Lyric Opera has brought a number of rarely performed operas to Melbourne stages; this year alone we have heard works by two female Australian composers who have made significant contributions to classical music. Following an illuminating presentation of all available songs written by Peggy Glanville-Hicks, the company has mounted Elena Kats-Chernin’s first opera, Iphis, in conjunction with Theatre Works.
Composed in 1997, Iphis is a chamber opera for six singers and nine musicians. With a witty libretto by Richard Toop based on Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Iphis is a timely story focussed on gender politics. The story concerns an overbearing father, Lidgus, who has his hopes for wealth and prestige pinned on his wife giving birth to a boy. When a girl emerges, the gender of the child has to remain hidden. On turning the mythical age of 16 (think Sleeping Beauty) Lidgus arranges an advantageous marriage to Ianthe. Instead of Iphis being transformed into a boy as in Ovid’s tale, however, when Iphis and Ianthe fall in love and Iphis reveals her true identity, the final outcome is one of acceptance and happiness for all except the thwarted father.
Referred to as “a rich pastiche drawing on the cabaret traditions of Les Six and Kurt Weill, with echoes of Mozart and Stravinsky”, Kats-Chernin’s music presented a number of challenges for the singers in this production. Much of the music is atonal and the text was not always easy for listeners to follow because the instrumentalists shared the stage. With a piccolo and trumpet playing virtually next to Morgan Carter, who sang the role of Iphis with a clear, bright voice, a significant amount of the text was lost. As Lidgus, Douglas Kelly fared best in this regard as he has excellent diction as well as possessing a most pleasingly vibrant tenor voice.
Katy Maudlin’s imaginative direction and the singers’ acting skills combined to convey details of the story successfully. As Iphus’ mother Telethusa, soprano Nicole Wallace had the task of initiating the action and gave a vocally and dramatically strong performance, achieving just the right balance between comic and serious; she was hilarious in the labour scene, and convincingly disgusted when Lidgus sexually assaulted Ianthe – an attack made even more reprehensible by the sweetness Breanna Stuart brought to that role. Kelly was suitably arrogant in his creepy male chauvinism, and invested the comic scenes with energetic drive. “I am the father! I am a modern man!” he declaimed while attempting to enter the room where his “son” was being born. It was a very funny scene, with the trumpet featuring in the accompanying waltz music as Telethusa vocalised her labour pains and the teal-clothed midwives encouraged her. Tenor Timothy Daley and baritone Troy Castle made a strong duo, clearest in delivery when they descended from their godly perch amongst the curtains and came downstage to “educate” Iphis on what she must do to be the man her father wanted.
Brynna Lowen’s set design was visually striking and functional. An enormous ruched dusty-pink curtain covered the back of the performance area, which was paved in a matching pink tiles stylishly patterned with roses. A bed with a lacy canopy and a mirror draped with what proved to be a pink dress completed the ultra feminine setting.
Most of Lowen’s costumes also emphasised the feminine. Even Lidgus’ suit sported frills and pink ribbons, suggesting he was perhaps doomed from the start – a notion further reinforced by his removing much of his costume before finally storming off. When Telethusa first revealed her pregnant state, the playfulness of her costume, with its frilly red cushion of a baby bump, had the audience laughing in surprised delight. Daly and Castle had some very quick costume changes as they moved between their multiple roles of Gods 1 and 2, midwives, educators and wedding guests. It was remarkable how smoothly they managed these lightning transitions given that the costumes were substantially different.
Conductor Patrick Burns managed the kaleidoscopic musical ideas of Kats-Chernin’s score very effectively, giving assured guidance to the singers and players.
Lyric Opera has chalked up another significant achievement with Iphis. The opera itself is both highly entertaining and thought provoking, and has been served exceptionally well by creatives and performers alike in this production.
Performances run daily until September 3.
Heather Leviston reviewed the performance of Elena Katz-Chernin’s opera “Iphis”, presented by Lyric Opera and Theatre Works at Theatre Works, St Kilda on August 30, 2022.