BWW REVIEW: Technology and Design Combine With Modern Opera In Opera Australia's Unique “Silent Opera” Staging Of SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE – THE OPERA, THE EIGHTH WONDER

Friday 28th October 2016, 7:30pm, Sydney Opera House Forecourt

Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of Opera Australia, the innovative staging of SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE - THE OPERA, THE EIGHTH WONDER blends technology and tradition with the iconic sails as a backdrop. Under the direction of David Freeman, Alan John and Dennis Watkins' opera captures the controversy, politics, hopes and ambitions that were tied to the creation of the famous building with a uniquely Australian feel and is presented as live performance with all sound mixed and fed into the noise cancelling headphones issued to every audience member.

With a nod to the operas that engage the power of the spirits and gods, the story starts with the notion that mankind is torn between what they know and what they've seen, as explained by the spirits of the Earth(Anna Yun) and Sky(Eva Kong). The mystical realm transitions to Parliament House in 1955 where then Premier, Hon JJ Cahill (Martin Buckingham) decided that Sydney needs an Opera House and that a competition is required to find the right architect to design it. The story flows on to introduce The Architect, Jorn Utzon, on tour in Mexico where he found his inspiration. While the politics of the construction plays out over the 18 years, John and Watkins have woven in an obligatory love story which also connects the construction of the opera house to the establishment of the two companies which would eventually call it home, Opera Australia and Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Through aspiring young opera singer Alexandra (Alex) Mason (Stacey Alleaume) and her boyfriend, bassoonist Stephen Goldring (Michael Petruccelli) and Alex's family, and to a degree the socialites and workers, the frustrations of the general public are expressed as lives are put on hold and more and more money is required to finish the works.

Set on the steps that Jorn Utzon originally envisaged as a pilgrimage up to the theatres, designer Dan Potra has created a multi level, moving stage. Drawing on the chevrons of the Opera House roof tiles, Potra has developed a flexible performance space that is manually pushed into place by the orange clad construction workers. These mobile platforms allow for more traditional staging like the announcement of the design winner which took place at the Art Gallery, to the Politician's office and the Mason family's home and back yard whilst scenes that aren't so setting driven play out on the steps of the forecourt, unadorned, save for Trent Suidgeest's lighting. Potra has also drawn on the thought process that goes into design to scatter oversized balls of discarded sketches across the steps and employs projections to focus the importance on drawing with animations filling the screens at the rear of the stage.

Given the logistics of positioning an orchestra in the Opera House forecourt in potentially inclement weather and dealing with the sounds of a bustling harbour and tourist precinct nearby, the decision to present this as a "silent opera" mitigates the issues. The utilisation of technology to position the orchestra in the Opera House's Studio Theatre and blend it with the sound from the singers before being broadcast to each audience member's Audio Technica headset ensures that issues like the party boats and nearby bars is greatly reduced. This also saves the need to obscure the backdrop with gantries that would hold speakers which would probably also bounce sound off the stone face of the Botanic Gardens. The technology works well and Sound Designer Tony David Cray combines the music plus other effects to create a wonderful experience that people can self regulate by way of the volume buttons.

As the Architect, Danish born Tenor Adam Frandsen is a wonderful fit for the Danish Utzon. He has a warmth and wonder about him that feels in keeping with the artist that was so passionate about his creation. The opera is presented in English and Frandsen brings a natural accent to the work whilst capturing the awe Utzon felt when visiting Mexico and an element of a natural awkwardness in his physicality seen in many great artists.

As the Premier, The Hon JJ Cahill, Tenor Martin Buckingham balances between the formality of the Premier's position in office and his humble origins. The Premier is the first character to break the ice on the tone of the Opera as sitting between formal opera and a very Australian work with Buckingham's expression of the line "I don't want a bloody barney over this" eliciting laughter in the more open minded in the audience. Buckingham gives the role a gravitas necessary to convey that Cahill was strong enough to push through his desire for the city to have an Opera House.

As the fictional heroine Alexandra Mason, soprano Stacey Alleaume is breathtaking. She takes the character from a young innocent student at the conservatorium to young mother and wife who has shelved her ambition in favour of her husband's desire to perform at Cahill's Opera House, and finally the woman who sees her husband's hand in Utzon's dream not being carried out as his wishes. Mason has the requisite energy and emotional connection to Alexandra and conveys this in her physicality and her beautiful pure voice.

As with a story of this size, there is a large cast of characters to capture all the players in the construction of the Opera HousE. Freeman draws out the comedy that John and Watkins have written into the text with the help of designer Dan Potra as the average Australian in the 1950's and 60's are portrayed with a degree of stereotyping. Father Ken Mason, presented by David Parkin is the quintessential suburban man with a rough language, bad dress sense and ongoing commentary on politics and the money he's spent on his daughter's career, which he believes she is wasting. There is a mix in the level of realism portrayed in the performances with some dialogue and acting giving a natural feel whilst some others show links to the stilted over acting of Opera but overall the story flow at a good pace.

SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE- THE OPERA, THE EIGHTH WONDER is an amazing event performance which makes opera more accessible to the general public in both its presentation in English, use of colloquialism, a real story and a more casual venue. Being a contemporary Australian work, it does require a degree of open mindedness from those more at home with the opera's usually staged within the Opera House but it is still a wonderful showcase of Opera Australia's talented company and a great opportunity to experience a new way of presenting outdoor performances.


Sydney Opera House Forecourt

October 28, 29 & November 3, 4, 5 2016

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