Left – Julie Lea Goodwin and Leigh Melrose. Cover – Leigh Melrose. Photos – Prudence Upton
Not since Alan John’s wonderful Eighth Wonder has a new opera by an Australian composer burst upon the scene with so rapturous a reception as Elena Kats Chernin’s Whiteley. Grateful to listen to, and uncomplicated to sing, it displays the composer’s trademark eclecticism of styles, moving easily between gestures from popular music, dance music, and American minimalism (but, unlike Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, she knows when to stop!), and combining these with her own harmonic and rhythmic language which is always immediately intelligible, yet spicy, to produce something which is as Australian as new Australian cuisine.
Whiteley shares several themes and details with The Eighth Wonder. Both have as one of their themes the nature of art. Both include a panegyric on the beauty of Sydney Harbour, one seen from Brett Whiteley’s Lavender Bay house, and the other of course from just across the water. Both have a comic crowd scene, in the case of Whiteley the scene where the British art critics use the ponderous and pretentious language so beloved by such people to describe the Tate Gallery’s recent acquisition of one of Whiteley’s paintings. And curiously, though by no means irrelevantly, both bring the Queen onto the stage.
But Whiteley is a tragedy. The tragedy of an artist rushing through the doors of perception in search of transcendence, destroying himself and damaging others in the process of creating some of the most profound canvasses ever to come out of this country. Both Fleming and Kats Chernin tried to soften this tragedy, partly by allowing the audience into Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden, but this had somehow too small-scale an effect compared to Brett Whitely’s massive, convoluted genius. Fleming and Kats Chernin refused to end the opera with Whiteley’s drug overdose, closing instead with a trio for his mother (sung by Dominica Matthews), his wife Wendy (sung and acted brilliantly throughout the opera by Julia Lea Goodwin), and their daughter Arkie (engagingly performed by Kate Amos). It’s a beautiful piece of music, but to my mind it sits almost as uneasily after the climax of the opera as the sextet which closes Mozart’s Don Giovanni. But then perhaps my soul is too much in the 19th century…
The opera proceeds through a series of fragmentary episodes in the artist’s life, a fragmentation mirrored in the linguistically condensed libretto by Justin Fleming, and with spectacular success in David Freeman’s direction. I have always admired Freeman’s work, but I’d say that this opera is his masterpiece. He saturates the stage space with Whiteley’s paintings, often fracturing even these by superimposing them on moving flats, and thus immerses the audiences in the artist’s world. Having the birds fly out of Giotto’s St Francis was brilliantly unexpected. And Freeman uses the revolve stage with a variety that I have never seen before. (The Opera House’s revolve stage has not always worked seamlessly – I remember a production of I think it was Tannhäuser where the audience had to wait an hour and a quarter for the second act to arrive – but it works really well now). The revolve does enable characters to walk without changing their position on the stage, which was Brecht’s purpose in inventing it for Mother Courage in the 1930s, and also to change the set. But it was also used to heighten the emotional distance between characters, when one would be on the revolve and the other not. And using it to show the wordlessly wailing women in the walls of John Christie’s 10 Rillington Place is a fantastic coup de théâtre.
The part of Whiteley is a tour de force for any tenor. He is onstage almost the entire time, and Leigh Melrose created the role with vigour and freshness from beginning to end. Kats Chernin’s score is delicate, always allowing the singers to shine effortlessly over it, and this meant that you could hear far more of the actual words sung than is usual in opera. Melrose shone even among a fine cast in this respect. Of the minor roles, I would single out Celeste Lazarenko, who was a seductively mellifluous Fijian Woman, and Nicolas Jones, the tenor who sang the part of Michael Driscoll and also the bartender who takes Whiteley, like Virgil in Dante’s inferno, towards the dark realms. The OA chorus, trained by Antony Hunt, was, as always, impeccable. The whole score was conducted lovingly by Tahu Matheson, the woodwind playing in particular being often entrancing.
Whiteley is a triumph. I hope that, like The Eighth Wonder, it will have several revivals, But it left me with one question.
I visited the Brett Whiteley Studio yesterday, and saw for the first time Whiteley’s masterpiece, the painting Alchemy. I was told by the studio’s coordinator, Alec George, that Kats Chernin, unsurprisingly, had visited the studio during her preparation for the opera. Sitting opposite this mighty painting she played sketches for the opera. Yet, although some of the 18 panels which make up the painting do figure in Freeman’s design, the painting itself doesn’t figure in the plot of the opera. Was that because dealing with this work would have broken through the frame so devastatingly that we simply wouldn’t have been able to cope?
Opera Australia presents
composer Elena Kats-Chernin AO | libretto Justin Fleming
Director David Freeman
Venue: Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House NSW
Dates: July 15 – 30, 2019