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Review: Voyage to the Moon

Adelaide Festival

Voyage to the Moon is a new chamber opera written by celebrated playwright and theatre director Michael Gow, who has used as inspiration Ludovico Ariosto’s 16th-century poem Orlando furioso. 

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The opera is a pasticcio (pastiche), which involves the use of existing musical works being collated and moulded  into a new work; it was an accepted way of devising new operas in the 17th century.

The choice of Baroque music has been a collaborative effort but owes a great deal to Alan Curtis, conductor and musicologist, who passed away in 2015. Voyage to the Moon has music from Telemann, Vivaldi, Orlandini, Handel and de Majo.

This Victorian Opera production has been supported by scholars associated with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, and Professor Jane Davidson provides an informative lecture before the performance explaining the intricacies and nuances in Baroque music.

The Baroque Instrumental Ensemble, in the hands of musical director and harpsichordist Phoebe Briggs, is superb. In modern black clothing they stand and allow themselves to be totally absorbed in the music; their engagement is an important element of this work.

There is no exposition or gradual development of the story leading to a denouement, but instead the three singers launch themselves into dramatic, emotion-charged arias from the outset. All three are superb performers.

Highly acclaimed soprano Emma Matthews is magnificent as the incensed Orlando, driven mad because his love, Angelica, has eloped with another. Matthews has a powerful and beautiful voice; she begins at an extremely high emotional level and does not let up.

Sally-Anne Russell is diminutive in stature but vocally magnificent and she packs a punch as Astolfo, the loyal friend who is taken to the moon by Magus, a wise magician, in search of Adolfo’s sanity. Jeremy Kleeman, an emerging artist with a rich and beautiful voice, brings dignity and presence to the role of Magus.

A Voyage to the Moon has all the ingredients of a quality performance: good music, fine instrumentalists and wonderful singers, and the Baroque devotees were clearly delighted with the experience.

The singers were in period costume – in keeping with creating a new work from the music and literature of that era – but if I am to be moved, the visual cues play an important role. The costumes against the modern black of the musicians with a backdrop of the enormous theatre organ, modern music stands and large instrumental and sound boxes did not gel.

The science-fiction elements could be explored further in this production and the somewhat obscure, fanciful narrative could be made more magical, surreal and intriguing if the same attention and detail given to the other elements was applied the visuals. But then, perhaps the Baroque enthusiasts are happy to be transported back in time seeing a pasticcio that chamber opera lovers of the 17th-century would have seen.

Presented by Victorian Opera and Musica Viva, Voyage to the Moon will have its final performance tonight (March 12) at the Adelaide Town Hall.


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