REVIEW: Lyric Opera of Melbourne Presents STELLA

Appealing, accessible Australian opera

By Christine Young

In the first of its 2015 Australian Opera Series, Lyric Opera of Melbourne is reviving G.W.L. Marshall-Hall’s 1910 work Stella which plays out the tragic story of a nurse whose ‘immoral’ past catches up with her at exactly the same time her boss, Dr Kirke, declares his undying love. I hate it when that happens.

Lyric Opera Presents Stella Photo by Kris Washusen

The story is based on Marshall-Hall’s own fall from grace in the eyes of Melbourne society and his work colleagues. In 1891, he emigrated from England to take up the post as the first chair of music at the University of Melbourne. This was a coup for the university: Marshall-Hall wrote his first opera at the age of fifteen, and by the time he came to Melbourne, had written two more operas and composed many orchestral works and songs.

But he was also a bit of a ratbag as far as the conservative Melbourne establishment were concerned. Marshall-Hall publically expounded his views as a socialist, atheist and passionate artist. Marshall-Hall’s reputation as a womaniser was ultimately his undoing and he was dumped by the university. He went on to establish the Conservatorium of Melbourne, and wrote Stella which premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1912.

In all my theatre reviewing, Stella was my first opera, and I’m pretty confident from my experience that it’s an excellent choice for the novice. The libretto is in English which is a good start. This means you’re able to focus on the singing and the music without the distraction of subtitles. Moreover, while this one-act opera with its cast of five may have a lower budget than the big, lavish productions, the cast, composer, orchestra plus the large artistic team are highly accomplished and experienced in their fields. And being in an intimate theatre space, the audience has the advantage of soaking up the singing and live orchestra in close proximity.

So if you want to experience opera without coughing up big bucks, this is the time and place to do it. And it seems fitting that the work of a bohemian and socialist should be made so accessible to the great unwashed.

Soprano Lee Abrahmsen shines as Stella to pardon the pun, and it’s such a unique experience to watch and hear, not just Abrahmsen but the whole cast, express Aussie vernacular in operatic style. Abrahmsen’s vocal control is outstanding and at its finest during her arias that are punctuated with expert vibrato. For the most part, I was completely taken by Robert Barbaro’s (Dr Kirke’s) angelic voice above all others. The male cast members seem to have more chances to showcase their talent than the title character, and Matt Thomas (Mayor Chamley) also has a stunning tenor voice which meets the challenge of depicting his character’s inner turmoil.

Last, but nowhere near least, under the inspired guidance of conductor Pat Miller the excellent 16-piece wind and string orchestra achieves the impressive balance of making its presence known without upstaging the singers. Make sure you stop every now and then to focus on the orchestra. You won’t regret it.

Where: David Williamson Theatre, 144 High Street, Prahran (enter from St John St)
When: 25-30 September, 2015
Tickets: $49.50 (adult) /$39.50 (concession) /$35.00 (under 30s)

Image by Kris Washusen