Quixotic turn from the Master’s puppets

The Australian – 17 August 2012
By Peter Burch
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WITH this year’s double bill of one-act works by two significant 20th-century composers, Victorian Opera has introduced its audience to Australian premieres of contemporary operas by Spaniard Manuel de Falla and American Elliott Carter.

The 1923 opera by de Falla, Master Peter’s Puppet Show, is based on an incident in Don Quixote, drawing verbatim on much of Cervantes’s text. There are only three characters in the piece: a boy narrator, Master Peter and Don Quixote, assisted by a team of terrific shadow manipulators whose puppets act out the story.

Lotte Betts-Dean, in the trouser-role of the Boy, sang clearly and energetically. She embellished the story by slipping in asides, to the deep irritation of Master Peter, Columbian-born Carlos Barcenas, who presented the puppet-show. Ian Cousins is the moving but disoriented Don Quixote, who enters the stage from the audience, challenging the Boy’s narrative. Eventually he reduces Master Peter’s show to ruins in his demented enthusiasm as he praises the deeds of knights errant.

Elliott Carter’s What Next? could not have offered a more sombre contrast. Urged on by conductor Daniel Barenboim, Carter’s reluctance to writing an opera evaporated when Barenboim proposed he write a comedy. His 1998 What Next?, with a libretto by New Yorker music critic Paul Griffiths, pursues a contemporary narrative, opening with a calamitous car crash that leaves six people on the road.

As they get up and try to remember who, where and what they are, the opera increasingly becomes a kind of concerto for disembodied voice. The female cast consists of Jessica Aszodi as Rose, Ireni Utley as Mama and Emily Bauer-Jones as Stella, while the men were Tim Reynolds as Zen, Gary Rowley as Harry or Larry and Austin Haynes as Kid. All sang impressively, but if the audience was confused, it was with good cause. It’s an enigmatic piece.

Nancy Black’s direction of both shows was richly imaginative, as was Adam Gardnir’s scaffold-based set and Phil Lethlean’s lighting. Lynne Kent and Rachel Joy carefully prepared the puppets and the entire performance exhibited a high level of professionalism, with fine conducting of Orchestra Victoria by Daniel Carter.