Last night I went to the opera.
It was definitely the opera. I was in the Sydney Opera House and there were people in frocks and stuff and an orchestra in a dark, dark hole. But, I swear, when the action started, in all its media res brilliance, I totally forgot it was an opera. I totally missed the clues — everyone singing all the time, for example — because I was so utterly hooked by the drama.
It was a court scene, a post-mortem. Pretty much the whole town had turned out to see what the coroner had to say. And when he said “Accidental death” it rippled across the entire hall like a shockwave. Not a melodramatic shockwave, but a twitchy, snitchy one. Eyebrows raised, lips pursed and all that.
It was about then that I remembered where I was, namely at the first night of Opera Australia’s new production of Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes. Normally by now, about ten minutes into the performance, I would have been relaxing into the music, checking out the scenic design, letting my mind wander around the magical toyshop of music and words and all there is to see in an opera. But something about the acting, the singing and the setting of this opening scene bypassed all the superficial critical faculties and went straight to the story-craving heart of my brain. It was alive, they were real, and the fact that they were singing rather than talking was entirely unnoteworthy.
All that as a prequel to saying this is a great show. You’d want it to be, with such a cast and such a creative team. I’m not up for a role by role assessment because, vague as it sounds, they were all brilliant. I’m far more interested in the way sounds and words and pictures and stories and emotions and philosophies all combine together. It doesn’t have to be via opera. In 2009 opera no longer has naming rights to ‘multimedia’. But this production is certainly a fine example of what opera can do at its best, namely telling a story which takes on a life of its own.