★★★★½ George Palmer, Gale Edwards and Timothy Sexton do justice to one of the greatest Australian stories ever written.

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide
May 12, 2016

There is scarcely an Australian novel so intimately beloved and culturally revered as Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Its characters and narrative have become part of our consciousness and national identity, capturing an essential understanding of the Australian psyche and the struggle of working class families across two tumultuous decades of social and economic change. Seldom has an Australian novel so masterfully chronicled the vicissitudes of suburban family life; juxtaposing the ordinary with the extraordinary, the prosaic with the poetic, and the magical with the real. Its unparalleled evocation of an epoch and unflinching portrayal of the zeitgeist of the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s have enabled Cloudstreet to assume a life of its own beyond the printed page.

Since retiring as a Judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court in 2011, composer George Palmer has spent the past five years turning his vision of Cloudstreet as an opera into a reality. Together with veteran international theatre director Gale Edwards and State Opera of South Australia CEO and Artistic Director Timothy Sexton, Palmer has capitalised on the inherent music of Winton’s prose to produce an excellent libretto, and the result is an opera worthy of national and international acclaim.

There was never a dull moment throughout the premiere, thanks to a stellar cast that captivated and excelled at every turn. At just under three hours, it was inevitable that character developments would be curtailed, details and subtleties would be lost, and subplots would be either truncated or omitted. But diehard fans of the book should rest easy: Palmer, Edwards and Sexton have judiciously distilled the most essential elements of the novel down into two acts, creating a cohesive production that is as moving as it is hilarious.

It was particularly refreshing to hear an opera sung in English, in our very own distinctively Australian vernacular. Thankfully, Palmer remained remarkably faithful to Winton’s novel, and thus colloquialisms were ubiquitous: there were references to “dunnies” and “ning-nongs”, whilst profanities (such as “fuck a duck!”) provided welcome relief from the often dark and confronting themes.

George Palmer’s music was everything it needed to be: accessible, melodic and entirely tonal. Assigning distinctive motifs to certain characters, such as a jazzy Gershwin-like theme in the saxophone, trumpet and trombones to represent the coquettish Dolly Pickles, this never less than fascinating score probed the emotional depths of each character, rendering in a matter of seconds what would have taken pages to convey in prose. Performed by an in form Adelaide Symphony Orchestra conducted by Timothy Sexton, the synchronisation of the score with the events on stage was immaculate.

Victoria Lamb’s excellent set design was never superfluous, instead focusing purely on advancing the narrative without unnecessary visual clutter. A revolving stage and a boat that descended from the ceiling enabled swift and unobtrusive scene changes. Costume designer Ailsa Paterson marvellously recreated the iconic fashion of the era, assigning the Lambs with shades of blue and the Pickles with red to ensure it was always possible to discern which family the supporting members of the cast belonged to.

In the opening scenes I would have preferred the roles of the young Fish, Rose and Quick to be played by a younger cast, as this necessitated a momentary suspension of disbelief. This was a minor concern however, and the decision to use the same cast throughout helped avoid any issues of continuity. Nicholas Jones was superb as the brain-damaged Fish Lamb, who almost drowns at the beginning of the novel, and exists thereafter in a parallel universe between the living and the dead. An unenviably challenging role requiring not only an ability to sing but also to act, Jones was almost disturbingly compelling throughout, never once going out of character.

Likewise, Joanna McWaters was particularly fine as the troubled Dolly Pickles, one of the most tragic characters in Australian literature. Shortly after arriving at No 1 Cloudstreet, she sings a hauntingly beautiful aria, asking for “one good reason to go on”. This was the emotional pinnacle of the evening, with McWaters capturing the hearts of everyone in the crowd with a voice that seemed born for the role. Desiree Frahn also impressed as Rose Pickles, encapsulating her maturation into adulthood with disarming grace. Pelham Andrews as Lester Lamb, Antoinette Halloran as Oriel Lamb and Barry Ryan as Sam Pickles were equally fine – indeed there was too much talent on display to accurately document in this review.

Cloudstreet is one of those rare novels that never ceases to yield new layers of meaning with repeated readings, and it is my hope audiences will continue to discover (and rediscover) this quintessentially Australian story through Palmer’s opera. Almost none of the book’s charm is lost, and the emotional attachment to each character remains as potent as ever. Indeed, to quote Winton, “you can’t help but worry for them, love them, want for them – those who go on down the close, foetid galleries of time and space without you.”

In the deeply troubling and uncertain times facing the arts sector in Australia today, it shows an enormous amount of courage and audacity from all involved to dream and bring to life a project of this magnitude, and such efforts should be championed and celebrated. We now have an opera that could and should be taken to the world to represent Australia. Cautious audiences should not hesitate for a moment: Cloudstreet comes highly recommended.

State Opera of South Australia performs Cloudstreet until May 21


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