Saturday, August 15, 2015

Victorian Opera's well-intended but undistinguished Remembrance

In Victorian Opera's Remembrance concert, of the many text frames and black and white photographic slide projections utilised to reflect on adventure, courage, mate-ship and tragedy, one of the final projected slides inform of the approximately 300,000 men and women who left our fledgling nation to embark on the long journey to a war fought on many fronts. The tremendous death toll of around 60,000 and injured numbering 120,000 in the Great War of 1914-18 is an anguishing statistic.

Victorian Opera developing artists,
Orchestra Victoria and Community Chorus
In this salute to one of the defining yet dark transitions in Australian history during this centennial year of the Gallipoli landing, Victorian Opera deserves much praise for its wide-reaching collaborative efforts, its community involvement and outreach to the people of Victoria. For its one-only performance in Melbourne, Hamer Hall's colossal scale, however, sadly overwhelmed the concert and far too many seats were empty.

Writer, director and two-time Miles Franklin Literary Award winner Rodney Hall's threads of interesting wartime personal records and a war correspondent's reports sew a six-part chronological progression from Enlistment, Embarkation, Training, Gallipoli, Trenches (The Western Front) and Homecoming. The format was realised musically with a potpourri of popular songs of the day arranged by Victorian Opera Artistic Director Richard Mills amongst his own descriptive orchestral composition, music distinctly seesawing between turbulence and reflection which balanced the jaunty tunes.

David Hobson as the war correspondent
But Hall's intended free-flowing adaptation with a continuum of movement (as the program notes described) looked flimsy. The notional behaviours of dancing, waving, rifle training and wounded soldiers, for example, did more to unscrew the tribute's impact and the work's many parts struggled to reach memorable dramatic heights.

As the war correspondent, the dexterity of David Hobson's trusting, suave and sunny tenor was not tested to its poignant and expressive limits. It was in the narration of trench stories where the more searing aspects rested.

In various roles that included soldiers and nurses, eight of Victorian Opera's outstanding young artists (supported through its collaboration with University of Melbourne's Conservation of Music), met the vocal writing with ease but projection and sound balancing persisted. Nathan Lay, Matthew Tng, Carlos E. Bárcenas and Michael Petruccelli impressed in their solos while the females, Kate Amos, Elizabeth Lewis, Emma Muir-Smith and Cristina Russo, worked best in ensemble but it wasn't a night given to presenting the best capabilities of these developing young artists.

A well-rehearsed community choir of more than 100 members added heightened atmospheric appeal in key moments but lacked vital swagger in the old tunes of yesteryear.  Orchestra Victoria provided solidly driven and comforting support and the percussion and brass sections led with flair.

Remembrance will be performed in Bendigo, Wodonga, Warragul and Shepparton and certainly the smaller venues will lend greater impact to Mills and Hall's collaboration. Unlike the point in history Remembrance pays tribute to, it will unlikely, however, be recorded as a defining moment in the company's young identity-building 10-year history.

Production photos by Charlie Kinross

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