Review: The Eight Wonder/ Opera Australia

Soprano Stacey Alleaume as Alexandra Mason and members of the ensemble in Opera Australia’s production of The Eighth Wonder. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Soprano Stacey Alleaume as Alexandra Mason and members of the ensemble in Opera Australia’s production of The Eighth Wonder.
Photo by Prudence Upton.

The Eighth Wonder, Opera Australia

Forecourt, Sydney Opera House

October 28, 2016

Written by Deen Hamaker

This new production of Alan John and Dennis Watkins’ opera is the first since the original 1995 production was revived in 2000 for the Olympics Arts Festival. It has been too long between outings. This is a remarkable opera that deserves to be heard and seen more often. From the exotic pyramids of Mexico to the snowy forests of Denmark, the story of the Sydney Opera House is writ large. Spanning 2 decades, the opera intertwines the stories of historical and fictional characters to tell the story of the building of the Sydney Opera House. As the decades pass we see how much blood, sweat and tears were sacrificed to build this wonder of the 20th Century. Pragmatism cost us the perfect opera house Jørn Utzon dreamed of, but what becomes clear is how lucky we are to have an opera house at all. Unfortunately the pragmatic choice to play this opera in “silence”, using headphones, greatly marred an excellent performance from a strong largely Australian cast.

Musically, combining modernist touches reminiscent of the operas of John Adams with pastiches of party scenes from 19th century opera and operetta, the score is approachable and tuneful, yet it is clearly a 20th century Australian work. Frequent use of percussion greatly accentuates the non-realistic scenes littered throughout the score. Through the music we feel the passions of artists and politicians and we get the sense of a city finally coming of age, ready to take its place on the world stage. We have the thundering rhetoric of politicians, the ethereal vision of the architect and the hopes of young musicians who dream of filling the future opera house with glorious music as well as the shallow glitterati of 1950’s and 60’s Sydney. Dennis Watkins’ excellent libretto is filled with retro ockerisms (do people use barney or quid any more?) but feels genuine and sharply delineates each character according to their language.

This new production directed by David Freeman and designed by Dan Potra is spectacular and imaginative. Designed around the concept of the Architect’s discarded screwed up designs, the steps of the opera house become an ever shifting kaleidoscope. Several scenes play out on floating platforms that roll back and forward across the stairs. Everywhere from a backyard in Rockdale to the royal yacht Britannia are portrayed. But the most successful scenes are those set on the steps themselves, such as the juxtaposition between a snowy Danish forest and a beach in summer time Sydney. Unfortunately the dreamy scenes set in Aztec Mexico didn’t really come off.

The truth is that for all the resonance of presenting the opera on the steps of the building itself, the production doesn’t use the building itself except in its final moments. It is a pity that the building itself could not have been used more creatively to maximise the use of the setting. It would have been more effective to stage this production at Mrs Macquarie’s Point, like Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. The Sydney Opera House would have been in the background without all the site specific problems that come with performing on the forecourt of the house itself.

The principal cast of 15 singers, who sang several roles each, were universally excellent. The English libretto was so clearly projected that subtitles were rendered unnecessary. Soprano Stacey Alleaume leads the cast as the young singer Alexandra Mason. She sang the glowing phrases beautifully. She excelled in the central Recital aria and the final scene from The Feathered Serpent. Danish tenor, Adam Frandsen, has an excellent voice which he used to wonderful effect in the central role of The Architect. Martin Buckingham was excellent as the Premier. Particular kudos go to Anna Yun and Eva Kong as the Spirits of the Earth and Sky, David Parkin as Ken Mason and Adrian Tamburini as The Maestro. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra did excellent work throughout lead by conductor Anthony Legge.

Unfortunately on this occasion we didn’t get to hear the voices of the great cast, chorus or orchestra as you would in a theatre. The music was “live-mixed” into an audio stream that came to the audience through headphones. The orchestra and the chorus are housed in the Studio and the music is “live mixed” with the live singing of the soloists on the stage. This live stream is then fed to the audience on the forecourt through headphones. While this shows a certain amount of ingenuity to get around the sound problems of performing on the forecourt, the reality is somewhat uncomfortable for the audience. The headphones are heavy and uncomfortable and proved cumbersome when trying to get on the rain poncho as the heavens inevitably opened. While the ability to increase the volume of the performance maybe a novelty, the resemblance to listening to a CD rather than watching a live performance, was disappointing.

The sound quality itself was akin to a 1970’s audio recording, with frequent pops and crackles throughout the performance. Most annoyingly was a high persistent whine throughout the performance that hampered the enjoyment of the music. The sound design itself was fairly flat with no sense of dimensionality. This was particularly problematic in the ensembles, where it was difficult to hear who was singing what. It is such a pity that this excellent cast could only be heard through headphones. Even speakers would have been an improvement, but one really wishes that you could hear this wonderful cast sing this magnificent score, unamplified, in a theatre where it belongs.

One hopes that this experience results in more productions of Australian opera (Voss!!!). Unfortunately the audience had significantly thinned out after interval. I hope this was more to do with the light rain than the score or cast as both are genuinely world-class.

Deen Hamaker for SoundsLikeSydney©

Further performances on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House on November 3, 4,and 5 at 7.30 pm.

Check out images.

Deen Hamaker is a passionate opera aficionado and commentator. Introduced to theatre, opera and classical music at a very young age, he has acted in and directed several theatre productions, both in Australia and overseas. Deen lived in Japan for several years and studied the performing arts of Asia. Deen’s particular passion is opera, particularly the Russian, French and Modern repertoire. Deen was a contributing author for “Great, Grand and Famous Opera Houses”, 2012. Fluent in Japanese, Deen holds a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese from Griffith University and currently lives in Sydney.

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