Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Bliss @ Opera House, Sydney

12 March 2010

After a gestation period of almost a decade, Brett Dean’s new opera Bliss finally received its world premiere in Sydney. The first night audience gave the work a rapturous reception, and deservedly so because Bliss is the home-grown opera that Australia has been so long waiting for.
Brett Dean and librettist Amanda Holden have fashioned a work that perfectly captures the Australian essence of Peter Carey’s novel.

Few world premieres have been more anticipated than that of Brett Dean and Amanda Holden’s new opera Bliss, based on Peter Carey’s novel. Originally conceived by Opera Australia’s music director Simone Young in the late ’90s, a decade later under the experienced baton of Elgar Howarth it finally made it to the stage of the Sydney Opera House, and to say that Opera Australia had pulled out all the stops for its first production would be an understatement.

Peter Carey’s novel may not seem obvious operatic material as it’s episodic and tells the story of Harry Joy, the MD of an advertising agency, whose life and values begin to unravel after he suffers a heart attack. Librettist Amanda Holden (who wrote the libretto to Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Sliver Tassie) has achieved wonders and created a credible series of tableaux that chart Harry’s ‘journey of enlightenment’ throughout the opera, and Brett Dean has provided a score that is at turns accessible, thrilling to the ear and actually propels the drama forward.

His musical language is modern, but not angular in the way that Birtwistle’s is, and there was much that was memorable within the score. He certainly knows how to write for voices, in that he succeeds in providing each character with its own distinctive musical personality. Conductor Elgar Howarth, who has made contemporary opera his speciality (his conducting of the world premiere of Gawain is still a treasured memory), drew sensational playing from the OA orchestra, and proved to be the lynchpin of the performance.

It’s hard to imagine a better staging than that devised by director Neil Armfield and set designer Brian Thomson. Armfield allows the narrative to unfold lucidly and in Thomson’s spectacular LED-designed box set the stage pictures have a fluidity that give a cinematic feel to the proceedings. They both capture the anarchy and black humour of the piece to perfection.

In the title role Peter Coleman-Wright gives a career-defining performance as Harry Joy. On stage for almost the entire opera he is not only riveting to watch but negotiates his way through the score with apparent ease, and his voice has never sounded better. The supporting cast is superb too with particularly strong performances from Lorina Gorne (Honey B), Merlyn Quaife (Betty Joy) and David Corcoran as his son David.

This was a red-letter day for Opera Australia, opera in Australia and Australian opera as the country has a genuinely home-grown opera of which it can be proud. Bliss deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible so it’s good news that it will be coming to this year’s Edinburgh Festival and should not be missed by anyone who believes in the vitality of contemporary opera.

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