Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre: The Riders

Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre
The Riders by Iain Grandage
Libretto by Alison Croggon
Based on the novel by Tim Winton.
Merlyn Theatre, 4 October 2014

By Alexander O’Sullivan

Tim Winton’s enigmatic novel The Riders seemed at first an odd choice for an opera. Operas are usually the domain of loudly-expressed, extroverted feelings, confrontations and unsubtle, big ideas. In the novel, the typically Wintonesque protagonist Scully is an unsophisticated Australian man with prosaic ambitions. Reimagining him as a roaring operatic Heldenbaritone (the powerful Barry Ryan) might have proved problematic, if it weren’t for Croggon’s skill as a librettist. Her libretto succeeds in drawing focus away from Scully’s inherently unoperatic character. Instead, the focus is on his process of dealing with the past through this odyssey.

This is a challenging work, not least because of its uninterrupted length of two hours and intimate dimensions (an orchestra of fourteen and a cast of six). Grandage and Croggon have produced an opera with clearly defined structure, and I wish I had the opportunity to see it again to understand its relationships on a deeper level. Perhaps I’ll have to settle for reading Winton’s book.

There is usually a process of deabstractifying literature while adapting it to the operatic medium. Perhaps this is due to the standard treatment of libretti, with sentences dragged out over such long durations that meaning becomes difficult for the listener to comprehend. Or perhaps it is due to the greatly reduced word-count of a libretto compared to a novel, as Croggon mentions in her notes. In this case, it would have been challenging for the creators to convey the mysterious and highly oblique mood of the novel. Instead, they present one of many possible readings of it.

In the novel, Scully is renovating a small cottage in Ireland, where his wife, Jennifer, and daughter, Billie, will join him from Perth. However, his daughter arrives alone at the airport, completely mute. Scully travels to Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and France attempting to find Jennifer, but never succeeds. By contrast, the opera’s creators decided to include Jennifer (Jessica Aszodi) on stage unseen by other characters (with the notable exception of a flashback). Through this choice, they constrain the interpretation of the work to something more concrete: an exploration of the redemptive power of love. The Riders here are phantasms, manifestations of Scully’s relationship with the past.

Grandage’s score is inventive, variegated, and catholic in its borrowings from popular, folk and more avant-garde styles. At times, the relentless pounding and churning of the score left me weary, but these were relieved by the electrically contemplative recorder solos of Genevieve Lacey. Lacey’s recorder cleverly depicted Jennifer throughout the work, saturating the work with her memory, and reflecting the novel’s motif of birds (caged and free). This is Grandage’s first opera, and at times I felt as if he could have toned things down a bit. While the writing was clearly attempting to depict Scully’s confusion and weariness, the excessive loudness and tessitura of the vocal writing followed the law of diminishing returns. This was especially true in the Paris scene where Marianne (Dimity Shepherd) came off as a French caricature – a moment of drama became unintentionally comic.

On the whole, The Riders is definitely a win for Victorian Opera. The set design took Scully’s saw-horses, and assembled them into actual horses – an arresting image when the Riders make their first appearance. The chorus of Shepherd, David Rogers-Smith and Jerzy Kozlowski ably assumed a variety of roles, and the young Isabela Calderon, while clearly exhausted after a long run, was effective as Billie, Scully’s daughter (and is even about to do her VCE exams!). One must think now about the work’s future. Is this it? Will The Riders be seen again, anywhere? Or has it appeared briefly only to disappear, like VO’s other commissions (Rembrandt’s Wife, Midnight Son, The Magic Pudding)?

-Alexander O’Sullivan

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

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