Richard Meale’s grand opera Voss (1986) is ultimately about ‘a stranger in a strange land.’ Based on the German explorer Ludwig Leichardt (après Patrick White’s magnificent 1957 novel), Johann Ulrich Voss is a man trapped in a personal fog, misguided and removed by and from the practicalities of life due to his ego and intransigence. He is a man lacking in personal and interpersonal skills and these ultimately bring about his demise in the harsh Outback environment. White’s dense modernist style is transformed into a highly poetic yet succinct libretto by acclaimed poet and novelist David Malouf, creating the perfect foil to Meale’s ingenious score.
Premiering at the 1986 Adelaide Festival, the work was a great success, even leading to an internationally released recording, and yet, by 1990, it would vanish from performance until now. For Meale, Voss is a pivotal work. It deviates from his earlier astrigent neo-Boulezian serialism, moving towards his later embrace of a cool, yet attractive impressionistic style. Within the opera he successfully weaves a number of musical styles and references – 19th century quadrilles, lieder, Henze and Ravel, and even a nod to Gounod in the Epilogue’s chorus.
The opera is presented in a highly effective and economic semi-staged manner with both orchestra and the vocal cast on the stage. Behind them is an evocative and effective series of projected and manipulated semi-abstract bush landscapes by Fred Williams (Video Design Jamie Clennett). And Roger Kirk’s costume design brilliantly reflects the time and settings of the plot (1840s Sydney and the perilous Outback). Laura’s outfit certainly brought back memories of Marilyn Richardson in the original production.
This performance is the apex thus far of director Stuart Maunder’s highly successful ongoing series of so-called ‘Lost Operas of Oz’. There wasn’t a huge amount of room to move once the orchestra and the singers took their positions, however Maunder was able to overcome this, establishing both a physical sense of space for the plot to unfold and emotional space for the music and voices to exist. Quite brilliantly, these combined to create that same sense of vastness that one encounters in the outback, and it certainly served to heighten the dramatic stakes of the opera.
Maunder was also able to effectively reduce the emotional space between Voss and Laura. In White’s novel, the two chief protagonists often interact via a series of internal monologues – often hard going on the page, but on stage the artificiality and heightened emotions of opera serve to make their connection far more immediate and real, even if they are rarely singing to each other. There is plenty of liebe here, and no shortage of tod, but no liebestod as such.
Samuel Dundas is truly excellent as Voss, capturing his failings (his indecisiveness, egocentricity and alienation) in an affecting way. He is equally fine in his love for Laura and the ultimately Christ-like spreading of his life-blood upon the firmament. Dundas is a fine dramatic, committed singer who moves effortlessly from naïve Romantic musing to true understanding through love which redeems him. Emma Pearson’s Laura Trevelyan, the niece of Voss’ benefactor Bonner, is in true balance with Voss, providing the ying to his yang, the constancy and common sense to his foolhardy drive. The duets between the estranged lovers are both intimate and touching. As elsewhere in this company’s productions, Maunder brings to bear a real sense of complete involvement with his cast. He has assembled a truly fine and committed group of interacting singers. The whole supporting cast must be praised for the commitment and conviction to the resurrection of this fine opera. It is perhaps the finest Australian grand opera that we have – to date.
Pelham Andrews and Cherie Boogaart show just what fine character singers they are, effortlessly taking two distinctly different roles each – Andrews as Mr Bonner and the ex-convict Judd, and Boogaart, equally convincing as his two respective partners. Both are gifted with excellent diction and in doing so, show that is it possible for English language within opera to be highly successful.
Finally, the Adelaide Symphony is as reliable as ever. Conductor Richard Mills leads with great knowledge, transparency and empathy, showing exactly why he is a celebrated champion of Australian opera. The strings were taut and all musicians moved effortlessly through Meale’s highly descriptive score. Particular praise must go to flautist Geoffrey Collins whose lines floated like an evocative perfume, and Sarah Barrett’s luxuriating horn brought an appropriately German romantic feel to bear – underlining Voss’s often naïve and unwordly indecision.
We had to wait thirty years to be able to re-evaluate Meale’s Voss – and this production confirms it is an undeniable masterpiece. We have had to endure the vagaries of COVID to get here, but the wait has been worth it. Bravi to all concerned! Pray we don’t have wait another thirty years for the next performance.