Bliss. Opera with music by Brett Dean, libretto by Amanda Holden after the novel by Peter Carey

Peter Coleman-Wright, Merlyn Quaife, Lorina Gore, Barry Ryan, David Corcoran, Taryn Fiebig, Kanen Breen, Shane Lowrencev, Henry Choo, Milijana Nikolic, Jane Parkin, Teresa La Rocca, Stephen Smith, Malcolm Ede, Erkki Veltheim Onstage Violinist, Opera Australia Chorus, Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, Elgar Howarth, conductor
Opera
ABC Classics 481 1820
Reviewed by , August 1st, 2015

Joy cometh in the morning; bliss taketh about eleven years, or it did in the case of Brett Dean’s debut opera of the same name. Not that this is entirely unusual in the annals of Australian opera: Richard Meale’s Voss, Moya Henderson’s Lindy and Larry Sitsky’s The Golem all, for a whole bunch of reasons, proceeded from conception to production at a glacial pace. Dean’s Bliss was first mooted in 1999 during conductor Simone Young’s ill-fated time at the helm of Opera Australia. There was a change of librettist, and then the sad and untimely death of Young’s successor, Richard Hickox, who had seen part of the work through to workshop stage. It wasn’t until 2010, however, that the piece was finally produced in Sydney and Edinburgh by Opera Australia, and, under Young’s baton, with the Hamburg State Opera shortly thereafter. I can think of only one other Australian opera that has had international exposure with two companies so soon after its premiere.

Bliss - scene from OA production

Based on Peter Carey’s first novel, Bliss is a notable contribution to the growing number of operatic treatments of works of Australian literature. In the last twelve months we have seen The Riders, adapted, from Tim Winton’s novel, by Alison Croggon and Iain Grandage and Fly Away Peter, Pierce Wilcox’s and Elliott Gyger’s version of the novel by David Malouf. Eagerly awaited are Eucalyptus, by Jonathan Mills (whose earlier The Ghost Wife was based on Barbara Baynton’s classic The Chosen Vessel) after Murray Bail, and George Palmer’s Cloudstreet, another Winton story; the years since Voss – for which Malouf adapted Patrick White’s novel – have produced Andrew Schultz’s The Children’s Bach, after Helen Garner, and Richard Mills’s operatic version of the Ray Lawler classic, The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. In all cases the operas have appeared some time after the story or play, raising the question of whether it is the readership of one is necessarily the audience for the other, and, therefore, how much familiarity with the original can the creator of an opera assume. (In Bliss, for instance, an important turn in the plot involves an elephant sitting on a car, something relatively difficult to stage, especially at Bennelong Point. The Opera Australia production did marvellous things with lighting, but someone unfamiliar with the story might just have missed the moment.) On the other hand we can hope that novels, like Voss, that were by the time of the opera’s production more talked about than read, might get a new lease of life as a result.

Composer Brett Dean

Composer Brett Dean

Carey’s novel appeared in 1981, to be followed in 1985 by Ray Lawrence’s filmed version. Both tell the story of Harry Joy, an advertising executive, who ‘dies’, briefly, and awakens to find his life, work and family are all an intolerable hell: his clients, knowingly, cause cancer, his wife is unfaithful, his children variously corrupt; redemption appears in the form of a hippie/call-girl named Honey Barbara with whom Harry eventually escapes to Nimbin or somewhere, but not before being committed to an asylum. Lawrence’s film was able to follow the novel relatively closely; making an opera is, of course, a whole other ballgame. Dean and his librettist Amanda Holden refined the schema of the tale to one of, as Dean puts it, ‘personal journey/discovery/redemption’, making it ripe for a three-act treatment full of contrasting characters, mises-en-scène and, of course, music. Certain aspects of the plot had, naturally, to be discarded or elided, most notably in the final scene, which adumbrates, but doesn’t show, Harry’s second and actual death as depicted by Carey.

Lawrence’s film found an objective correlative for Carey’s infernal world in the torrid dampness of Sydney in late summer. In opera, of course, that function falls to the music; Dean’s is intricate and frequently febrile – and the singers and Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under Elgar Howarth sound superb in this mastering of the live recording, whether in passages of high-keyed hellishness or limpid sensuality. A sound-design element, on which Dean worked with Bob Scott, adds further atmosphere, such as the keening sirens in Act III that signal the conflagration in which Harry’s wife, Betty (changed in the interests of la brevità from ‘Bettina’ in the novel) has committed spectacular suicide. Bliss acknowledges its debts to a long tradition of opera: the motif of ‘man falls in love with prostitute’ worked well enough for Verdi, and like the Italian master, Dean uses the chorus as ambient colour (the circus artistes standing in for the Act II gipsies, perhaps), to create powerful effects at moments of structural importance (loudly, in the case of the inmates of the asylum in which Harry finds himself in Act III, but with eerie softness in the background of the work’s penultimate scene) and, of course, to throw into relief the isolation of the central character. In addition to that, as we might expect, Dean cultivates the kind of sounds we might hear in Berg and Stravinsky, with, perhaps more surprisingly, echoes of some British opera composers of the last century. There is some self-acknowledged pastiche: a Hindemithy duettino barocco between Harry and Alex, circus music (hinted at in that of Reverend Des, who is, after all, a clown, but fully realised when the circus artistes appear later) and a set-piece, ‘The Ballad of Little Titch’ which is a kind of ‘Legend of Kleinzach’ moment.

Baritone Peter Coleman-Wright plays Harry Joy.

Baritone Peter Coleman-Wright plays Harry Joy.

Formally, the score is through-composed and responsive to the action, with vestigial ‘numbers’ (distinguished variously, and for no apparent reason, as arioso, arietta, aria or scena) that, as traditionally happens, bring moments of dramatic stasis so that a character can reflect. Betty, sung by the estimable Merlyn Quaife, has two: her ‘New York, New York’ sure ain’t Bernstein (or Kander) but a powerful evocation of her desire for success among that city’s ‘shimmering, glittering towers of glass’.

Dean has a tendency to equate high emotional pressure with high tessitura, with the result that that line just quoted lies a little too high to enunciate without modified vowels, even for a singer with the prodigious technique and intelligence of Quaife; when she is called up to sing the word ‘stratospheric’ stratospherically the same thing applies. Likewise, Honey, as the embodiment of natural truth and of the dear life that redeems Harry, is given many, luminously beautiful, high lines. These are delivered with radiant sensuality by Lorina Gore, but we cast ourselves on the mercy of the surtitle person. It happens at the other end of the spectrum, too: in an otherwise terrific aria, couched in amazing orchestration, for the opulent baritone of Peter Coleman-Wright, as Harry, a line like ‘Far beyond the scene at home’ is placed (a little too) low in the vocal compass to underline that home is now hell. ‘Hell’ and ‘heaven’, are key words in the text and tend to be set at such illustrative, literal extremes of the vocal line. The problem is that both are contain only short, narrow vowels that must be modified or distended to suit the music.

Lorina Gore

Lorina Gore

Overall the show maintains a cracking pace, in Act II especially with clever intercutting of scenes. Holden’s libretto is generally lucid and simple, with a judicious use of crisp rhyme (‘You Judas, you screwed us’ gets my vote) and some arch wit: when Harry meets Honey she informs him that ‘they call me Mimi’. Well, they would. Dean responds nimbly, but never succumbs to the lure of what critic Roger Covell once termed the ‘gapped-triplet’ school of word setting. Indeed there are words and phrases in the libretto that are, on occasion repeated (Baroque style?), for what seem to be musical, rather than dramatic, reasons. To my mind there is only one moment where the action is needlessly slackened: at the end of the scene set in the lunatic asylum, an inmate called ‘Nurse’ sings an aria, ostensibly to personalise the suffering we have just witnessed. But the scene has by then done its work – we are already duly appalled, so the aria is almost redundant.

Bliss begins with a demonic office party, embodied in the sort of whirling, kinetic music that features in much of the opera, with the chorus acting much as it does in La traviata or Eugene Onegin, and Barry Ryan – in a role for which he is perfect – dominating as Alex, Harry’s right hand man. This is halted by a stunning orchestral tutti to depict the heart attack that fells Harry and launches his journey into hell.

The hospital scene that ensues offers both music and words that are genuinely, and amusingly, vernacular, with antiphonal ‘I reckon/you reckons’ from the nurses (though a stage-direction or two in the booklet would clarify the action here for those who did not see the show live or on television). Another endearing example of Dean’s musical wit is in scoring a telephone conversation between Harry and his client’s secretary: like the unseen teacher, Miss Othmar, in the animated version of the old Peanuts cartoons, this role is taken by a muted trombone that mimics the spoken voice.

Taryn Fiebig

Taryn Fiebig

Occasionally, though, this production hits the local colour button a bit hard: Reverend Des and various police officers affect a stage-Strine that ends up sounding like Monty Python’s University of Woolloomooloo sketch, and in the restaurant scene the Italian waiter, Aldo, sings-a like-a this. That makes it plausible that he will sing ‘shit’ and ‘cancer’ as long vowels, but risks caricaturing a character who in the context (he is a cancer-sufferer) should command our sympathy. But, in general, the opera does admits its characters’ humanity: we can feel for even for the meretricious Betty in the aftermath of her cancer diagnosis, and for the appalling Joy children (sung by the definitely not-appalling David Corcoran and Taryn Fiebig) as their selfish world implodes.

Dean graciously and rightly acknowledges the input of director Neil Armfield to Bliss’s artistic success. One can only hope that ABC Enterprises will release the DVD, with this splendidly engineered soundtrack, of the production that was telecast at the time. (And, please, include the interval interviews with the singers: I treasure Quaife’s response to the inevitable and otiose ‘how did it feel simulating sex on stage of the SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE?’ ‘I was watching the conductor’ she said, ‘and counting’.) For now though, eminently worth having on one’s shelves. Or iPod.

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