Australia’s first opera star is revealed up close and personal in a racy, intimate and heart-rending new opera. Nellie Melba ruled supreme over the world’s opera stages in the late 19th and early 20th century and was worshipped by millions of fans. The opera Melba composed by Johannes Luebbers was given its premiere by post-graduate students from the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts on the weekend. Further seasons are being planned for Sydney and New York.
Librettist Nicholas Christo used as his source Ann Blainey’s revelatory biography I Am Melba. His focus it is not the recordings, tours and writing achievements of this self-made business woman, nor her tireless fundraising during the Great War for which she was bestowed the title Dame. Instead her glittering successes are the frame for an intimate domestic story.
|Dame Melba (Priscilla Cornelius). Photos Jon Green.|
The opera, directed by Christo, opened with Melba at the height of her career asking an adoring Melbourne audience “Have I done you proud?” The story unfolded retrospectively with the older Dame Melba watching and contributing arias from Puccini, Verdi and Bizet along the way. The tension was apparent from the opening where a young Nellie argued with her husband and father over her career prospects in Europe. Themes of money and ambition were introduced and most prominently the theme of motherhood. Melba was portrayed as a devoted mother torn between her career, her son and her lover. “Why are we always torn, why must we always choose?” she sang as she battled for custody of her son. It is a courageous topic for Luebbers and Christo and one left conspicuously silent by many biographers although it may be the epicentre of every woman who has juggled a career and a family.
|Nellie (Esther Counsel) arguing with Charlie (Lachlann Lawton) and father (Jake Bigwood)|
The opera moved at thrilling speed with rare (perhaps too few) pauses for a love scene or a tender mother-son moment. The action was framed by Matthew Dibbs’ lighting and set designer Rozina Suliman’s use of simple props such as a table, chaise and revolving door. The storytelling was clear thanks to excellent diction from the cast and Christo’s lucid libretto, although there were several moments where reducing the text would’ve allowed the music a more poetic role.
|Nellie with son George (Monica Brierley-Hay)|
Luebbers’ lyrical and restless score was realised brilliantly on piano by David Wickham who was adept at both the jazz-inflected music theatre moments and the 19th century operatic arias woven into the music. When given opportunity Luebbers built a thrilling climax such as the custodial court case where the thick harmony, rapid key changes and the additional vocalising of the chorus created an impressive orchestral density. In future productions with more able singers and an ensemble of musicians Luebbers’ music will take on greater prominence.
Melba was sung by Priscilla Cornelius, her collaratura soprano agile and bright as it was put through its paces during showstopping arias from Rigoletto, The Pearl Fishers and La Traviata. The younger Nellies were sung in more music-theatre style, the role shared between the sympathetic but vocally subdued Esther Counsel and the determined, smooth-voiced Eimar Foley.
Lachlann Lawton’s singing lacked projection but he endeavoured to portray Melba’s husband Charlie as both the rough alcoholic and the man struggling to connect with an assertive wife and disconnected son. Melba’s lover Prince Philippe was sung by Robin Fletcher with husky charisma and polished French accent. Belinda Cox was warm, fresh and comical as a Melba’s staunch friend, gossip and advisor on contraception. Chelsea Burns also deserves mention for her burnished voice and stern presence as the vocal teacher Madame. Monica Brierley-Haye was endearing but vocally unsure as Melba’s son George.
The outcome wasn’t good for Melba, who continued her career with neither lover nor son at her side. The opera ended as it started with a glittering aria and more bouquets for Melba but this time the gilding was brittle; fame had come at great cost.