Tuesday, August 13, 2019
Opera Australia presents a World Premiere of WHITELY, an Opera with Music by Elena Kats-Chernin. Libretto, by Justin Fleming. In the Joan Sutherland Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. July 15,18,20,24,27, and 30, 2019.
Three years in the making (not very long, really) Opera Australia (OA) commissioned a new work with Music by Australian Composer, Elena Kats-Chernin, with a Libretto by Australian Playwright, Justin Fleming, focusing on the life of an iconic Australian painter, Brett Whitely.
Whitely, in life, was a controversial figure. He is, still, a controversial figure. His art however, has grown more and more powerful as time as moved on. Born in 1932, he died young at the age of 53. The death as a result of a drug overdose. Whitely had become in 1985 an incurable addict.
The Opera Australia Company, under the Direction of Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini, has invested in a very complex and impressive Digital Art form to visually support the storytelling - it has become the dominant part of that company's Design. A large number of LED panels, fly in and around the stage (the tracking must be very complicated), illuminated with imagery that purports to support the events of the stage.
Several weeks ago I invested to see OA's production of ANNA BOLENA. It resulted in a very mixed experience, the principal difficulty being the use of the LED Digital imagery that seemed mostly to lack clarity in its support of the opera, driven, I have speculated, by a limited budget that hindered the choice of the image content (not enough variety or content source) and the TIME required to rehearse the effects for a consistent, 'second by second' contribution. I have not seen the AIDA, or MADAME BUTTERFLY, that, also, is dependent on the Digital technique to facilitate the visuals of the storytelling.
Watching the spectacular success of the Production Design, by Dan Potra, with the Digital Content arrived at by Sean Nieuwenhuis for WHITELY, one may wonder if this new Artistic Imperative given by Mr Teraacini, may have been made with this new opera in mind. Having the licence to pluck from found family and documentation film video, plus, the extraordinary range of the paintings resource available to the Designer and his assistants, the 'pool' of content must indeed be vast. The result we have is to take us into the 'summery' colour palette of Whitely to allow the Director, David Freeman, to stage with simple properties, some very beautiful stage environments. The visuals are enhanced with the sensitive Lighting design by John Rayment.
Mr Freeman has not really directed, but, mostly, unimaginatively, grouped the singers, (principals and chorus) in positions to deliver the libretto to the audience. The Libretto, by Mt Fleming, is a really an old-fashioned auto-biographical (Wikipedia-thin) collection of some of the facts of the events of the life of Brett Whitely, from that of childhood to his demise, skimming the main bourgeoise expectations of living in Australia, and then the rest of the world, with a set of artistic skills that distinguished him from most of the 'folks' about him, with superficial aplomb.
Whitely's sense of antipodean awe and encouraged curiosity has him as a kind of naive Alice-in Wonderland figure meeting and greeting, this city, that gallery, this museum, that painter, that painting, those colours, that person, the villain, an evil-one that contrasts with that saint, that gives balance to what it is to be a human, (what a relief), and an introductory embracement to some 'philosophical' readings, that 'justifies' some of the madness of his mind and especially his reason for indulging in those drugs - the world of perception that they grant to the taker, ah, indeed: an inspiration!
The OA Whitely, is in Mr Fleming's libretto a rather flat rendering of a history figure, telling us: that this happened and then that happened which meant that that, of course, happened next. What happened was sometimes 'good' but also, sometimes 'bad' - as baldly as that. There is very little interrogation of any 'turning points' in Whitely's life, or of the struggle that they may have had. There is very little drama in this libretto. It is all kind of, in compound, boring, and has us with a 'hero' (anti-hero?) who seems to be, in total, a superficial 'wanker' who it becomes rather an embarrassment to have spent so much time with.
In that last quartet of the opera, spotlighting his mother, Beryl (Dominica Matthews), his daughter, Arkie (Natasha Green), his wife, Wendy (Julie Lea Godwin) and Brett, the artist himself (Leigh Melrose), across the width of the stage, a sudden grasp of what has been wrong or felt wrong most of the night with this meeting in the theatre, was that this opera should have been called WENDY - now, there is a hero, a hero who is still standing and still creating - a living garden - having survived all the dependencies that Whitely made on her and all the others to keep his art going. At what cost to her? Now there is a libretto.
Mr Fleming's work is a great disappointment. Sitting in the theatre and looking at all the colours of the LED support, around the dutiful singers on the stage I was struck with my remembrance of one of the great novels about an artist: THE MOON AND SIXPENCE, by W. Somerset Maugham (1919), which was written as glimpses into the mind and soul of its central character, Paul Strickland, based on the life of Paul Gauguin. Oh, what perceptive, dramatic and fierce darings from the Master Maugham. Is there not some potential in dealing with the life of Brett Whitely in that way?
Is it possible to have Whitely struggle with the demon by making a bargain of selling his soul to be able to create work such as the Composer Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann's great novel DOCTOR FAUSTUS?
Or, a character treatment such as Pam Gems gave the British painter, Stanley Spencer, in STANLEY (1996)? Where the cost to all the women he collected around himself is used as a scaffold for Spencer's output. Just a thought!
Mr Fleming's libretto is such a safe boring approach to the life of a very curious artist in obvious self-conflict. Was it too daring a life? Sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. Did that perspective need more than three years to yield any stage possibility? For what the OA has given us is a pocket diary of the main events of the Life of Brett Whitely (without interrogation, or comment). Not much interesting going on here to interest any international stage, I should think. Everyone lives a life in that kind of package - it is in the details that originality may appear, is it not?
This work will stay safely here. Will be let sit in the cupboard and moulder away because it is so, collectively, ultimately, dull in its content and structure. Seeing it once is enough. One heard all it had to offer the first go round. Truly. Money has been thrown at the production for sure, but, no courage at all.
How did we Australians end up with a building as astonishing as the Sydney Opera House? Where is the equivalent Jorn Utzon on this project? Who had the commissioning courage to insist that they think outside the box for this project? Not Lyndon Teracinni, it seems, or any of his acolytes at any level in the OA structure, who seem to have kowtowed and said "Yes sir, three bags full, sir. Whatever you say, sir."
For this WHITELY is a dud.
P.S. Sorry Elena, give me your ballet score for WILD SWANS any day.