It finally happened. Ten years, three artistic/music directors, two librettists, and no doubt a fair few airmiles. But at last the much-heralded adaptation of Peter Carey’s first novel Bliss opened at Sydney Opera House last Friday, and I’m feeling pretty privileged to have been there.
Bliss the Opera takes a dazzling, self-conscious, witty and wordy first novel in all its shagginess and turns it into a well-balanced, deeply satisfying drama with a punchy message and a series of spectacular set pieces. At three hours long, it encapsulates a bunch of complex, inter-linked ideas, bounces them off a range of deftly drawn characters, and pulls them back into a neat denoument, handing out a fair few sharp intakes of breath, gasps of amazement, chuckles and nods of recognition along the way. It’s a fabulous demonstration of what opera, the artform, can do.
I was hoping to focus on Brett Dean’s music in this post but it’s clear from that quick gush that it is going to be hard to separate the contributing factors: Amanda Holden’s libretto (how on earth did she break down a novel into twelve scenes?); Neil Armfield’s direction (the man’s a god, I tell you); Alice Babidge’s costumes (tracksuits and pussy bows, we love you); Brian Thomson’s set (blink); Kate Champion’s showstopping choreography; and the performances. Wow.
See, I haven’t even got to the music yet. So maybe I should throw in a few criticisms, just to show I’m not being paid by Booseys. The balance in the first couple of scenes needs adjusting: the orchestral textures are so attention grabbing that the vocal lines do not always win. Although Peter McCallum rates Dean’s writing for voice I’m not totally convinced yet. I found in particular Betty’s music arch and distractingly shrill. OK, OK, as I write that I realise that that could also describe her character, but I still don’t think Dean is at his best writing for women’s voices, in this work at least. And this isn’t a criticism, but more an observation: Dean’s music in this genre is not experimental, it’s not ear-crackingly dissonant. The ideas are oldies but goodies. In fact, dare I say it, there are quite a few moments when you think “ooh, Britten”, not least in the opening “Harry Joy! Harry Joy!”
What I am trying to say is here is an artist who is not trying to reinvent the genre: he is, rather, adding his own voice to a long tradition.
It is a voice which richly deserves to be there. Dean writes immensely inventive and beguiling music which engages on many levels, not least the way he makes references to any number of its antecedents.
Sometimes it’s very a subtle, possibly subconscious fragment from the mind of a man who has lived a life in the thick of music. You cannot play viola for thirty years and not have the art of orchestration seep into your ears. Sometimes it’s a conscious reference, a pointer: the showground organ, the police sirens. And on one occasion — if you’ve seen it you’ll know where I mean, Mimi — it’s just a really cheeky in-joke, a little reward for keen-eared operagoers.
But Dean is most definitely not a shameless post-modern magpie. The wonderful thing about his score is it rewards on many levels: the orchestration (including wonderful use of harpsichord, typewriter, electric guitar and muted trumpet… I could go on); the sense of pace and drama — he has a terrific instinct for shaping a scene, building to a climax; and the fact that it just works.
Bravi, bravissimi tutti. And in particular, Bravo Brett. Make no mistake, this is an important new work. Watch out Melbourne, watch out Edinburgh. You’re next in line for the Bliss experience.
Let me know what you think.