Thanks to the collaboration between librettist Alison Croggon and award-winning composer Iain Grandage, Tim Winton’s acclaimed novel, The Riders is transported to the stage, the devastating tale of love lost brought to life by the talented cast of West Australian Opera.
While the opera premiered in Melbourne, this play has special significance for WA audiences (Winton hails from Perth suburb Karrinuyup) and though the action might be set elsewhere, it was with a sense of pride that I watched the drama unfold, aware that Perth continues to be home to much creative talent.
The Riders tells the story of Fred Scully (played by James Clayton) who, with his six-year-old daughter Billy (played on alternative nights by Rosanna Radici and Mia Beatie) in tow, embarks on a frantic race through Europe, desperately in search of his missing wife (played by Emma Pearson). It’s a deeply probing work that raises questions about the notion of self-identity, trust, and the lengths we will go to protect the ones we love.
No one wants to mess with the work of one of Australian’s most well-respected writers (Winton’s much-celebrated novel Cloudstreet remains a staple on the English curriculum of many Australian high schools) and while I’m glad that new works of opera can be borne from unlikely sources such as an Australian novel, the writing at time felt a little monotonous.
Having said that, Grandage’s music is exceptional – genuinely innovative, with a score that evokes a real sense of foreboding and anticipation. Instruments that rarely get a look in at the opera are all utilized here to maximum effect (bouzoukis, piano accordions, recorders and fiddles comprise just some of the eclectic ensemble.)
Equally commendable are the performances themselves – Emma Pearson is brilliant as Scully’s missing wife, hitting impossibly high notes with seeming ease, and Rosanna Radici (who played Billy on opening night) is a fine young actor and holds her ground amongst such a seasoned group of performers.
If you’re looking for huge casts or fancy sets you won’t find it here – the most The Riders has got in the way of stage design is workman’s trestles suspended from the ceiling and candles dotted around the stage, all comfortingly bathed in a serene blue light. Similarly, lovers of traditional opera might find the lack of French or Italian subtitles off-putting (it’s certainly novel to see an opera sung in English, complete with some cheek-reddening expletives!).
But while the design is minimal, the performances are excellent, and the music thrilling. With a decent run at His Majesty, Winton fans, as well as opera fans, should get along to see The Riders. It’s a new experience, and unlike most opera you’ve probably seen, but sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered.
West Australian Opera presents
composer Iain Grandage | librettist Alison Croggon | based on the novel by Tim Winton
Director Marion Potts
Venue: His Majesty’s Theatre
Dates: 13 – 16 April 2016
Tickets: $40 – $178