Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Riders, Sept 23, 2014 ***1/2

Music by Iain Grandage; Libretto by Alison Croggon; Based on Tim Winton's novel
By Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Sept 23 to Oct 4, 2014
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Tues Sept 23, 2014
Stars: ***1/2
Review also published in Herald Sun in print on Fri Sept 26, 2014. KH

This operatic interpretation of The Riders is a totally different animal from Tim Winton’s award-winning novel upon which it is based.

There is a haunting quality to the music (Iain Grandage), libretto (Alison Croggon) and style of this production (Marion Potts) that captures the grim tone of Winton’s novel, but the narrative is necessarily condensed to fit into 100 minutes of stage time.

After renovating their dream cottage in Ireland, Scully (Barry Ryan), awaits the arrival from Perth of his beloved wife, Jennifer (Jessica Aszodi), and 7 year-old daughter, Billie (Isabela Calderon), but is shocked when a traumatised, silent Billie arrives alone on a plane.

Driven by his obsessive love and with Billie in tow, Scully trawls familiar European locations, searching in vain for his wife who has vanished like smoke leaving only “the wounds of absence”.

This is an emotional story about a man’s consuming love and devotion that smothers his wife and almost pushes him to “fall off the edge of the world” in his grief, loss and isolation.

Grandage’s eclectic composition, conducted by Richard Mills, resonates with folk music of Ireland, Greece and France as well as referencing Modernist, Romantic and Serialist styles. The music shifts from dreamlike ripples to surging oceanic waves of brass and strings or pounding percussion.

Croggon tells Scully’s story simply and evocatively, through poetic lyrics and rich metaphor that heighten the mournfulness and confusion of Scully and Billie as they struggle to comprehend Jennifer’s abandonment of them and to fill the void caused by her absence.

Unlike the book in which the wife is unseen, Aszodi as Jennifer is a constant but inaccessible presence looming over Scully and Billie as she paces an ethereal balcony above them.

The soulful, warm depths of Ryan’s baritone capture Scully’s desolation and jealousy, and his stolid presence creates a powerful sense of Scully as a rough, inarticulate workingman.

Aszodi’s fine soprano gives a soaring quality to Jennifer’s ethereal presence and she captures the dismissive, self-centredness of this aspiring artist who escapes her banal life and hard-working, adoring husband.

Calderon embodies the frail, lost child, Billie, with her light, childlike voice and slight build.

Jerzy Kozlowski, David Rogers-Smith and Dimity Shepherd are exceptional singing both the thrilling harmonies of the ominous chorus of phantoms – the Riders of the title – and in their solo roles.

Kozlowski’s rich baritone is powerful as the laconic Greek bar owner, Rogers-Smith’s tenor is exhilarating as Alex the painter, and Shepherd’s bold mezzo brings depth to wild Frenchwoman, Marianne.

The stage, effectively reflecting the hollowness of Scully’s inner life, is dimly lit (Matt Scott) and features a stark design of wooden sawhorses (Dale Ferguson) that are moved about the stage to create obstacles, locations or support for Scully.

The production occasionally lacks dynamic range, has several false endings and might benefit from losing 15 minutes, but it is a compelling and beautifully sung new work by a talented team.

By Kate Herbert

Conducted by / Richard Mills
Direction / Marion Potts
Set & Costume Design / Dale Ferguson
Lighting Design / Matt Scott
Cast includes: 

Jessica Aszodi, Jerzy Kozlowski, David Rogers-Smith, Barry Ryan, Dimity Shepherd

 Rehearsal of The Riders

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