A down-to-earth Aussie guy is renovating a cottage in Ireland and missing home. He sings of ‘The blow of sunlight striking up from a Perth beach’. It sounds familiar and yet so unusual to hear Western Australia mentioned in an opera. But WA Opera’s The Riders, based on a novel by Tim Winton with music by Iain Grandage and sung by predominantly WA singers, is very much a WA affair.
|Images from the Victorian Opera 2014 production of The Riders.|
The plot follows Scully as he builds his wife Jennifer’s dream house then discovers at the airport that only his daughter has arrived. The blow sends him reeling across Europe searching for his missing wife. The light in the darkness is the relationship between Scully and his daughter Billie.
Under Marion Potts' direction the opera, like Winton’s novel, left most questions unanswered. Alison Croggon’s libretto cleverly diffused Winton’s novel into a poetic 90 minute work. The opera diverges from the book by creating a speaking role for Scully’s absent wife Jennifer. Emma Pearson’s golden, wonderfully flexible soprano brought vulnerability and complexity to Jennifer who described her family alternately as ‘millstones dragging me down’ and ‘Torn off me like a scab, when do I stop bleeding?’.
The role of Billie was shared by Rosanna Radici and Mia Beattie. On opening night 15 year old Radici navigated complex harmonies and rhythms with spot on accuracy, her pure soprano the calm epicentre of a whirlwind opera.
James Clayton’s clean diction and grief-laden delivery made Scully instantly likeable and also threatening as he tussled with his own jealousy and love.
Wade Kernot as Arthur, Matthew Lester as the painter Alex and Fiona Campbell as Marianne were outstanding in supporting roles. The three also represented a kind of Greek chorus, singing with beautifully balanced harmonies.
Dale Ferguson’s set used trestles to create architectural scaffolding, furniture and the impression of silhouetted horses. A huge projected arrivals screen (Matt Scott lighting) established the airport scene while the stage revolve gave a sense of constant movement.
Iain Grandage’s music conveyed both the emotional and geographical trajectory of the opera. Under conductor Brad Cohen the 14–piece WA Symphony Orchestra moved seamlessly from minimalism to serialism via cabaret and folksong. The relentless pace of Scully’s chase was heard in the constant triplet rhythms which also represented the mythological Riders Scully encountered in Ireland who threaten to drag him into the past. The tension of unanswered questions was heard in the atonal harmonies while the bird-like solo recorder interludes played by Genevieve Lacey evoked isolation and freedom.
The opera concluded with Scully facing the Riders for the last time and choosing to move on from his memories. Billie blew out one of the three candles and the stage lights dimmed as the duo reclaimed their little family. Opera’s capacity to captivate never ceases to amaze me, and the impact of The Riders was all the greater given the home-grown nature of the story. A stunning piece of theatre we can be unashamedly proud of.
This review copyright The West Australian 2016.