Victorian Opera continue their extraordinary run of original works, presenting a finely appointed production of world premiere youth opera The Selfish Giant.
There is a brilliant synergy in the fact that librettist Emma Muir-Smith came to Victorian Opera in the first place as part of their youth productions. Composer Simon Bruckard was, in turn, introduced to opera at the company by Muir-Smith, and the friends went on to begin the long process of writing an opera together.
Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant proves an ideal basis for a youth opera, its story simple but timeless. Furious that children have been playing in his garden, the Giant posts a sign that children should keep out. In these conditions, Spring cannot take root, so Winter returns to settle a grey, endless chill on the once beautiful garden. While the religious symbolism of Wilde’s original story is excised, the message of the beauty to be found in the sharing of resources remains a potent one.
Running just over an hour, The Selfish Giant takes it time with the relatively simple story, allowing each beat to land with leisurely pace. Where modern operas have a potential tendency towards atonal music and abstract soundscapes, Bruckard’s music is lush and beautiful, and nicely varied to fit the range of characters. Chorus harmonies are particularly gorgeous, especially as sung by the vivacious Victorian Opera Youth Chorus.
Another generalisation about modern opera is the tendency for them to be overwritten. Bruckard and Muir-Smith are totally comfortable in presenting passages of music without text to let the action speak for itself, and the result is all the more powerful. Muir-Smith’s libretto is sweetly amusing, and the storytelling is totally accessible for children. English diction is crystal clear from all singers, allowing the new work to be understood with complete ease.
Bruckard himself conducts the Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra, delivering a confident, nuanced performance from the assembled musicians. Bruckard makes imaginative use of percussion to colour the sound, with talented musician Arwen Johnston kept very busy throughout the performance. Music for Spring and her Fairies has a sumptuous feel, and the Giant’s melancholy is amply explored rather than brushed aside for more cheerful moments.
Director Cameron Menzies helps all performers engage authentically with the audience. Menzies’ deft guidance keeps the action well clear of any potential pantomime styling. Energy is high but not overdone, with comedy also played at a gently amusing level. The Giant’s sorrow is palpable, and his redemption is uplifting. Menzies is supported by choreographer Elizabeth Hill-Cooper, who adds some sprightly, eye-catching action for the large ensemble.
For an opera with a relatively short season, The Selfish Giant is extremely well produced. Designer James Browne uses a grayscale palette, with vibrant bursts of colour for the attractive costumes of Spring and her Fairies. All costumes have clearly been purpose made for this production, representing an impressive investment in quality.
An orthogonal, raked stage houses the Giant’s home and garden, surrounded by turrets and high walls. Over-sized props represent shards of ice and healthy spring blooms. Overall, Browne’s creativity and flair tie in perfectly with the playful spirit of direction and composition. The appealing visuals are completed by Eduard Inglés’ subtle, pleasantly coloured lighting design.
Musical preparation is reliably first rate, with singers and musicians alike appearing entirely confident in performing the brand new work.
Stephen Marsh brings great pathos to the Giant, who is gentle even in anger. Marsh sings with a richly burnished baritone, colouring the music with ready warmth. For extra credit, Marsh earns gasps of admiration when the Giant follows the children’s lead in taking his turn in the skipping rope.
Saffrey Brown delivers supple vocal beauty as Spring, very well matched by Olivia Federow-Yemm as haughty Winter.
Michael Dimovski, Darcy Carroll and Noah Ryland score welcome laughs as mischievous spirits Snow, Frost and Wind, also singing their roles with ample dexterity.
With The Selfish Giant all but sold out, the only advice is to book early for future youth operas from Victorian Opera.
The Selfish Giant plays at Gasworks Theatre, Melbourne until 19 October 2019.
Photos: Charlie Kinross