Sunday, May 15, 2016

State Opera of South Australia's world premiere of Cloudstreet soars with understated immensity

It was a hard life of good and bad luck at the rundown house at number 1 Cloud Street, Perth. It was here that two battling families with different backgrounds and ideals serendipitously share an abandoned home where they build their own story of survival and spirit. This story of the Pickles and the Lambs is a journey through the struggles that leave scars on the psyche, our innate nature to try mend relationships and the little joys that catapult us to the stars.

Based on Australian author Tim Winton's novel of the same name, State Opera South Australia's bold and commanding new world premiere production of Cloudstreeet, by composer George Palmer, is a soul-tingling nebulous journey powered by truckloads of feeling.

Nicholas Jones as Quick Lamb and Nicholas Cannon as Fish Lamb
After winning the 1992 Booker Prize, Winton's Cloudstreet has been successfully adapted as a play and a mini-series. Now, Palmer's idea to bring it to the operatic stage seems a natural fit despite the imagined challenges. With guidance and support from director Gale Edwards and Artistic Director of State Opera of South Australia Timothy Sexton's backing, the work's five-year development has resulted in a remarkable piece of engaging contemporary operatic theatre. Set between the 1940s and 1960s, the sprawling story covering around 20 years is condensed into 60 bite-sized scenes across two acts.

Edwards's directorial wand works a treat in moving the drama forward, finding just the right measure of detail and pace to give Cloudstreet an understated immensity. Sometimes it feels that just when it seems to open out and breath, the next scene snaps at the fore, and the connection of the unsettled spirits that reside in the home feels mostly fragile against the more intensely felt 'watery' realm that Fish Lamb is drawn to, but the storytelling is so vividly conveyed by its sensational acting and singing that the work leaves a wondrous taste in its wake.

Palmer's music shows a lyricism and poetically tonal underlay for his own libretto that is lifted from much of Winton's own writing. In this, Palmer's first opera, the music serves the text with open arms, which is possibly why almost no exposed orchestral passages exist. But Palmer's use of robustly threaded solo pieces and striking recitative work marvellously to enliven temperaments while the Aussie accents, the lingo and all the expletives are given an appropriate home in the music, even to the lingual bowels of "I need a pooh".

Antoinette Halloran as Oriel Lamb and Nicholas Cannon as Fish Lamb
On opening night, Timothy Sexton conducted the 30-something-member quality-sounding Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with a gentle unobtrusiveness that, on most accounts, handed the dramatic rendering to the singers.

For the stage, the creative team have skilfully turned Cloudstreet into a meaningful theatrical work with a powerfully raw, mystical and evocative staging that expresses the suggested era at the same time as giving it, much like the story itself, immense timelessness.

Encompassing the stage to provide an open, workable central area and revolve, Victoria Lamb's set design of splintered weather-boarding perfectly captures a sense of impoverishment. Props come in and out and video designer Craig Williams's various projections deftly conjure diverse spatial settings. Nigel Levings's graphic lighting design adds its own gently descriptive angle, incorporating a sky-full of descending light bulbs as well as red when lighting the Pickles and blue for the Lambs - as does Ailsa Paterson's thoughtfully considered period costumes that also tastefully follow this visually coded differentiation.

After a picnicking tragedy by the Margaret River in which everyone's favourite, Fish Lamb, almost drowns, the story, as many layers as it has, revolves around the effects of Fish's subsequent mental impairment on himself and the rippling effect on his relationships.

Nicholas Jones, his luminescent tenor full of vibrancy and power, portrays Fish with astounding pathos and invincibility, painfully yet understandingly bringing us ever closer to his own final walk to his watery Valhalla. Warm and syrupy baritone Nicholas Cannon is equally formidable as his sympathetic brother Quick. Together, their indestructible brotherly tenderness is a compelling view from a deeply personal perspective. In fact, in a dramatic achievement that renders every principal character with depth, the audience is able to see their story through their own spirited and sensitive eyes.

Barry Ryan as Sam Pickles and Joanna McWaters as Dolly Pickles
Pelham Andrews's warm, salt-of-the-earth baritone patiently butters home life as the fatherly stalwart, Lester Lamb. Gleaming  soprano Antoinette Halloran paints a melancholic picture as his wife Oriel, never recovering from her favourite boy's near death from drowning, a death she saves him from but for which his inability to recognise her torments her forever.

Desiree Frahn is a performing standout with what can only be a step into greater things as Rose Pickles, her richly flexuous and emotively tinted soprano affectingly defining her progression from pigtailed bookish young girl living a stolen childhood to resolute loving young mother.

A disturbing aura surrounds lusciously-voiced soprano Joanna McWaters's fulsome portrayal of Rose's vivacious and openly lascivious mother, Dolly Pickles. As her gambling and hopelessly patient husband Sam Pickles, expressive and gravelly-voiced baritone Barry Ryan, who portrayed Scully in The Riders - another Tim Winton novel-to-opera world premiere work successfully brought to the stage by Victorian Opera - gives a solid, grounded account.

Other memorably strong performances come from ardently-voiced bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman as Rose's dabble with pretentious boyfriend Toby and steaming baritone Don Bemrose as 'magic man' Bob Crab. They are amongst a fine ensemble of Lamb and Pickles siblings who effortlessly make believe their transition believable from childhood to adulthood.

Tears of joy or sorrow will be shed throughout the seven performances of this world premiere season of Cloudstreet through to 21st May. Hopefully, without loss of momentum, the work will find its way onto stages further afield, to be packaged not as uniquely Australian but, as the opera's advertising by-line it says, "A journey of the human spirit". Indeed it is!

Production photographs: Accent Photography

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