Libretto: Geoffrey Dunn, based on the book by Edith Sitwell
WAAPA classical, vocal and music students
Roundhouse Theatre, WAAPA
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Few English writers have been as astute and convincing in writing about eccentricity as the remarkable Edith Sitwell whose own oddness certainly qualified her for the role.
Perhaps because she herself lived so improbable a life, her chronicles of absurd behaviour have the ring of truth. And Australian-born Malcolm Williamson, clearly inspired by Sitwell’s catalogue of the bizarre behaviour of others, wrote a score that splendidly complements Geoffrey Dunn’s libretto based on the Sitwell book..
In a work such as this, the text is pivotal to an appreciation of the opera. Absolute clarity of pronunciation is crucial in a libretto beautifully constructed to introduce the opera-goer to an extraordinary pageant of very strange people who range from the engagingly daft to the barking mad.
The work unfolds with impressively smooth momentum. On this point, the production scored impressively; there was about the performance a fluency, indeed buoyancy, which made experiencing this work so agreeable. And deployment of often large numbers of performers onstage at any one time – with players descending a staircase here or processing or recessing between stage and foyer there – made this production a fascinating way to pass an afternoon.
But diction was often unclear – and in a work such as this where distinct articulation of words is of pivotal importance, this was an irritating, indeed maddening, drawback. Perhaps this could have been avoided by flashing the texts onto screens at opposite sides of the stage as is often done when operas are sung in foreign languages.
Some of the singers, though, sang with impressively clear diction, not least Paul-Anthony Keightly as Philip Thicknesse. This was a delight, with Keightly producing a stream of mellow, finely pitched sound with every word as clearly stated as one could ever have wished it to be. Matthew Reardon’s diction, too, was beyond reproach – and Elena Perroni was a delightfully over-the-top Princess Caraboo. Clint Strindberg did well as Beau Brummell. But the diction of a vocal quartet, rather like a Greek chorus with crazy hairdos, needed much greater clarity.
Bobbi-Jo’s costume designs were a delight. Eleanor Garnett’s lighting design was consistently effective.
David Wickham presided over events from the piano, coaxing splendid responses from his forces and negotiating the often cruelly demanding piano part with unassuming virtuosity. A small instrumental ensemble was much on its mettle, not least Chris Dragon (clarinet) and Hannah Gladstones (bassoon).