Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre have created a new mainstage Australian opera. How exciting! And it’s an adaption of Tim Winton’s The Riders, a dream-fit for opera. This is worth being excited about.
The Riders is a personal and affecting story with a scope that’s beyond the reach of its characters. Aussie bloke-man Scully yearns for hot sandy beaches but searches his past in Europe for something more than what he wants. As the line between imagery and reality is blurred, it’s never clear if it’s all happening in Scully’s head or if he’s lost in the mythology of the horses and riders who follow him.
Scully is renovating a cottage in Ireland for his pregnant wife, Jennifer, and daughter, Billie, who went back to Fremantle to sell their house. When Billie arrives at the airport alone and traumatised into silence, Scully takes his child and searches for Jennifer in the places they recently stayed in Europe.
Alison Croggon (libretto) and Iain Grandage (music) haven’t translated the book for the stage – which belongs in the pages it was written for – but have found a vision of the story that condenses Scully’s arc, gives a voice and presence to the book-invisible Jennifer, and leaves only three minor characters for the chorus of three.
Croggon’s libretto combines grabs of the poetic text and so-Winton symbolism of the book with a poetry of her own that muses on Winton’s subtext and, by having Jennifer on stage and letting the audience know more than Scully, lets the drive of the work be Scully’s anguish and his spiralling down rather than about the unanswered questions of Jennifer’s disappearance.
Grandage’s music lives in the emotions of the characters. From hints of liturgical music to bird songs, galloping riders and the ever-building storm, we can hear their hearts and are drawn into the psyches of people who make dissonant decisions on their quest for harmony. And Richard Mills (conductor) creates a sound balance between stage and pit that lets the singers shine and fills the space in ways that question why we don’t see more opera in the Merlyn.
Marion Potts’s direction focuses on Scully’s immediate story. Working with Dale Ferguson’s design of manly wooden saw horses that contrast with Jennifer’s world of clean light and soulless airports, it allows for a powerful connection to Scully and Billie, but it also lets Scully’s journey to hell feel safe and controlled and there isn’t a palpable fear for the child he drags down with him.
In being so connected to Scully, it also seems to underplay its epic and the mythological elements. I could see The Riders in the libretto but despite the constant “horses”, The Riders presence isn’t clear on the stage. In a similar way, a sense of place is missing. For an Australian story that’s set in Ireland, Greece and Paris, the sounds and heat of Freemantle are what make the northern hemisphere ruins and cathedrals so foreign to Scully.
Barry Ryan (Nixon in last year’s wonderful Nixon in China) is Scully. He’s not as young and scruffy as the Scully readers might expect, but any expectations disappear in moments as he shows the contradictions and torment of man who has to lose everything before he can begin to see a future. The broken-family trio is completed with Jessica Aszodi, Jennifer, and Isabela Calderon, Billie, who bring an honesty to their characters that creates a hope that everyone can be happy, even though we know that their time together has to end.
Jerzy Kozlowski, David Rogers-Smith and Dimity Shepherd are the remarkable chorus who let Grandage play with a trio of voices that demand to be listened to while they watch and comment and become the people Scully needs to find.
The Riders is an exciting and important new piece of Australian opera and theatre. It’s grand and intimate and positions Australian opera as something that’s uniquely ours without letting go of the traditions and cultures that have brought us to this point. I’d love to see it in a major festival and hope that it returns with new interpretations from opera companies in Australia and all over the world.