It has taken over eighty years for Four Saints in Three Acts to reach an Australian stage, but thanks to the intrepid Richard Mills as Artistic Director of Opera Victoria this extraordinary opera has now been given a significant local première at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this production is how effectively the young members of Victorian Youth Opera met the challenge of preparing such a demanding work. After only two weeks of rehearsal, this select group of about fifty young singers, ranging in age from 15 to 25, seemed to relish the excitement and daring of Virgil Thomson’s and Gertrude Stein’s singular collaboration. Certainly Thomson’s tuneful score, inspired by jazz, gospel and folk music, helped them to memorise a text that was more repetitive than meaningful. Disciplined, stylish playing by the Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Phoebe Briggs also provided reliable support.
Plain narrative has no place in Stein’s stream of consciousness poetry. Meaning was elusive even when snatches of sense could be gleaned as Acts and Scenes flowed and saints were celebrated in often witty fragmented reiterations of words and phrases. In addition to the talent and dedication of the performers, the high quality of the final product was a tribute to the expertise and hard work of Phoebe Briggs and repetiteurs Phillipa Safey and Simon Bruckard. So thorough was the preparation that when a medical emergency interrupted the second performance to the point where everybody had to vacate the auditorium, the opera resumed as smoothly as if all members of the cast had been seasoned professionals.
In fact some members of the cast were just that. As Compère and Commère, Jerzy Kozlowski and Margaret Arnold sang and declaimed Stein’s text using an extensive range of expressive colour and precise diction, no matter how tongue twisting it was. Humour was accentuated as Kozlowski announced Acts and Scenes in a fruity resonant bass baritone while Arnold often employed a tarter, more insistent tone of school-marmish exasperation.
Also lending their experience to support the younger singers were tenors Raphael Wong (St Ignatius) and Carlos E. Bárcenas (St Chavez), both in fine, ringing voice and projecting the nonsensical text with conviction. Among the twenty saints, real and imagined, Sophia Wasley shone in the central role of St Teresa 1, her clear, vibrant soprano and engaging personality complementing mezzo soprano Shakira Dugan’s St Teresa 2. Rhian Tuoy (St Settlement), Darcy Carol (St Plan) and Hayley Edwards, in the dual roles of St Catherine and St Anne, were all vocally secure and dramatically involved.
For this abundance of tableaux, Nancy Black’s direction ensured fluid movement and made effective use of the theatre space. The initial impression was one of contemporary youthful exuberance. The audience entered to find the chorus onstage dressed in white tops and jeans, chatting excitedly and taking selfies. Even the saints, clothed in timeless white Elizabethan-flavoured costumes, radiated energy as they made their entrance from the back of the auditorium, sometimes interacting with the audience as they made their way down the aisles. The simple set provided an effective contrast to the vivid video images.
Many audience members would have encountered the stunning work of Professor Kim Vincs and Deakin Motion.Lab in Victorian Opera’s The Flying Dutchman the previous year. Much of Wagner’s opera was not accompanied by video, but in this production the 3D visual effects were a continuous part of the surreal experience. The initial blurred scudding clouds resolved into sharp stereoscopic movement as soon as the 3D glasses were put on. Dreamlike images of a cathedral, a monastery garden, endless staircases climbing into a night sky, a rust belt landscape of twisting cars, floating islands and biblical iconography of lion, lamb and snake all seemed to reference images and ideas that were at least vaguely familiar. Reflecting the mysteries of Stein’s text, they contained fragments of meaning that could not be assembled into a coherent whole.
Sensory overload threatened as I attempted to absorb the details of the irrational surtitle text, the singing, the orchestral music and the constant flow of video images – images that occasionally spilled into the theatre to feature a suspended rotating branch depicting changing seasons, colourful flying fish and an alarming swooping magpie. The only possible response was to sit back, relax and “go with the flow”.
This production was an hour of inspired integration of many creative parts that revealed the virtues of an unjustly neglected work and showcased the talents of a new generation of singers. Although it may have been logistically problematic to do so, it deserved more than the two sold-out performances it was given.
The image from the production shows cast members Sophia Wasley and Shakira Dugane. The photo was taken by Charlie Kinross.