Review: Opera Double Bill
WA Academy of Performing Arts
16th October 2017
At first glance there isn’t much in common between Mozart’s comic singspiel The Impresario and Poulenc’s farcical The Breasts of Tiresias. But the pairing of the two in the WA Academy of Performing Arts double bill turned out to be a stroke of genius.
Guest director Thomas de Mallet Burgess (Lost & Found Opera) likes to blur the lines between audience and stage and so The Impresario started as though in rehearsal mode, with production crew setting the stage around the audience as the overture began. The 45 minute opera followed two rival sopranos trying to out-sing each other to the agony of the impresario Mr S.
Touches of de Mallet Burgess’ pointed irony were evident everywhere. Mr S (the long-suffering, whisky-swigging Brett Peart) decided to retire from producing opera and take a position at WAAPA: “All the politics and butt-kissing that goes on in opera… I’m going to academia where there is none of that.” Diva Meryl Shrills (Miriam Meakin) declared in Aussie strine “I’ll be singing this in Dutch” (Deutsch) before belting out a strip tease aria with accompanying surtitles reading “Young, white, 25 year old looking for male companion.”
Rival diva Elizabeth von Squills was sung by Priscilla Cornelius with voluptuous sound and floating top notes. Tenor Keaton Staszewski-Hose as their agent Freddy Freecoin joined them for a delightful trio. CJ Andrew was an endearingly enthusiastic assistant Mr B whose penchant for cross dressing hinted at things to come.
The opera ended with the divas and their agent planning their future performance, which evolved nicely into the staging of The Breasts of Tiresias.
While Mozart’s spoof was about warring sopranos, Poulenc’s unconventional opera poked fun at gender and war. Two opening vignettes formed the core of the opera’s imagery: the submissive Therese quitting motherhood in her search for liberation, and two men fighting a polite but deadly duel. Each subsequent scene contained a mix of nappies, pink floral gas masks, army boots and lacy lingerie as de Mallet Burgess explored the creative anarchy of Poulenc’s Dadaism-inspired protest at the absurdity of war.
The design team (Kaitlin Brindley set, Matthew Glew lighting, Kelly Fregon costumes) made great use of visual metaphors to colloquialise the story; Therese’s husband (wearing a bull’s head) demanded meat and had a carton of VB next to him. The chorus dressed as soldiers ended up as carcasses on meat hooks, a production line which was also used to churn out babies, mixed in test tubes.
On Monday night Emma Ashton as Therese sang with clean bright sound while undergoing multiple costume changes including inflatable udder-like breasts that she removed in order to become a man. Her adaptable cross-dressing husband who worked out how to produce his own babies was sung with refined fluidity by Laurence Westrip, navigating Poulenc’s awkward intervals with elegance. The supporting roles were also excellent and the sweet harmonies of the chorus were spine-tingling.
Pianists David Wickham and James Huntingford delivered Poulenc’s dances and musical pastiches with style. In the first half Jessica Gethin and the student orchestra gave a refined performance of Mozart’s score, faultless in pitch and finely balanced with the singers.
WAAPA shows are renowned for their professionalism and under the directorship of de Mallet Burgess this double bill was thought-provoking as well as highly entertaining. The moral of the story? Go make opera and babies!