Just long enough

THE MAGIC PUDDING

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thursday March 15

The opera was also performed on Friday March 16 at 6:30 pm, and on Saturday March 17 at 1 pm and 5 pm.

                                      Jeremy Kleeman, Timothy Reynolds, Brenton Spiteri

Not much to report here.  Norman Lindsay’s story for children about a pudding that keeps on giving is now 100 years old and the state company decided to resuscitate the opera that it commissioned in 2013 to observe this literary centenary.  Quite a few of the central cast members have returned: Timothy Reynolds as Bill Barnacle, Nathan Lay playing Bunyip Bluegum,  Jeremy Kleeman as Albert the Pudding, and Carlos E. Barcenas reviving his athletic Judge.

All of the secondary principals are Victorian Opera Youth Artists for 2018: Georgia Wilkinson (Narrator), Shakira Dugan (Wombat/Rooster), Shakira Tsindos (Possum), Douglas Kelly (Constable/Hedgehog) and Stephen Marsh  (Benjimen Brandysnap). Actually, this last-named plays a significant part in the action during the later ‘slices’ of Lindsay’s story.  But the major cast change is Brenton Spiteri replacing Daniel Todd as Sam Sawnoff, that improbable outback penguin.

As for off-stage changes, Fabian Russell took over direction of the pit, following Daniel Carter’s 2013 stint.   Director Cameron Menzies returned, as did the set and costumes of Chloe Greaves and the lighting design of Peter Darby.

Calvin Bowman’s score still impresses for its open-handed breeziness, the composer’s inbuilt tunefulness a constant feature of the opera’s progress – in solos certainly, but also at moments like the trio that ends Slice One where Bill and Sam invite Bunyip to join their Pudding-Owners’ Guild.  Bowman’s intention was hardly to write flamboyant, technically taxing lines – although Narrator Wilkinson enjoyed some high tessitura calisthenics – but more to reflect the amiable simplicity of Lindsay’s characters, both good and bad.

Anna Goldsworthy made no bones about using as much of the original text as she could fit into the work’s short time-span.  And why not?  The Magic Pudding has an appealing combination of vernacular and tongue-in-cheek pomposity that gives older readers a nostalgic glimpse at former times; it’s as though people of my generation are hearing our grandfathers talking.  This is not just derived from the actual words, of course, but more the quirky turns of phrase and a rhetorical fluency that reminds you of how real conversations used to be conducted.

The action is kept simple enough, the confrontations between rightful Pudding-Owners and their conniving opposition suitably slapstick, and Lindsay’s four slices run smoothly into each other.   In fact, the only point where you could be left puzzled is in the last segment at Tooraloo where the rationale behind the court scene remains fuzzy.  The case for theft is brought by the two thieves, but why do these accusers wind up in the dock?

Still, the work moves smoothly.  Reynolds does a fine line in mildly aggressive salt-of-the-earth honesty;  Spiteri gives his dialogue a forceful energy; as the Pudding, Jeremy Kleeman has a fine time, manipulating and vocalising with well-honed elasticity and a powerful suggestion of put-upon rancour.   While it was hard to penetrate Carlos E. Barcenas’ diction, his Judge ‘s physicality gingered up the courtroom scene just when it was needed; and Marsh’s Benjimen made a welcome common-sense presence when things looked darkest for our put-upon heroes.

Both Dugan and Tsindos as the thieving Wombat and Possum leaped into their roles with plenty of vim, in the process making the occasional sacrifice in clarity of diction; Douglas Kelly’s lawman hit exactly the right tone for Lindsay’s none-too-bright Constable.  But the cast member who dominated your attention was Lay; even if his first entrance left him with little to do to fill in some awkward bars, his vocal quality proved well-judged for the action’s environment, packed with bounce and gifted with a kind of bracing vigour that doesn’t have to try hard to be effective.

As far as I could tell, Russell faced very few coordination problems between singers and pit; not surprising, because the score is as transparent as that for an early Savoy opera and Bowman’s orchestration is calculated for clarity: a string quintet, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, one percussionist, and pianist Phillipa Safey the solo revenant below-stage from the first production.

The Youth and Community Chorus that operated on both sides of the Playhouse’s stage knew what they had to do in terms of action – little enough, as it turned out – but I would have expected a bigger sound from what was a large pair of choral bodies.  I understand the production will travel to Wodonga and Bendigo, picking up a local chorus in each town; let’s hope they blast out their lines more confidently than their metropolitan peers.

At the end, my 11-year-old guest rated the experience a 9.9/10, her sole caveat the slight lag before Barcenas went on his manic rave/dance.  It was a bit of a hiatus but, at the end, the opera is cut to the right proportions, a clear success with the younger audience members and a source of pleasure to us seniors who bemused most of our charges by laughing at odd places: a testament to Lindsay’s old-fashioned humour and this opera creators’ talent at preserving it intact.