Bliss

Coleman-Wright, Quaife, Gore, Opera Australia/Howarth

Festival Theatre, 5 September 2010 4 stars

BlissPeter Carey's loosely autobiographical novel Bliss was acclaimed for putting Australian literature 'on the map' when it arrived in 1981. The project of turning it into an opera has clearly been fired by an ambition to do something similar for Australian opera, and Australian art music in general. The result is a memorable and powerful journey into the psychology of modernism, and a work of broad—if X-rated—appeal.

Bliss opens with its hero, Harry Joy (Peter Coleman-Wright), suffering a heart attack at his birthday party. Harry believes, apparently with good reason, that he has fetched up in hell. Of course this is a conceit and he is experiencing his prior reality through the altered perspective of the kind of life-casualty that his former self frantically sought to distance itself from. Nevertheless, he sets about putting things right. He sacks his poison-peddling corporate clients, and in so doing is deemed 'mad' and committed to an asylum. The maniacally driven corporate world in which the advertising executive must either thrive or lose identity is found floating precariously above a worldly hell of ill health, corrupted lifestyles, madness and chemically-fuelled delusion.

A key metaphor links the drive for economic growth to the environmentally mediated consequence of rising cancer rates—tumours being growths of an entirely unwelcome kind. Harry's wife, Betty (Merlyn Quaife), released by Harry's illness to realize her own ambition for a career in advertising, succumbs to the disease, while Harry himself studies a city map showing incidence rates, and treats the map as a map of hell.

What will it take to redeem Harry in this Menippean swamp? Enter Honey B. (Lorina Gore), a modern incarnation of the earth-mother in the shape of a tree-hugging, honey-dealing hippy hooker—a figure at once improbable and clichéd, one might think, but it kinda works. If the hooker motif is an irritatingly lazy plot device to get boy and girl together, the laziness makes the initial introduction easy to forget. It is the winsome earth-mother who lingers in the memory after the closing scenes and final curtain.

Opera Australia's staging is at once simple and breathtakingly intricate. The stage is boxed on three sides with a grid of lights, like a very low resolution computer or mobile phone screen (the back panel was, I think, 60 bulbs by 30). These lights can do multiple colours and intensities, and so can generate surprisingly effective images, whether as simple as the chequered ribbon representing police headwear, or the foreboding complexity of an X-ray image with its cancerous shadow.

The central stage is constantly revolving. One thinks of Dante's circles of hell as at least being stationary; designer Neil Armfield's realization makes it altogether more dynamic, dramatizing the constant struggle to keep up with the world's unrelenting motion. When props—chairs, beds, tables and so on—are needed, the cast and chorus bring them on and off. No time to stop for scene-shifting.

BlissDriving everything is Brett Dean's score. His style is angular and abrasive, rich and dense in texture, freely making use of electroacoustic techniques to embellish the timbres of his orchestra. It complements Carey's manic dystopian vision by refusing either to over-formalize or to make overly-specific period references. The novel is of its time and place, but in the process of simplifying it for the stage, Dean and librettist Amanda Holden have broadened its message. That isn't to say that either held back from representing the grotesquely dysfunctional family in all its squalor, right down to the simultaneous acts of infidelity and oral incest Joy witnesses at the nadir of the first act.

It is beyond irony that Richard Hickox succumbed to a heart attack a few months prior to the scheduled premiere of Bliss, but a corresponding act of great good fortune that Elgar Howarth was available to take the project forwards. As calmly authoritative as ever, he marshalled the hugely ambitious score superbly, erasing any doubts there might have been about the BBC Symphony Orchestra occupying the pit rather than a regular opera orchestra. In front of him, in a role that must surely be among the most challenging ever created, Peter Coleman-Wright as Harry Joy married the vocal and the theatrical demands admirably, receiving strong support from Merlyn Quaife’s ruthlessly cavalier Betty, and from Lorina Gore’s sweetly seductive Honey B. Also catching the eye, Kanen Breen personified blind ambition as Johnny, while a special mention goes to Erkki Veltheim—the onstage violinist was all sleek elegance as a restaurant musician in act one, but transformed into a pitiful wreck of an asylum patient in act three.

Now, in a vastly ambitious project such as this there are bound to be weaknesses. I'd highlight two: first, two characters seem incomplete—Alex, the business partner, and Johnny, a colleague who is having an affair with his wife Betty. Maybe it seemed too much of a liberty to conflate the two into a single, conflicted figure—simultaneously friend and betrayer—but that might have balanced the Harry/Honey pairing more effectively. As it was, Barry Ryan's Alex had limited opportunities to shine. Even when mistakenly committed to the asylum before Harry, the audience’s schadenfreude would have been more satisfying had it been directed towards Johnny.

Second, the story-telling scene in act one. In the novel, there is time to establish the function of this, which is to represent Harry's glib, sales-talking skills. In the opera, it is already difficult to represent the 'real' incident in which an elephant sits on Harry’s car, prompting the police intervention. The story itself, retailed in ballad form, is fun but somehow pointless—it is too light to function as breathing space, nor does it contribute anything to the narrative. Still, even that blemish has its lining, as the two police officers (Shane Lowrencev and Stephen Smith) carry off the feat of singing Australian dialect with strong accents, without strangling themselves.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo Credits: Branco Gaica

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