You would be hard pressed to name a literary work that captures the spirit of Christmas more completely than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. With music by Graeme Koehne and libretto by Anna Goldsworthy, Victorian Opera’s operatic treatment of this much loved story is true to the intentions of the original while successfully embedding it in a contemporary Melbourne context.
Divided into five “Staves” (Parts), the basic storyline is retained, with Ebenezer Scrooge evolving from miserly misanthrope to generous benefactor as the ghosts of his former business partner, Bob Marley, and those of Christmases Past, Present and Future confront him with a series of uncomfortable realities. Goldsworthy’s libretto, in true Dickensian style, also gently holds a mirror up to the audience as Australia’s treatment of people in need, such as asylum seekers, is questioned. Koehne’s score incorporates several arrangements of popular carols, “Once in Royal David’s City” being the most significant. It opens the opera and later the words are altered to question our hypocritical treatment of asylum seekers: “Once in our fair Melbourne city … And his shelter was a prison … And our eyes at last shall open”. It was the only time the audience vigorously applauded during the course of the opera.
Inclusiveness is an important feature of this production. The two boy sopranos chosen for the dual roles of Tiny Tim/Young Scrooge were both of non-Anglo descent and The Decibelles and Low Rez Choirs plus a group of young singers swelled the ranks as Community Chorus members. On opening night, Maxwell Chao-Hong sang confidently, his clear, true voice well suited to a dual role that evoked a sympathetic parallel in the older Scrooge’s mind. The finale of “We wish you a Merry Christmas”, with pealing bells, was not exactly designed as a sing-a-long number, but quite a few members of the audience joined in anyway, keen to be included in such a festive, full-throated ending to the show. Amplification added to the power of the singing, useful in the cavernous space of St Kilda’s Palais Theatre, although not needed to understand the text given the presence of surtitles – an excellent idea.
Most of the cast did not, however, need assistance to be heard clearly, most notably Samuel Dundas in the central role. A wonderfully dynamic performer, he coloured his powerful, golden baritone voice to snarl venom at those who got in his self-centred way. “Bah humbug!” was never spat so viciously. Dundas portrayed Scrooge’s transformation convincingly too – bewilderment, remorse and a final embracing of others nicely shaded.
As his relentlessly cheerful niece, Freda, soprano Antoinette Halloran was a vivacious presence, her voice well projected. Her warm personality was well suited to this role. Along with all members of the cast except Dundas, she played a number of roles including Ghost of Christmas Past, Woman in a Bar and Tenant Woman, all being vocally and dramatically persuasive.
James Egglestone’s main role was Bob Cratchit. Whether being bullied by Scrooge or enjoying a happy, if materially deprived, family life he gave a strong performance, his tenor complementing Dundas’s baritone. He was particularly moving in Christmas Yet to Come as he lamented and the family mourned the death of Tiny Tim with a soft “Lully lullay” to harp accompaniment. His lively Fezzoli, generous owner of the Italian deli where Scrooge had been an apprentice, was part of a colourful, joyously noisy Christmas party with folksy dance music that provided a contrast to the more sombre scenes. It was not clear why he was cast as Man in a Bar while wearing the same outfit as Bob Cratchit. As a duet with Halloran it was entertaining and stylishly sung, but perplexing.
Festooned in what looked more like Christmas decorations than heavy chains, Simon Meadows was a forbidding Marley’s Ghost, his substantial baritone otherworldly as he issued his warning. Rising from his inflatable sleigh dressed in colourful Santa-esque beach wear, his Ghost of Christmas Present was a decided change of pace, which he embraced with relish.
The large cast included soloists Dominica Matthews, Akansha Hungenahally, Stephen Marsh, Shakira Dugan, Michael Dimowski and Emily Burke, all of whom sang exceptionally well. It was very much an ensemble effort, although one role struck an unexpectedly modern note – or perhaps not so unexpected considering the inclusive nature of this adaptation. Mezzo soprano Dominica Matthews is renowned for her successful portrayal of “pants” roles, but Freda’s Wife is possibly a new departure for her – and one in which she excelled.
With singers playing multiple roles and many scene changes, this was a challenging production with complex moving parts. Sets were fairly minimal with furniture being wheeled in and out and scenery denoting buildings flown up and down, often much to the delight of the audience. The children loved seeing the Cratchits’ Christmas pudding making its descent and those familiar with the Hill of Content bookshop were amused to see it become a risqué pink Mountain of Joy. Claudia Mirabello’s set designs contained numerous inventive details, in keeping with Emma Muir-Smith’s imaginative direction, Goldsworthy’s inspired libretto and Koehne’s splendidly evocative music.
Orchestra Victoria was in great form under the baton of Phoebe Briggs, bringing Koehne’s score to life with all the sounds of Christmas – bells, chimes, angelic harp, a Salvation Army band and even what sounded like a snatch of the low string tones of Beethoven’s Ninth at one point.
This was excellent Christmas fare to be enjoyed by all ages. Hopefully, it will make reappearances in many Christmases Future.
Heather Leviston reviewed Victorian Opera’s production of Graeme Koehne’s “A Christmas Carol”, performed at St Kilda’s Palais Theatre on December 14, 2022.