A Christmas Carol

VO-A-Christmas-Carol-photo-by-Charlie-KinrossAmong a string of adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a world premiere version opening Wednesday night at Melbourne’s iconic Palais Theatre provides unique and targeted ways to connect with a local audience.

Several operas have been inspired by Dickens’ enduring 1843 classic novella and here is one for Melbourne.

Reimagined for a time and place that brings home its thematic bones movingly with music of soaring power and endless delight, Victorian Opera’s A Christmas Carol by composer Graeme Koehne and librettist Anna Goldsworthy brims with something for the whole family.

As the end of year draws near and the tide of Christmas giving approaches, Ebenezer Scrooge’s own redemption from cantankerous, miserly and lonely workaholic rather infuses inescapable notions of guilt that no matter what one might believe they give, they can always offer more. And through the Ghosts of Christmas’ Past, Present, and Yet to Come, willingness to change for the better is never denied us.

Goldsworthy’s oft-rhymed and witty libretto written in 5 staves lovingly honours Dickens’ story while immersing the audience in Down Under Christmas summertime with a married lesbian niece called Freda in place of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, and capturing the contemporary beat of Melbourne – alluded to by the city streets, the Vic Market, the food, the footy, the lifesavers and the hawkers.

An overall successful marriage of text with Koehne’s music is achieved but some minor tweaking could minimise patches of mismatched meter. But how Koehne’s music stirs and uplifts with immense variety and expression!

Featuring some delectable woodwind work, orchestrated snippets of We Wish You a Merry Christmas form a jolly overture to set the mood while coloured with a hint of Rossini and Resphigi.

Here on, Koehne’s music drives the story forward with both derivatively inspired and fresh, richly textured orchestration that accommodates everything from solos and duets to a raft of chorus work with seamless ease.

Christmas carols lace the work subtly and splendidly tying pathos and jubilation and, as familiar as they are, their impact is felt anew both in depth of music and changes to text – none more so affecting as a tear-inducing Once in Royal David’s City giving way to Once in Our Fair Melbourne City as it throws light on the loneliness of the aged, immigrant hardship and ignored First Nations people.

A dark, modern Mozartian flavour is employed in the lengthy exchange between Ebenezer and the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley. A resounding and joyful anthem-like explosion accompanies the frenzy at Vic Market’s Fezzoli’s Deli, where Ebenezer Scrooge watches on to witness the generosity of his past employee when he was a young apprentice, and a heartbreaking funereal farewell gives agency to Tiny Tim’s foreseen death. Koehne’s lush, kaleidoscopic score is as captivating as the enchantment of the Myer Christmas windows.

But it begs a bigger, more detailed and incisive vision than that presented in this lightweight production directed by Emma Muir-Smith. That’s not to say that the work doesn’t resonate under Muir-Smith’s creative hand – much of it conveys a clever balance of naturalness and poeticism. Nonetheless, time-filling sequences are sometimes left to feeling repetitive and twee.

Compromising a series of framed, naively painted silhouetted facades and one three-dimensional framed element as Scrooge’s pad, Claudia Mirabello’s set designs, as cheery as they are, rarely inflate a sense of sophistication.

Bridget Milesi’s clean and contemporary costumes often lean towards Melbourne’s northern rival and Richard Vabre’s lighting occasionally misses the mark. Vocally and musically, however, the stage erupts with magic.

It’s beautifully sung by a large cast of well-known, lesser known and new artists to the Victorian Opera stage. Almost a constant presence, Samuel Dundas crafts a transformative Scrooge of great expression and stature, his resonant, burnished baritone adding engaging meatiness to his character’s range of emotion.

In a performance including a touching highlight as Scrooge sees himself all alone in this world at Stave 2’s conclusion prior to interval, Dundas etches his mark memorably alongside other principals who sport multiple roles.

Antoinette Halloran imbues Freda with energetic, unflinching positivity, her signature elegant soprano tempered with an ethereal beauty when appearing as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Scrooge’s wary clerk Bob Cratchit is portrayed outstandingly by James Egglestone whose thrilling muscular tenor also adds zest to the husband of Scrooge’s lost love, Belle, and past employer Fezzoli.

Dominica Matthews’ voluptuous mezzo-soprano binds beautifully to Bob’s hearty wife, Belinda, a flamboyant, pink, Mrs Fezzoli and the direct-speaking wife of Freda. And baritone Simon Meadows’ distinguishes two contrasting roles heftily as Marley, a threatening statue-like Mozartian Commendatore, and cool knockabout Ghost of Christmas Present in Santa surf-lifesaving gear.

Akansha Hungenahally is a heavenly and assured young soprano who covers Scrooge’s sister, Fan, his former love, Belle, and Martha Cratchit with compelling maturity.

Among smaller, luxury cast roles, Stephen Marsh rings out handsomely as the Butcher and a combined throng of three community choirs comprising adult voices of The Decibelles and Low Rez, as well as a chorus of children mark their music and stage presence with enthusiastic excellence.

Start to finish, conductor Phoebe Briggs tirelessly shone a light on Koehne’s score, illuminating it with bristling vitality and sensitivity on opening night while Orchestra Victoria demonstrated exceptional musicianship and understanding under her embracing command.

What one is left feeling is a sense that this world premiere work demands a life well beyond Christmas 2022. If it could see that with beefier, better resolved production qualities, it will easily become Victorian Opera’s and one of Melbourne’s Joy to the World.

A Christmas Carol
Palais Theatre, Lower Esplanade, St Kilda
Performance: Wednesday 14 December 2022
Season continues to 17 December 2022
Information and Bookings: www.victorianopera.com.au

Image: A Christmas Carol – courtesy of Victorian Opera

Review: Paul Selar