devices, though – notably Ray Chong Nee, who has the talent (and the resonant voice) for Shakespeare but seems too fruity and frenetic as Claudius.
While Anna Tregloan’s design can serve the tragedy well – placing the audience behind the arras with Polonius is an inspired idea – it also proves a decorative distraction.
The 1960s setting could do without Hamlet’s childhood videos plastering unearned sentiment everywhere, and the constant spectacle of snowfall on shagpile risks leeching attention from the performances.
It doesn’t matter that much. The ensemble is secure enough to deliver a Hamlet in which even veteran theatregoers will find something fresh – a feat in itself – and Shakespeare lovers won’t be disappointed by the performance standard.
– Cameron Woodhead
The Rise And Fall of the City of Mahagonny ★★★½
Athenaeum Theatre, until May 5
Being denied a stage for so long seems to have raised the sights and the ambition of Melbourne Opera. Surging out of lockdowns with impressive productions of Wagner’s Das Rhinegold and Die Walkure, the company will mount a complete Ring cycle next year, and in the meantime joins forces with IOpera for a swingeing, darkly funny anti-capitalist satire that has recently experienced a worldwide revival.
From Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is a strange and compelling chimera of modernist opera. It’s usually interpreted as a critique of Weimar Germany, or the callous individualism of US society, but its vision of capitalism in crisis feels eerily prescient today.
It isn’t as well-known as Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, and the Nazis are partly to blame for that. They idolised the sweeping mythic vision of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) and closed this degenerate show when they took power in 1933.
No surprise there. The plot is a motley of social evil and disorder, and Weill’s haunting, jazz-inflected score, which includes Alabama Song (with its boozy refrain Show me the way to the next whiskey bar) was always more apt to be covered by The Doors than sung by brownshirts.
The titular city is founded by vicious grifters to leech off the populace. They form a corrupt elite and attract disgruntled workers from all over, including a group of Alaskan lumberjacks lured by the pleasure money can afford them.
Annoyed to find an over-regulated hellhole, rather than a land of leisure where antiwork reigns, one of them, Jimmy McIntyre (James Egglestone), encourages Mahagonny to throw rules to the wind, just as a hurricane threatens to wipe the city out.
Suddenly, human despoliation trumps natural disaster, and after a cabaret-style orgy of gluttony, lust and violence, Jimmy finds himself facing summary execution for the crime of having no cash.
Suzanne Chaundy’s production brings this doomed and decadent world to life, with costumes, set and bespoke video animations adding to its cartoonish flair.
True, some chorus numbers come across more as am-dram free-for-alls than the disciplined anti-naturalism of Brechtian epic theatre, but the leads take command of its stylised performance and have the vocal firepower to fully unleash the show’s humour and cruelties.
Egglestone’s romantic tenor soars in the role of Jimmy and gets memorably shot down in flames by Antoinette Halloran’s sharp-edged soprano as Jenny Hill, his sex worker love interest.
The trio of desperado founders (Liane Keegan, Christopher Hillier, Robert Macfarlane) are sung with villainous vigour, though these parts are arguably better suited to musical theatre voices than trained operatic ones. And the ill-fated lumberjacks (Darcy Carroll, Fraser Findlay) as well as the capitalist Judas among them (Christopher Tonkin) all carve out distinctive supporting roles.
Perhaps a more frenetic tempo could have served the spectacle better at times, but the orchestra plays well and the discordant moodiness, syncopation and counterpoint of Weill’s music are a glory to hear performed.
– Cameron Woodhead
The Heartbreak Choir ★★★★½
Melbourne Theatre Company, until May 28
The Heartbreak Choir is heart-warming, sharp and so packed with hilarity it would draw laughter from a stone, yet there’s no evading the grief behind its comic brilliance.
Like much Melbourne theatre, its premiere has been postponed by years of lockdown, but it is marked too by the singular loss of playwright Aidan Fennessy, who died of a terminal illness in September 2020 and never got to see his funniest, and arguably finest, work performed.
The Melbourne Theatre Company left an opening night seat empty for him in tribute. Anyone might have mixed feelings about the gesture in the face of a play that’s such a gift to the living, which insists on the power of performance to unite and to console, and which stands as an exemplary instance of theatre – ars longa, vita brevis – that will long outlive its creator.
The action takes place in a CFA hall in a Victorian country town, where a small group of singers has splintered, taking a stand after a tragic event, from the choir at the Catholic church hall down the road.
Christina Smith’s design delivers a time-capsule of a space unchanged since the 1950s, right down to a portrait of the Queen and an ancient wall heater on the blink. And Maude Davey’s Barbara makes comic grist from it as soon as she walks onstage.
The psychologist, reluctant politician and part-time choirmaster is an artsy tree-changer who’s lived in the country for a decade, and the type comes in for an affectionate roasting. Barbara mounts a series of fantastically silly vocal exercises, gets bamboozled by the heater and, in a sure sign she’s gone native, noisily lets one rip when she thinks she’s alone.
Davey anchors an ensemble comedy supercharged by Fennessy’s talent for writing real characters. Each actor becomes an essential spoke in the comedic wheel, and there’s a similar vibe to Louis Nowra’s Cosi in the way these quirky amateurs embrace their art, though it’s a finer play, with sharper observational humour and no full-of-himself narrator to patronise anyone.
You can’t help but laugh with and love these motley choristers.
There’s Mack (Carita Farrer Spencer), an embarrassing country mum with an outsized personality and a bawdy sense of humour, who makes her shy goth daughter Savannah (Emily Milledge) cringe every time she opens her mouth.
There’s Totty (Louise Siversen), the good-hearted but unvarnished head of the town’s historical society, with a voice that’d rip bark off a tree; and Aseni (Ratidzo Mambo), the heavily pregnant doctor, originally from Zimbabwe, running the local deli.
They’re joined by the town’s burly senior cop Peter (William McInnes), who auditions with a rousing rendition of the Western Bulldogs theme song, and his son Beau (Julian Weeks).
As the tragic secret that brought the choir together is revealed, they prepare to confront their debut at a fancy winery.
On one level, Fennessy has written a love letter to country Australia – the generosity of its people, the small-town gossip, its slowly changing demographic. And Peter Houghton helps to wrest the sense of an entire town into being, directing slick comic scenes with sinuously patterned pace and delivery and movement.
On another, The Heartbreak Choir is unabashed about the transcendent power of art; and it manages to be poignant and genuinely uplifting without resorting to sentimentality. Partly, that’s because Fennessy is so attuned to how ridiculous the shadows in the cave can look in practice, but it’s also the magic that happens when the choir does burst into song, the bewitching sound of voices in perfect harmony.
– Cameron Woodhead
One Hundred Words For Snow ★★★
Theatre Works Explosives Factory, until May 7
Theatre Works has opened a second venue in a warehouse off a St Kilda back alley. The Explosives Factory is the kind of tucked-away black box that Melbourne’s indie theatre scene thrives on, and its no-frills intimacy is put to good use in this slickly performed solo show.
One Hundred Words For Snow tells the story of Rory (Aurora), a young teen who, unmoored by grief at the death of her father, runs away from home, urn in hand, on a mad mission to deliver his ashes to the North Pole.
Rory’s dad was a geography teacher with the soul of an explorer, a man obsessed by the history of Arctic expeditions who shared with Rory a deep love of the natural world. The closeness of their bond is related with poignancy and sprinkled with amusing historical and scientific factoids (including debunking myths such as the common misconception the Inuit have a hundred words for snow).
Rory’s adventure doubles as a coming-of-age tale, with a sexual awakening taking place along the way. She encounters human kindness and the hostile majesty of nature in remote Svalbard, and journeys into rugged emotional terrain in search of a fitting ritual to mark her father’s loss.
Eddie Pattison gives a vivid, well-paced and likeable performance, one steeped in the sense early teenagers have of being neither fish nor fowl. At once knowing and naïve, Rory is caught between childhood and adult worlds and fits neatly into neither.
Pattison’s comedic skills are let loose portraying the awkward hilarity of losing one’s virginity, and the acting doesn’t flag when it comes to trekking through the intense rage and desolation of experiencing grief for the first time.
Vestigial design elements don’t make much impact and there isn’t a lot going on apart from the performance, but Pattison is impressive, nimble, and focused, drawing out a tale with special appeal for a teenage audience.
– Cameron Woodhead
Van Diemen’s Band ★★★★½
Musica Viva, Melbourne Recital Centre, May 3
Crossing borders can be a difficult and dangerous proposition these days, as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have made only too clear. In a superbly imaginative and deeply engaging program devised by violinist Julia Fredersdorff, Tasmanian early music group Van Diemen’s Band traverses geographical and stylistic borders through seventeenth-century Europe adding complementary contemporary resonances that tellingly link art to life.
A suave sonata by the well travelled Dietrich Becker serves as an apt point of departure. In the Borderlands Suite, assembled by Fredersdorff to evoke an emotional journey through war and its aftermath, a bellicose Galliard Battaglia by Scheidt sets the scene, succeeded by a doleful Paduan by Becker and mystical utterances from Sainte-Colombe. Scheidt’s lively Courant and a Chaconne by Erlebach bring catharsis and closure.
Sonatas by cosmopolitan figures Albinoni and Muffat forge new stylistic frontiers, while Icelandic composer Maria Sigfusdottir probes the notions of borders further in Clockworking, a 2013 work for baroque trio and pre-recorded tape. Its mechanistic writing may prompt the listener to consider whether the confluence of two styles is a voluntary crossing of borders or the imposition of a new identity.
A happier, even comic coexistence of musical idioms comes with an anonymous Sonata Jucunda, whose gypsy elements are a reminder that for some borders are always fluid.
Masterfully summing up this musical journey, Donald Nicolson’s specially commissioned Spirals uses a ground bass framework through which he weaves a Slavonic Orthodox lament in honour of the Ukrainian people. This brief but heart-stirring work, ingeniously marrying old with new, is a poignant reminder that music ultimately transcends weaponised geopolitical borders.
Rarely are concert programs conceived with the same sophistication with which they are delivered, yet hopefully the elegant, communicative playing and thought-provoking programming of Van Diemen’s Band will beckon others towards new horizons.
– Tony Way
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