In a bold and courageous piece of programming the Lyric Opera of Melbourne has given Malcolm Williamson’s first opera its long overdue professional Australian premiere. Commissioned by Sadlers Wells in 1961 and performed there two years later, the work is an adaptation of Graham Green’s tragi-comic “entertainment” chronicling the life of a vacuum cleaner salesman who ends up as a British spy.

Williamson’s score mirrors his utterly precocious personality and is a magpie nest of brightly coloured musical styles ranging from the astringency of Berg through to the lushness of musical theatre. The composer is not afraid to use whatever suits his purposes and there is even a rather obvious nod to Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo at one point. Vocal and instrumental lines are most often independent of each other, and it is a great tribute to conductor, Pat Miller and his forces that the musical fabric coheres so well throughout. Luckily the quality of the singing helps smooth over those moments when the score outwears its musical welcome and dramatic purpose.

At the head of a strong cast is tenor, Martin Thomas Buckingham who stepped into the lead role just as rehearsals were beginning. This makes his portrayal of Bramble, the would-be spy, all the more admirable; delivering not only the challenging vocal part with conviction, but also showing off the character’s awkward amalgam of avarice, innocence and irascibility. Vocally and dramatically Matthew Thomas acquits himself well in the major bass role of Hasslebacher, Bramble’s best friend. It was therefore more than a pity that the orchestra, playing adjacent to the stage, completely overwhelmed him in his climactic aria at the end of Act II. This was one of a few moments in the production where the relatively large orchestra swamped the singers and the absence of the intended orchestra pit was noticeable.

Michael Leighton Jones as Hawthorne, the recruiter from British intelligence, exploits the opera’s comedic side with flair, while taking in his stride some decidedly ungrateful vocal writing from the composer. The bright voice and manner of Kate Amos are well suited to the role of Milly, Bramble’s daughter and make an excellent contrast to the darker-hued timbre of Elizabeth Stannard-Cohen playing Beatrice. Stephen Marsh, as police captain Segura and Raphael Wong as Carter both brought characterful voices to their sinister roles, while Timothy Daly delighted and intrigued in his various roles crossing the gender divide. Other members of the ensemble (Jessica Leslie Harris, Alison Lemoh, Kerrie Bolton, Matthew Hyde, Cameron Sibly and Timothy Newton) worked well together as they sang and danced their way through the show.

Staging Our Man in Havana in a cabaret-style setting (complete with a real bar from which one can buy drinks at interval) is a fairly logical solution given the spatial confines of the venue. Apart from the problems of orchestral balance, the other major challenge is to offer the audience reasonable sightlines to the performers. Apart from one floor-bound scene in Act II, most of the direction in this regard is thoughtful, the singers standing and moving often enough to maintain contact with the audience. The sets, while minimal, do evoke Havana of the 1950s rather well.

The orchestra, ironically named The Members of the Buena Vista Antisocial Club, rose to the many challenges of the idiosyncratic score and the venue’s unflattering acoustic with great professionalism. In exploring this neglected work and using it as a vehicle to promote young operatic talent, Lyric Opera of Melbourne has done the community a great service. Do go and see it while you can. Who knows, it may be another half-century before it’s done again!

Our Man In Havana runs until September 24