Bliss | Opera AustraliaBrett Dean’s idea that Peter Carey’s novel Bliss could be converted to an opera is simply brilliant. A modern Australian literary classic set steadfastly in the corporate 1980’s, Bliss redrew representations of our modern selves, reframed metaphysical understandings of the Australian psyche and exposed post-structural dilemmas a decade before they exploded into consciousness in the 1990’s. The philosophical conceit is elegantly simple. Carey’s central character, Harry Joy, tries to get his soul back from Hell, with a series of complicating events preventing this from being easily achieved. This is operatic heartland and it resonates with the story of Faust, who sold his soul to the devil.

Billed as “landmark event” and a “significant moment in Australia’s cultural life”, Bliss the opera, had a lot to live up to. Brett Dean’s orchestral score and Amanda Holden’s libretto are the culmination of almost ten years work. Opera Australia must have wondered if it would ever get there after the controversial departure of Simone Young and sudden death of Richard Hickox, OA’s successive Music Directors. However, under the watchful eye of Elgar Howarth, Bliss premiered at the SOH on March 12, 2010.

Harry Joy, sung by Peter Coleman Wright, is an advertising executive who has a heart attack at celebrations of the anniversary of his 20 years success in the Biz. He awakes to find his wife is having an affair; his son is dealing drugs and his daughter doing sex for favours with the brother for drugs. On top of this, Harry now perceives clearly that his ad agency represents companies that sell carcinogenic products. Harry decides, from now on he must be “good”.

For those familiar with the novel, and even Ray Lawrence’s 1985 film version, the carefully pared back libretto conveys the essential story line with skeletal brevity. Amanda Holden has captured the era with conscious vernacular – it is hard to imagine another opera containing the lines: “Did you see his wife? / A bit of a goer I reckon / You reckon? I reckon.” But it’s fun and exhilarating to hear Australian English elevated to such heights.

At times some scenes are protracted, illustrating the excruciatingly difficult task of excavating an opera from a novel. In Act III, the Bedlam scene, a big ticket chorus number serves an overt operatic function. However, Harry is virtually missing in action and without the physical presence and emotional engagement of the hero, the audience disengages.

Betty Joy’s boardroom scene struggles for relevance too but it’s a memorable technical achievement and successive designers will enjoy finding novel ways to blow up a board room full of directors. Brian Thomson’s set, Alice Babidge’s costumes and Nigel Leving’s clever pixillated light design evoke many of the signifiers in the novel, allowing an audience to follow the plot almost subconsciously.

Most difficult is the way the both Holden and Dean have handled the ending. In Carey’s novel, the ending is a sweet coda, a breath of fresh air, as Harry and Honey Barbara are finally reconciled. It’s also a literal breath of air as Harry dies for the second time, peacefully, in the native forest, drifting up out of his body and being absorbed by the trees. Howard and Dean have used the love story and reconciliation of Harry and Honey B as the denouement - it finishes with their embrace - undercutting the philosophical and spiritual strength of the original work. It’s problematic because Brett Dean’s atonal music has been up to this point unrelenting. The audience doesn’t get a break and the reconciliation isn’t represented by any significant softening in the score. It’s difficult to connect emotionally with Dean’s orchestration. It’s clever, inventive, energetic and innovative with some lovely ideas, but whether it allows an audience to fall in love with the opera will be the big question. We already love the story. Can we love the opera as much?

Opera Australia presents
by Brett Dean and Amanda Holden, from the novel by Peter Carey

Director Neil Armfield

Venue: Sydney Opera House, Opera Theatre | Bennelong Point, Sydney
Dates: 12 - 30 Mar, 2010
Times: 12, 17, 25, 27, 30 Mar 7.30pm; Sat 20 Mar 2pm.
Tickets: $42.00 - $297.00
Bookings: 02 9250 7777

Venue: State Theatre, Arts Centre
Dates/Times: 7.30pm – April 20, 23, 27; May 1, 2010
Free Opera Talks: April 27, May 1 - 45 minutes before performances
Tickets: $55 - $229. Child ticket available from $50
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166 | | in person at the Arts Centre Box Office

Sung in English with English surtitles

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