Unlikely. Unwieldy. Impossible …
There is nothing easy about Peter Carey’s novel, Oscar and Lucinda. Its characters are awkward and its ending unhappy. A daunting prospect, perhaps, for storytellers looking to adapt this craggy tome into a two-hour stage production.
But librettist Pierce Wilcox and composer Elliott Gyger, and a creative team including director Patrick Nolan, have stepped up to the challenge with ingenuity and insight to make something of rare and difficult beauty.
Oscar and Lucinda is the tale of two misfits, the Australian heiress Lucinda and the English priest Oscar. In their far-ranging travels across the Empire two of them are brought together by an obsession with gambling that ultimately destroys them.
The opera unfolds episodically, presenting the two main characters’ early lives simultaneously but apart. It all leads up to the moment where their paths cross for the first time, in the climactic final scene of the first act.
The second act is the play out of this strange and seismic meeting. It’s a deft handling of a complex storyline, and the staging, which pans from one vignette to another, using the same basic materials – tables, cloths, pools of light (choreographed by Damien Cooper), a few symbolic props and imagination – to conjure up the various locations.
If it comes across as fragmented, this is surely part of the desired effect, the story sliding and turning in the same way that glass shatters, cards scatter and prose breaks down into individual words, isolated but deeply evocative as they sit uncomfortably next to one another.
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This is Wilcox and Gyger’s second collaboration, after the hugely successful Fly Away Peter (2015). It is on a much larger scale, in terms of score and story, with a 16-piece ensemble, chorus and simultaneous narratives spanning the globe. Ultimately, however, it revolves around the distinctive and peculiar characters which populate Carey’s rangy novel and what happens when they coincide.
Everyone in Oscar and Lucinda has their hang-ups. Oscar’s father is a suffocating evangelist; Hasset is a bungler; Miriam is a bitter and broken husk. As for the main protagonists, they have it all: traumatic childhoods, values at odds with their time and a generous sprinkling of magical thinking. Thus, while Miriam is statuesque in full hoops and petticoats – designed by Anna Tregloan — Lucinda moves with freedom and energy; and while Hasset barely knows what to do with Lucinda, Oscar lets his obsessions lead the way.
Carey’s kaleidoscope of characters is portrayed by a cast of six, four of whom take multiple roles and also act as a chorus which can step outside the action to make pointed observations and smooth over narrative gaps. It’s a virtuosic display: Jeremy Kleeman and Simon Lobelson pivot neatly between essential secondary characters, while Jane Sheldon and Mitchell Riley’s various roles, particularly Miriam Chadwick and Wardley-Fish, wrestle the story away from our heroes with magnetic vocal and dramatic presence.
Jessica Aszodi, as Lucinda, portrays the well-heeled square peg with charismatic glee and a deeply effecting sense of wonder, while Brenton Spiteri, as Oscar, revels in awkwardness and blooms in the realisation that faith is inextricably linked to chance. The scene in which Oscar takes Lucinda’s confession during their passage to Australia is glorious.
Elliott Gyger’s score is, on first hearing, rich and confusing.
In the opening scenes the multiple voices and angular vocal lines lack focus but as the ear tunes in and the characters emerge threads appear, tangled but rewarding: a violin gives voice to the hopeful but extravagant expectations of Lucinda’s mother, while a double bass provides the dry, gnarly underscore for Miriam Chadwick’s tough tale of broken dreams.
In purely technical terms, the score is a real achievement, with a rare degree of clarity and shape which comes from canny orchestration and a steady hand – Sydney Chamber Opera’s artistic director Jack Symonds – on the baton.
In musical and dramatic terms, this score builds on Gyger’s impressive operatic debut and will surely reward more listenings.