In an important initiative that sees Lyric Opera perform a role that should have been undertaken by our well-funded national company, they have embarked on a project to mount Australian works. G.W.L. Marshall-Hall’s Stella is the first of these, with Our Man in Havana by Malcolm Williamson projected for Lyric Opera’s 2016 season.
Although both these composers have historical significance (Marshall-Hall founded Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music and Malcolm Williamson was the first non-Briton to hold the post of Master of the Queen’s Music) these operas go well beyond being historical curiosities by composers whose lives were marked by scandal. They are important cultural figures whose music is worthy of the attention of modern audiences less influenced by the prejudices of their time.
Composed in 1902, Stella was greeted by one critic as a “lurid little melodrama” when it was premiered in 1912. The audiences of the day, however, were wildly enthusiastic. Pat Miller, conductor/artistic director of this incarnation, describes it as a “contemporary Madame Butterfly” and there is much in the music and the story line to support this. The music is intensely melodic and accessible with the influences of the operatic giants of the time, Puccini and Massenet, clearly in evidence. Shades of the famous Act I duet from Puccini’s La Bohème were evoked as Robert Barbaro and Lee Abrahmsen sang their impassioned duets. Echoes of Lyric Opera’s performances of Massenet’s Werther were also present in Marshall-Hall’s score and even traces of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers. Commentators have also identified other influences of French and Italian opera in this Australian “verismo” counterpart.
For all that, Stella is much more than pastiche. In this performance, what made the melodrama most persuasive as a dramatic entity was the quality of the singing, notably that of Lee Abrahmsen in the title role. Stella has returned to her home town after ten years and is recognized by Reverend Weldon as the “fallen woman” who eloped with an unknown person, who just happens to be the current Mayor. She is now employed as the Nurse of a sick child and much admired his doctor, who wishes to marry her. When the truth is about to be revealed she commits suicide by drinking the bottle of medicine left by Doctor Kirke. It is too late by the time the good doctor returns to assure her that her past is not an issue for him.
The role of Stella was very movingly portrayed by Abrahmsen, especially the prolonged final scene, as she succumbs little by little to the poison. As the most three-dimensional of the five characters her performance as a whole drew upon a wide range of emotional response and considerable subtlety. Luminous in presence and vocal quality, she moved between hopeful yearning and anguished despair. With beautifully controlled top notes her voice was glorious alone and in ensemble, carrying without effort.
As Doctor Kirke, Robert Barbaro made a suitable romantic partner. His warm tenor matched Abrahmsen’s soprano to produce rapturous exchanges underpinned by music designed to intensify the passion. Mezzo-soprano Caroline Vercoe performed the less central role of Mrs Chase, the mother of the sick child and hostess of the forthcoming inaugural Social Purity Society meeting. She was the first on stage, setting the tone for what was to follow. As a capable and experienced singer Vercoe always gives an assured performance and brought her usual vocal strength and dramatic vitality to this role.
Although the role of the implacably moralistic Rev. Weldon did not allow Shoumendu Ganguly to display his talent for comedy, as in the most recent Lyric Opera productions, he gave a strong performance, adding effectively to the well-balanced ensemble.
The character of the “villain” of the piece, the hypocritical Mayor Chamley, is given a somewhat sympathetic twist by Marshall-Hall with an emphasis on the difficulty of his predicament and his remorse. The Mayor has a great deal at stake, including his family, and is in some ways a victim of the same social mores as Stella. At least her wish to protect his reputation seemed more convincing. Matt Thomas further added to the more redeeming features of his caddish character by singing his role with engaging sincerity. Thomas used his pleasing bass baritone, good diction and focused acting skills to intensify the drama.
While it is a commendable aspiration to perform operas in the vernacular without the distraction of surtitles, the fact still remains that it is well nigh impossible to understand sung text fully, especially in ensembles such as the splendid quintet. This resulted in details of each character’s musings to be lost, even though diction across the board was generally satisfactory.
A change of venue from Lyric Opera’s accustomed Chapel off Chapel to the David Williamson Theatre still entailed the problem of having no pit. The 16-piece orchestra was placed in front of the stage on a level with the front stalls, which led to the sound being overly raw and dominant at times. Although the singers were not exactly drowned out, the text was sometimes made less intelligible. Nevertheless, the playing was generally accomplished and will doubtless become more polished in the course of the season, particularly the important and demanding horn part, which was a feature of one of Stella’s lovely arias. Marshall-Hall also employs the harp to great effect in the other.
With a charming backdrop depicting a Rickett’s Point seascape and a diagonal verandah boardwalk as the focus of much of the action, Mattea Davies’ stage design was an economical and attractive setting for effective direction by Jessica Harris.
Thanks to the generosity of Maestro Richard Divall, this production is being filmed for posterity. Although in some respects it is very much a product of its time, Marshall-Hall’s landmark opera still has a disquieting relevance to contemporary Western society and deserves its prominent place in Lyric Opera’s Australian Opera Series.
Heather Leviston reviewed this Lyric Opera production at David Williamson Theatre on September 25.
The photograph of Lee Abrahmsen as Stella is by Kris Washusen.