Opera Review: Cloudstreet

Tim Winton’s ‘Cloudstreet’ is a modern classic. It is a story of battlers, of great heartache and hidden pain, but also of familial love and hope for the future.

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Presented by State Opera SA in association with Adelaide Festival Centre
Reviewed 12 May 2016

Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet is one of those modern classics that has come to be seen as a defining text for author and for nation. It is a story of battlers, of great heartache and hidden pain, but also of familial love and hope for the future. It’s a story about working class Australians living in the shadow of colonial horrors.

Cloudstreet was, from the start, obviously never going to stay bound within the pages of a novel for long. In 2011, a mini-series based on the book was aired on Aussie TV… 2011 was also the year that George Palmer prepared the first draft of the operatic adaption of Cloudstreet. That’s right, It’s been five tough years in the making, but it all seemed to have payed off in the end as State Opera SA’s Cloudstreet exploded onto stage last night.

George Palmer (Composer), Timothy Sexton (Musical Director & Conductor) and Director Gale Edwards were faced with a seemingly impossible task at the outset: to translate the honest and domestic tone of Cloudstreet to the magnificent and soaring style of opera, all while maintaining the unique “Aussie voice” that made the original text so real.

Cloudstreet1By working Winton’s words into an epic musical piece that is deeply moving and melodic but also strangely discordant, with lots of strings and drums, they’ve managed to hit very close to the mark. There’s something in my gut that tells me the opera form itself is too grand for the homely setting of Cloudstreet, but when we take into account magical scenes such as Fish (Nicholas Jones) and Quick (Nicholas Cannon) rowing amongst a sea of stars it all clicks and makes sense. Life, even if it seems dreary and tiresome at times, is full of moments worthy of the most lavish theatrical treatment.

It would be impossible to pick any stand-outs from this all-star cast. The level of vocal control and sheer volume displayed by every singer on stage (kept up through three full hours of singing) is incredibly impressive. Joanna McWaters (who plays Dolly Pickles) and Antoinette Halloran (who plays Oriel Lamb) both deliver short arias that seem to make the backdrop shake!

Speaking of backdrops, the dynamic set for this performance, designed by Victoria Lamb, is marvellous. Using a rotating floor was a great choice, as it made the world of Cloudstreet feel much bigger and played an important role in turning some of the more visually stylised scenes of the performance into small spectaculars in their own right.

The performance of Fish, a young man living with brain damage, must also be commented on briefly. I feel that this portrayal, lacking in subtlety and verging on the edge of patronisation, does some injustice to the more complex reality of severe and disabling trauma. Whether this is a fault of Winton’s original writing or a side-effect of the adaptation process is, of course, a bit too much of an argument to get into here. The simplest answer is “a bit of both.”

With such a sprawling and intricate story comes the obvious issue of duration. Three hours of intense emotion and even more intense singing is quite a slog for any audience member, and so, by the end, things did feel a bit dragging. Despite that, though, Cloudstreet is definitely an event. It’s epic, yet heartfelt and full of so many little wonders.

Reviewed by James Rudd 
Twitter: @james_wrr

Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Grote St, Adelaide
Season: 12 – 21 May
Duration: 3 Hours including interval
Tickets: $30.00 – $120.00
Bookings: Through BASS

Click here for State Opera SA’s website

 

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