Whiteley: a stunning triumph for Opera Australia

July 17, 2019 by Victor Grynberg
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Victor Grynberg reviews the premiere of a new Australian opera recounting the life of the iconic artist Brett Whiteley…

Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley in Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Whiteley at the Sydney Opera House.
Photo credit: Prudence Upton

After several seasons where the big hits of Puccini, Verdi et al strengthened their balance sheet, Opera Australia, with extra support had the means to program a new and original work.

Julie Lea Goodwin as Wendy Whiteley and Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley in Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Whiteley at the Sydney Opera House.
Photo credit: Prudence Upton

Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini had the inspired idea of an opera production about painter-extraordinaire and enfant-terrible, the mighty Brett Whiteley and his intriguing wife and muse Wendy.

There was a huge buzz of excitement from the packed first-night crowd, wondering what they would see and hear.

A day after seeing the premiere my head is still buzzing with the aural and visual sensation that was delivered.

Of course, any opera will be judged firstly on the music and to compose Whiteley, OA gave the arduous task to Australia’s most beloved composer, the indefatigable Elena Kats-Chernin, who always comes up with superb musical solutions. There is a constant drive, reflecting the Whiteley persona, and though the composer didn’t want to write “too sweet “ music for this, there are parts that will live well separately from this masterpiece. A rich, dramatic overture sets the scene and in Act 1 there are two extraordinary love duets sung superbly by English tenor Leigh Melrose as Brett and the incomparable Julie Lea Goodwin, fresh from her great success as Maria in the Handa Opera production of West Side Story, recreating Wendy.  A huge undertaking that clearly shows how a brilliant composer can write for the occasion. No wonder Miss Kats-Chernin got her own standing ovation at the end.

Justin Fleming, the librettist, was another marvellous selection from OA. Fleming, with his customary wit and often cleverly-rhyming dialogue, has managed to extract excerpts of Whiteley’s life, from childhood to his tragic death in wonderfully executed vignettes. So it’s all there including the memorable time he met Queen Elizabeth, as the youngest painter ever to be acquired by the Tate Gallery in London.

The life of Brett has been documented so well that it was so critical that Leigh Melrose could convince us he was a Brett character.  And he did so with power and clarity to his voice, while always making sure we saw the artist, not just a singer. I hope to see him in more roles for OA.

Wendy Whitely and Julia Lea Goodwin who plays her Photo: Victor Grynberg

Visually this opera proved just how enriching the use of the 13.7 metre video screens is in telling a story. And of course, in this case, the rich tapestry of Whiteley’s magnificent artworks enhances the opera to such an extent that it alone is an unforgettable element. Full credit to a modern-day genius, Sean Nieuwenhuis, the video designer who delighted us all just recently with his take on Madama Butterfly. Just as successful was OA’s stalwart Dan Potra, the Production Designer and John Rayment, the lighting designer.

I was particularly taken by the big chorus number in Act 1. The delightful bouncy music, the galloping words excellently performed by the large chorus. Top marks to Chorus Master Anthony Hunt.

The Whiteley’s daughter Arkie is portrayed by two artists, for her younger days by Natasha Green and for the adult by Kate Amos. Both performers do an outstanding job. Singing with a purity of voice and moving around the stage in a totally credible way.

How many operas could feature characters as culturally famous as Patrick White, Joel Elenberg and  Robert Hughes? Respectively these roles were sung very well by Gregory Brown, Richard Anderson (always a personal favourite) and  Alexander Hargreaves.

Dominica Matthews was as professional as always as Brett’s mum Beryl.

Her quality of singing came to the fore in the sublime trio, sung in Wendy’s famous Lavender Bay Secret Garden, in the finale of the work after Brett’s accidental heroin overdose kills him. Together with Julie Lea Goodwin and Kate Amos, they perform a soon-to-be modern classic. A 21st century follow-up to Mozart’s “Soave Sila Il Vento “ from Cosi fan Tutte. No wonder Peter Sculthorpe described Miss Kats-Chernin as Australia’s Mozart!

Two vital contributors pulled this all together.

Victor Grynberg with composer Elena Kats-Chernin

Leading an energised and clearly enthusiastic Opera Australia Orchestra, the very talented and committed conductor Tahu Matheson. Not an easy score to play, with so many changes of rhythm, but performed beautifully. It’s also clear from comments made by the composer and others that the very tall Mr Matheson was also very big in contributing to all the changes and adjustments that are inevitable when a brand new work is first played. Bravo.

Finally, the director who has to pull all these pieces into place, including 400 cues for images. David Freeman, the quietly spoken Australian with an extremely impressive reputation from London where he is based.  Starting from absolute scratch to give us on the night a piece where clearly nearly all the audience were just as mesmerised and entranced by the work as this critic.

There is a limited season only and I urge anyone with an interest in art or music or just Australian Creativity to see this. I’ve already bought tickets for family members.

OA honoured the premiere of this important new work with an after-party. I was able to talk to both Wendy Whiteley, whose courage in allowing her and Brett’s life story to be portrayed so accurately is much to be admired, and the very beautiful and impressive Julie Lea Goodwin who played the on-stage Wendy. Fascinating to listen to them talking about the role and how high was Wendy’s admiration of Julie.

5 Stars

WHITELEY

Joan Sutherland Theatre

Sydney Opera House

Monday, July 15th 2019

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