For generations of Australians the name, Melba, is synonymous with opera, endless farewells and a delicious sweet. Much has been written about her. She wrote an autobiography, and there have been several biographies published. Ann Blainey’s 2009 biography, Marvellous Melba provided the source for this fascinating new musical by Nicholas Christo and Johannes Luebbers, which after eight years in development, is currently enjoying its premiere season at the Hayes Theatre Co. It’s been worth the wait!
Melba concentrates largely on Melba’s early career, her marriage to Charles Armstrong, her affair with Duke Philipe D’Orleans, and her struggles for custody of the son, George, she bore to Armstrong, told against the backdrop of her burgeoning international operatic career.
Johannes Luebbers has devised an interesting score which neatly interweaves operatic arias associated with Melba’s career among his engaging contemporary music theatre songs to add an additional layer of comment. This together with Nicholas Christo’s intriguing device of having two Melbas at different ages, occupying the stage at the same time, while occasionally slightly puzzlingly, lifts this show out of the realm of your usual musical.
Mark Thompson has conceived an appropriately elegant setting consisting of a circular raised platform, in front of a semi-circular white backdrop on which are pinned hundreds of red roses. Wayne Harrison uses roses as a continuing motif throughout the show, fashioning an inspired finale in which Melba, surrounded by floral bouquets is showered with rose petals.
Elsewhere his direction is concise and confident, allowing Thompson’s minimalist set and costume designs, and the skills of his actors, to evoke a sense of period and propel the storyline. He makes inventive use of the tiny space commencing the show with a variation of the Hayes Theatre production trademark, by having the cast enter, one by one, to the sounds of Melba, offstage singing Home Sweet Home. They seat themselves around the raised circular platform and from there, observe the action, participate when required, and occasionally interact with each other, as Melba’s story unfolds.
Melba’s passion for singing, her wilful insistence on marrying Charles Armstrong against her father’s wishes, how she persuades Madame Marchesi to train her voice, and the repercussions of the breakdown of her marriage, are depicted in a series of short fluid scenes into which the audience is quickly drawn.
In her first leading role, Annie Aitken gives a captivating performance as the younger Melba. Possessing a clear, strong soprano voice perfect for portraying the promise of future greatness, her depictions of Melba’s response to the barriers which are placed in the way of her achieving success, are winningly realised, and when she sings to Madame Marchesi, I Am Here To Be The Best, she leaves no doubt that she will be. She also bears a remarkable likeness to Emma Matthews, who plays the mature Melba, making it easy for the audience to accept that they are watching the same person on stage.
The masterstroke of this production was persuading Matthews to take on this role. Her portrayal of Melba as the graceful diva sits perfectly with the mood of the production, and the gravitas she brings to her arias, sprinkled throughout the show, is simply thrilling. Her teary Vissi d’arte towards the finale, provides one of those theatrical moments that few who experience it, in the tiny Hayes Theatre, are likely to forget.
Among a strong supporting cast, Andrew Cutcliffe impresses with his ability to elicit sympathy for Melba’s husband, Charles Armstrong, despite the sense of menace he brings to the role. Caitlin Berry shines in the dual roles of Blanche Marchesi and the delightfully gossipy Gladys De Grey, while Adam Rennie convinces as the handsome, slightly mysterious Philipe D’Orleans.
Samuel Skuthorp is endearing as Melba’s son, George Armstrong, cleverly infusing his puppet alter ego with personality. Genevieve Lemon gives a delightfully idiosyncratic portrayal of Melba’s teacher and mentor, Madame Marchesi, as well as doubling as a rather sinister nun. Michael Beckley and Blake Erickson, both in dual roles, round out a very strong cast.
As the latest entrant in the growing catalogue of Australian musicals, Melba throws a humanising light of one of Australia’s most celebrated icons. It is also a well-crafted and entertaining show which deserves to be seen by much wider audience than will get the opportunity to see this fine production during its season at the Hayes. If it comes your way, don’t miss it.
Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point
Performance: Saturday 2 September 2017 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 9 September 2017
Information and Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au
Image: Emma Matthews in Melba – photo by Clare Hawley
Review: Bill Stephens OAM