Freeze Frame Opera’s Angels and Devils delves into desire and despair at Claremont Showgrounds
From the opening Ave Maria to the closing death knell, Freeze Frame Opera’s reimagining of Suor Angelica brings a beguiling yet devastating critique of institutional cruelty to the magical melodies of Puccini.
It’s a bittersweet mix — think Wentworth meets The Sound of Music — set not in a nunnery but a drug rehab centre, from which layers of grief emerge like onion skins; peeled back with tears to match.
Harriet Marshall inhabits the title role, “Angel”, in a truculent and ultimately heartbreaking performance, channelling lost and stolen generations whose plight remains raw, just below the veneer of society — now as in Puccini’s day.
Her bruised innocence finds its match in Nicole Youl’s brutal, scheming “Aunt” — the characters are renamed for the modern setting — with commanding voice and presence that tips her niece over the edge; a gripping intensity in their dialogue summoning the horror of dispossession and despair.
That evokes pathos and pride worthy of Lindy Chamberlain in the hallmark aria Senza Mamma, led in by soul-rending sobs over the lilting tones of the Trio Tiramisu — pianist Tommaso Pollio, cellist Sophie Curtis and Cathie Travis on accordion — with delicacy in delivery yet piercing to the core: “When will I see you in heaven? Such a beautiful end to all this pain.”
Marshall’s collaboration with director Rachel McDonald and designer Robbie Harrold, with lighting by Jerry Reinhardt, presents a bleak, bare yet compelling setting for the unfolding tragedy.
Puccini wrote for all female voices, a big statement in opera terms of the vulnerability of the characters.
Challenging the script, tenor Perry Joyce plays “Sweetie”, companion to Emma Pettemerides’ “Gen” as the hapless Angel’s BFFs, with “rehab director” Ruth Burke and “rehab intern” Harriet Du Pont forming a core of established artists to sustain the plot.
They are joined by emerging players Ava Charleson, Bella Marslen, Bonnie Staude, Michelle Pryor, Scout Simmonds, Jillian Halleron and Emma Hazell in a chorus so sweet at the climax that the visceral impact of Angel’s agony and out-of-the-body ecstasy are all the more poignant amid the harsh mise en scene.
Cameos at the death from Theodore Murphy-Jelley, Brett Peart, Kyle Garces, Sally Hyslop and Dante Pendergrast fill out the drama, enhancing the inclusive quality of the production.
How to follow that? With more Puccini, natch; but comedy with a divine touch.
Gianni Schicchi, a ludicrous plot derived from Dante’s Inferno, gives Freeze Frame regular Robert Hofmann the perfect stage for his urbane musical theatre panache.
If Angel’s Aunt was wickedly scheming, Schicchi’s machinations are Machiavellian, manipulating neighbours to his own ends to assist his daughter Lauretta — a lyrically enticing main role debut for soprano Bella Marslen — and her paramour Rinuccio — fellow newbie Tom Buckmaster, lush and lucid through the tenor range.
Their dupes are the Donati family, lusting after inheritance and frustrated by the simple matter of a will.
In Dante, Gianni Schicchi is a cautionary tale of a swindler condemned for eternity; here he uses the threat of damnation to play the hapless relatives on a break.
An ensemble cast of Brigitte Heuser (Zita), Brett Peart (Simone), Perry Joyce (Gherado), Ava Charleson (Nella), Kyle Garces (Betto), Harriet Du Pont (Marta) and Ruth Burke (Ciesca), sing, act, joke, dance and generally adorn the stage in a florid and fluid, almost burlesque, melodrama with glimpses of the Von Trapp and Addams families along the way.
Marslen’s take on the pivotal aria O Mio Babbino Caro is as full of sunshine as Senza Mamma was of sorrow, sensually modulated through romantic distemper to the end.
Bonnie Staude emerges twice, as the doctor Spinelloccio and notary Amantio, with deadpan comic expression timed to a tee.
All-round vocal quality is assured, the bucolic set and props offset the austerity of Suor Angelica with a shabby-chic-meets-dumpster kind of charm, and the choreography is poetry in motion.
Angels and Devils is at Claremont Showgrounds on August 20, 21, 26, 27 and 28, at 7pm, with bar and food from 6pm. Tickets at www.freezeframeopera.com.
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