A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

Thoughts on Bliss

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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.

Author: harryfiddler

Harriet Cunningham – aka @harryfiddler — is a freelance writer based in Sydney. Harriet wrote her first novel, about a runaway cat, at the age of 7. In the forty year gap between novel 1 and novel 2 she moved from London to Edinburgh to Sydney, ran an opera company, played violin on the opera house stage and sailed from Gove to Darwin. She is now a music critic and writer, best known as the critic who got banned by Opera Australia. She still hangs out at the Sydney Opera House, is still trying to get that novel published, and still plays the violin.

One thought on “Thoughts on Bliss

  1. Now that I have seen Bliss, and, overall, enjoyed the experience, it is a pity not to be so fulsome in praise. The music is excellent and blends cleverly with the singing, never obtruding in the climaxes, although there were few of these, it seemed. The staging was undoubtedly brilliant (pun unintended). The set had a touch of New York about it. The performances, the dancing and the singing were excellent. But “deftly drawn” is not the way I would describe the portrayal of the characters. It is, of course, a given that the characters are all shallow, with the possible exception of Honey but her part only hints at her possible complexity. The rest are rather boring stereotypes, and it may be this which created difficulties for me. A book has many words to develop individuals. The Bliss film presented the cast as caricatures. The opera has cameos which, although individually neat, sadly do not take flight in terms of character development. It is hard to care about any of the characters (or to worry about that cancer cluster in this “prosperous city in Australia”).

    The first scene has its moments, although a bit more surrealism might help. (It reminds me of too many cocktail parties endured over the years.) The restaurant scene is neat with great dancing. Harry’s story telling, which enables his escape from the police, is beautifully portrayed. On the other hand, Harry and Honey wandering around the hotel suite, the one in white pyjamas, the other in a white sheet, made me wonder whether indeed we were in heaven rather than in hell.

    The production was really hitting its straps as the third act got under way in the asylum. The trio around Harry’s bed was wonderful, and the intervention (song? aria?) by “Nurse” was one of the highlights of the whole night. I felt I knew more about this poor deranged soul than I did about any of the other characters, despite their exposure. Then suddenly there was a long awaited moment when the heroine (?) stands alone on stage for what this observer thought would be the show stopper number. “I’ve lost him!” or words to that effect. Beautiful enough, I guess, but it didn’t move the audience and it didn’t tell any more about what makes Honey tick. The boardroom scene (last supper?) was pulled off magnificently. Pyrotechnics without the pyro, and music blending perfectly with the sound and light effects. Pity that Betty seemed an unlikely suicide bomber. Perhaps post-diagnosis depression was the driver. CSI came briefly to mind.

    The two awful children, absorbing it all, then wandering off to lunch said everything that needed to be said about them. Surely Amanda Holden could have written them out. Harry’s home life was bad enough even without them.

    And Ms Holden’s rhyming couplets? Hmm!

    The final scene was rather a let down. The bare earth plot would have done Andrew Lloyd Webber proud. But again here, the final moments depicting Harry on the way to his Nirvana neither uplifted nor amused. At least we didn’t have to put up with Jack Thompson on the way. And my wife (the gardener in the family) was prompted to muse, after the event, that Harry’s tree planting was poorly executed, with root balls going down too far into rather deep holes in the soil.

    So why did we leave this 1980s morality tale somewhat unfulfilled? We put it down to the wrong book and a somewhat disjointed structure. Can’t do anything about Carey’s book, but perhaps some revisions might be in order.

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