Victorian Opera’s interpretation of the classic opera The Sleeping Beauty – written originally in the wake of the Spanish Flu pandemic – has fresh power in the age of Covid, says Gully Thompson
Sleeping Beauty is a fairy tale we all know well and has been much adapted. There have been countless realisations, some for children, some for older people, and Victorian Opera’s incarnation of the classic tale manages to at once respect its cultural heritage and to take it by the hand to an interpretation that’s both strange and stunning.
Ottorino Respighi’s original opera, with a libretto by Gian Bistolfi, was written to awaken a world emerging from the grips of the Spanish Flu. Directed by Nancy Black, it’s now revived in the wake of Covid-19 after the production’s premiere in 2017. The Sleeping Beauty’s parallels to our post-lockdown world in their metaphorical nature are both subtle and beautiful. The narrative follows the classic source material – a princess cursed to fall asleep at the prick of a spindle and never wake until kissed by a prince – and from there the show is carried by stunning opera performance and strange, often whimsical puppetry to deliver the tale in a form that’s engaging and fresh.
This work is at its core a theatrical hybrid – an elaborate engagement with the meaning of genre and the applications of storytelling. From its folklore basis, to its larger-than-life puppetry to classic opera, the show uses the conventions of each genre to its advantage, combining the child-like innocence of the puppetry world and the grandeur of opera. The direction is aware of the components of each genre and treast them respectfully and intelligently, while also blending them in a form that can be at times humorous – a group of frog puppets performing opera and suddenly switching to line-dancing comes to mind – and yet appropriate.
It’s a great display of theatrical equality. The performers, puppets and singers are all given equal space in the production to the point where each character – portrayed by both performer and singer – doesn’t seem limited to the form of its actor or puppet. The result is a respectful showcase of each theatrical element of puppetry and opera. In some cases, parts of a puppet or different performers are separated between different crew members and move and perform in unison, which brings a feeling of strong ensemble to the production.
The puppetry, mise-en-scene and production of the show are true spectacles and are one of the real driving forces at play. Joe Blanck’s uncanny puppet designs are whimsical and strange, perhaps only comparable to the surrealist caricatures of Dave McKean. They seem almost hand-made, hand-carved, and thrillingly alive – sometimes obvious homages to fairy tale archetypes and in other instances deeply strange, original and fantastical. The performance of each creation is uncannily humane, and occasionally the audience may even forget that it is not the puppet singing, dancing and moving freely.
The musical orchestration, opera and libretto all deserve praise. The original libretto, which is around 100 years old, has been repurposed and performed in a degree which is seemingly extremely faithful and respectful of the conventions of opera and its artistry, while also creating a textural, orchestral musical feast that never loses itself in its own grandeur. It is beautifully performed and at all times appropriate to the various genre blends, and gives the production liveliness and splendour.
On occasions I found the show sometimes lost its grip on the conventions of its genre, although these instances were often met with humour and general enjoyment. There is a character in the original production who is a kind of capitalist who wishes to essentially “buy” Sleeping Beauty out of her condition, and let’s just say this particular puppet incarnation bears a strong resemblance to a certain 45th president. I felt this moved too far from the fairy tale-esque atmosphere the show was conveying, although these deviations from classical opera also benefited the production by putting a humorous lens over the show.
Ultimately, one of the show’s greatest strengths is its self-awareness – its genre-blending is extremely clever, and sometimes makes respectful fun of the more classical conventions of opera. This also makes it more accessible to younger audiences. The characters are drawn from the original fairy tale, but are transformed. The prince, originally righteous and charming, is now seen more comically, a refreshing breakaway from cliches and conventions of classic fairy tales.
The libretto makes subtle parallels to the world of lockdown. It sometimes deviates the original story, which works to its advantage – without revealing too much, those around the Sleeping Beauty also fall into a kind of slumber only to be woken by a Prince Charming of sorts: the land itself falls asleep. The result is an almost chilling reflection upon the pandemic and how it affects us as human beings.
The Sleeping Beauty is an aesthetic feast, from the grandeur and surrealism of the large-than-life puppetry and to the classical but refreshing orchestrations. Each element of this piece’s production is refined to blend the finest qualities of each genre, and is realised in a way that feels both classical and original.
The show acknowledges the things that keep the people and land strong during tumultuous times: the values of community, togetherness, the arts and the natural world. The Sleeping Beauty doesn’t only serve to wake a sleeping world in the shadow of a pandemic – it also celebrates and acknowledges our strengths through lockdown and other tribulations, and faces them with the energies of magic and whimsy.
The Sleeping Beauty, composer Ottorino Respighi, librettist Gian Bistolfi, conductor Phoebe Briggs, director Nancy Black. Set designer Morwenna Schenck, original set design Bluebottle, lighting designer Philip Lethlean, original puppet design and construction Joe Blanck, original choreographer Michelle Heaven. With Orchestra Victoria. Victorian Opera, Palais Theatre, St Kilda, until February 26. Bookings