Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, May 2016
In viewing this adaptation of Tim Winton’s sprawling 1991 novel, TVC recalled Stephen Sondheim’s delineation between opera and musical theatre: with musical theatre, “people expect mediocre singing and good acting; …[while] opera house people expect mediocre acting and good singing.” In Cloudstreet, billed as an opera, with libretto by Winton and composer George Palmer, the singing went from good to fair but it was not operatic. Not at all, with all due respect. The acting was good to poor, a difficult task when (as usual in opera) the text is wholly sung. Opera fans (even your correspondent, who is familiar with the work of Philip Glass and has seen Nixon in China) would have found the text, spoken in Strine, somewhat jarring.
From the 1940s to the 1960s, we follow the Pickles and Lamb families, both down on their luck, who share the big old ruin at Number 1, Cloud Street, Perth. Marriages fray; some children come of age whilst others stay frozen in time and in character, There is too much going on, too many stories for an opera (which demands cohesion), but the busyness keeps one’s attention. When poor Fish Lamb, the youngster rendered both a fool and a seer by his near-drowning, scampers about, I kept thinking of Leo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? The indigenous spiritual themes were insufficiently developed so as to become a fairly pointless distraction, a kind of mandatory touch that smelt to me faintly of pandering.
The sets were good, moody and relevant without intruding. The boat descending from the heavens, accompanied by the stars, was just right. There was a good low-key use of video, and cast and crew worked overtime moving props on the revolving stage. A frenetic pace obtained throughout, with rapid changes of scene, of score, and of pace, which I personally found unsettling. The score itself was far too busy, with a new idea or direction cutting in just as the old one had found a groove. Timothy Sexton ensured the always reliable Adelaide Symphony Orchestra kept up with the sprinting chords, which were pleasant in a film-score sense without ever hitting the heights.
The story itself is redolent of The Sullivans transferred to Perth, a hoary and creaking family saga with Christian and Dreamtime tropes stirred into the boiling pot. I will leave opinions on Winton’s books to those in the know – although it has been suggested to me by the wise that Winton is one of Australia’s most overrated novelists. It is a curious choice for an operatic treatment, and it doesn’t really work. Although there are moments of real engagement and some moving performances, we were not enthralled or convinced. We don’t want this to sound condescending, but Cloudstreet is an interesting failure. [For a divergent view, see our minority report below]
Minority Report by Guest Reviewer Lynette: “Having a sense of anticipation is part of the thrill of going to the theatre. There was a high level of this on Friday night as the world premier of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet promised to move Australian audiences from laughter to tears in a Gale Edwards directed opera that epitomised the culture of families in the 1940’s and 50’s. It was a tremendously brave choice to tell this story of many facets in an operatic medium…perhaps it was too busy in the first half (using the football vernacular) with too much information to set up the story.
No need for sub titles here. The ‘not so arias’ were all in english, filled with broad aussie accents, slang and colloquial australianisms. It was a feast of action and pathos, with all the strange behaviours that develop in families, filled with trauma and tribulations. Redolent of families whatever era.
It was quirky, with larrikin humour and emotion in spades. However it didn’t really build up to any great moment: performances were solid but there was not a defining moment, there were no crescendos, no moments of savouring the music beyond the end of the piece. It was not opera in my book. Does that matter? I think not, it was a good night out, – anticipation – tick, emotion – tick and something quintessentially Australian – tick. Thank you Tim Winton for providing the rich source material to make this interpretation happen.”