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What did you say, Ned?

Perth Festival review: Lost and Found Opera, Ned Kelly ⋅
No.1 Mill, Jarrahdale, February 15 ⋅
Review by Ron Banks ⋅

Ned Kelly as an opera succeeds on a number of levels. It’s an unusual venue in the country, a smooth orchestra, strong performers, a well-drilled chorus, a story that is familiar to Australians. So what could go wrong?

It’s an acoustic disaster, that’s what’s wrong. With the singers unmiked, even though they sing in English, the cavernous space with its corrugated iron roof and open ends snatches away the words that spring from the mouths of the performers to the point where it is extremely difficult to understand what they are saying.

And that means it is impossible to follow the action as librettist Peter Goldsworthy deconstructs the life of Ned Kelly and reassembles it in short, choppy scenes that track backwards and forwards over his career as Australia’s most famous bushranger or bandit, or perhaps most controversial folk hero.

A crowd of colonial settlers at tables with a barmaid serving.
Fiona Campbell and the community chorus. Photo Toni Wilkinson

The opera starts promisingly enough with mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell as Ned’s mother Ellen standing centre-stage on the bare concrete floor of the abandoned Jarrahdale mill and telling the back story of the Kelly  family to the tune of The Wild Colonial Boy, one of two folk tunes appropriated by composer Luke Styles. Her diction is good in the opening number, but as the rest of the cast populate the stage the poor acoustics lead to bewilderment on the part of the audience.

“Can you understand what they are saying?” I ask my wife beside me on the comfortable scaffolding seating with its cushion on each seat. “No,” she says. As we file out after the show I ask if other people had been able to hear what the singers were on about. The answers were also negative.

Had the opera been sung in Italian we would have had surtitles, but I guess such technology would have spoiled the rustic atmosphere of the setting, which was entirely suitable to the colonial history of the story.

The acoustics of the venue is the culprit in the opera’s lack of comprehension because the singers, led by Sam Dundas as Ned, perform with admirable precision to music that is colourful and dramatic, (performed by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra under conductor Chris van Tuinen). Composer Styles occasionally gives them difficult notes to negotiate in the sung-through style that owes more to Benjamin Britten than Verdi, so it is understandable that diction is sometimes going to be a problem.

Another problem, less serious, is that the expectations in the publicity material of some kind of gender-bending, off-the-wall production were never met. The production (directed by Janice Muller) has quite a traditional feel; there’s nothing to frighten the horses in its story-telling style. At one point one of the Kelly gang dons a dress, but I couldn’t grasp the meaning of this historical point (once again, defeated by acoustics).

My advice if you want to enjoy Ned Kelly: read up beforehand on the synopses in the program and take a torch to keep up to date on the progress of the scenes. That way it may be a fulfilling operatic experience.

In a strange way, despite the lack of comprehension of the meaning of each scene, Ned Kelly is a pleasurable experience. In the end, it was worth the hour’s coach ride from the city to be part of the Festival’s colourful history of new performances. But there is a lingering dissatisfaction that the question of the legacy of Ned Kelly – folk hero or cold-blooded killer? – was never answered.

Ned Kelly continues until February 19.

Pictured top: Sam Dundas performs with admirable precision as Ned Kelly. Photo Toni Wilkinson

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