Victorian Opera: Black Rider review

An artistic triumph, Black Rider combines a magically innovative production with an incredibly characterful cast to create a highly memorable evening of adult theatre.

Based on the same German folktale as the opera Der Freischütz, this musical fable sees a driven young man make a deadly deal with the devil. Presiding over a hellish shooting gallery of past victims, the devilish Pegleg offers love-struck Wilhelm a set of magic bullets. Finally able to impress the huntsman father of his beloved Käthchen, Wilhelm enjoys the accuracy of the magic bullets, unaware that Pegleg retains control of the final bullet.

The dark events of Black Rider have a tragic real life undercurrent, in that book writer William S. Burroughs killed his own wife in a drunken attempt at recreating the William Tell legend of shooting an item resting upon a loved one’s head.

Premiering in 1990, Black Rider is a collaboration between Burroughs, musician Tom Waits and original director Robert Wilson. This new production, a joint venture between Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre as part of the Melbourne Festival, is an expertly realised staging that scaffolds the macabre madness of the piece with a delicious sense of wicked fun.

Director Matthew Lutton has corralled a set of Australia’s most individually quirky performers and developed an outlandish, yet nicely unified, playing style that is a joy to watch. On a set, by Zoë Atkinson, that is a treasure trove of tricks and trap doors, Lutton grabs the audience’s attention and does not let go for the wild ride that unfolds over 105 blissful minutes.

Over and above the distinctive theatricality of the production, the quality of Black Rider is underpinned by two aspects. The first is the truly superb singing talents of the cast. The second is the wonderfully accessible music, which is infectiously enjoyable upon first listen. Indeed, music lovers of all backgrounds should find the jaunty songs a pleasure.

As well as being melodic, the score also features an eclectic collection of sounds. Musical director Phoebe Briggs presides over a chamber orchestra of ten exceptional musicians. The vivid quality of the music is the perfect complement for the eccentric stage action, the percussive effects adding many a zany touch.

Atkinson’s costumes have a heightened comic book style, with the performers outfitted in single, character-specific colours that extend all the way to stockings and shoes. Atkinson’s terrifically detailed series of trap doors and pulleys are supported by detailed, highly attractive canvas backdrops by scenic artist Patrick Jones.

The work of the entire creative team contributes to the bold clarity of the storytelling. in which the supernatural blends with the traditionally romantic. A measure of the success of the work of Lutton and his cast comes at the climax, when audience members gasp at the fable’s final tragic twist.

The evening’s eccentric vibe is instantly established with the entrance of Meow Meow, dragging Pegleg’s lame limb behind her as she crosses the proscenium to open the curtain. Her black curls straightened into the spiky helmet of a 1970s glam rocker, Meow Meow brings her underplayed yet dazzling sparkle to the role, causing mayhem with a devilish wink of innocence. Meow Meow’s performance of Stephanie Lake’s gun choreography, as she teaches Wilhelm to shoot, is a delight.

Kanen Breen utilises his elastic physicality as Wilhelm, and sings like an angel. Immersing himself in a performance that leaves the stage a blood-strewn mess, Breen maintains a purity in the character, which retains audience sympathy even as Wilhelm gives in to greed and desperation.

Opposite Breen is Dimity Shepherd, a local mezzo-soprano whose unflinching talent has seen her amass a highly impressive body of work. Shepherd’s stylised portrayal of Käthchen is at the heart of the humanity of the piece, and her vocals are exquisite. Shepherd and Breen’s rendition of “The Briar and the Rose” is a gorgeous vocal highlight.

Adding yet another facet to her glittering repertoire, Jacqueline Dark channels a 1950s conservatism as an anxious wife and mother, who only wants the best for her dear Käthchen. In excellent voice, as ever, Dark also proves a great sport in sliding through floor-height trap doors.

Despite his decades of experience, actor Richard Piper probably never imagined himself in a work by an opera company, yet here he is, as Käthchen’s aggressively assertive father, taking to the medium with the natural flair that keeps him ever gainfully employed on the stage.

Paul Capsis takes a supporting role, drawing upon his unique talents to heighten moments of the storytelling, particularly the flashback that explains the legend of the magic bullets. Capsis’ strong, expressive falsetto voice is well utilised by the score.

Rounding out the ensemble cast are Winston Hillyer and Le Gateau Chocolat. These actors may not take the spotlight in this production, but their irrepressible individuality adds considerably to the merry mayhem.

A production of relentless creativity and extraordinary performances, Black Rider is bound to be enjoyed by adult theatre lovers of all backgrounds.

Black Rider plays at Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne until 8 October 2017.

The Black Rider program can be read online.

Photos: Pia Johnson

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