Opera review: Voss

Australia’s own ‘grand opera’ fills the stage for one night only thanks to State Opera South Australia and Victorian Opera.

Stuart Maunder, Artistic Director of State Opera South Australia (SOSA) has a deep passion for little-known Australian operas – so much so, the company has a Lost Operas of Oz series. And even though Richard Meale’s Voss is widely considered the greatest of all Australian operas, it certainly qualifies as ‘lost’ after a 30-year break from the stage.

The work was originally commissioned by The Australian Opera (now Opera Australia) for the Adelaide Festival back in 1986. It played to great acclaim and then it simply disappeared from the repertoire after a season in Sydney in 1990. And while I didn’t see it all those years ago, quite a few people in this month’s one-night-only audience spoke fondly of that first production.

This co-production between SOSA and Victorian Opera was scheduled to play in Melbourne last August, but that wasn’t to be. And so Melbourne audiences, like audiences worldwide, were able to view it via a live-stream on Saturday evening.

Maunder’s counterpart at Victorian Opera, Artistic Director Richard Mills, was in Adelaide to conduct the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for this special performance. Mills has a deep understanding of the work and brought out the  emotionality and nuance in the music. Composer Richard Meale created a rich sound world that is at once of the time but also timeless. Given the breadth of the score it requires a large orchestra, so the players were on stage throughout and not down in the pit. Being able to see the conductor and the orchestra gives the performance a warmth that can be lost when they are hidden from view. 

The libretto, by poet and novelist David Malouf, is based on Patrick White’s quintessentially Australian novel of the same name. The eponymous lead role, Johann Ulrich Voss, is modelled on the ‘Prince of Explorers’ Dr Ludwig Leichhardt. Set in the 1850s, Voss details his quest to explore the Australian outback and cross the country from ‘side to side’. But more than that, it’s the story of a doomed romance between Voss and Laura, a well-to-do young lady in colonial Sydney society.  

SOSA played a recorded message before the opening Welcome to Country, warning the audience that the work contains 19th century attitudes to First Nations People. And it does, with lines such as ‘these are my blacks’. But does the audience really need to be forewarned of this when it’s part of a period story? 

It’s clearly no small task to condense a novel of some 450+ pages into a two-hour opera. Inevitably, the story is told in broad brushstrokes giving emphasis to the emotional journey as much as the physical one.

Read: Voss opera returns after 30 years in the wilderness

Billed as a semi-staged production, there is virtually no set and very few props. The Festival Theatre stage is almost filled with the orchestra, then two sets of black risers in front of the players on which the chorus stood, all clothed in black, when they assembled for their parts. This only leaves some small space at the front of the stage for the principals but it is used to full advantage, especially in the split-stage scenes where the action is occurring in vastly different places at the same time. It is left to the excellent costuming, by set and costume designer Roger Kirk, to create a period ambience.

The back of stage, above the orchestra, is filled with a large-scale projection of Australian bush paintings by acclaimed artist Fred Williams. While these may be considered iconic images of Australia they are artworks of the 1960s, not 1860s. The images are, at times, animated to change and morph, in a video design by Jamie Clennett. The lighting design by Trudy Dalgleish worked well to evoke moods, time, and a sense of place.

The all-Australian cast was led by Samuel Dundas as Voss and Emma Pearson as Laura. Dundas gave us a well-rounded Voss, ambitious, determined, and masculine but still with a very human frailty. And Pearson was superb as Laura with her clear, rich voice. She was utterly believable, and especially good in the duets. The rest of the small ensemble were commendable, together creating the feeling of a much larger cast, with Nicholas Jones a delight as Harry.  

There were some brief passages when it felt like balance between the music and the singers could have been improved – the orchestra felt restrained at some points and the voices occasionally lacked a little in volume, clarity, and projection.

This was a remarkable night of opera and the end of a busy week for SOSA with The Turn of the Screw playing in the same theatre until the previous evening.

Adelaide Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Presented by State Opera South Australia and Victorian Opera

Composed by Richard Meale
Libretto by David Malouf
After the novel by Patrick White

Conductor Richard Mills
Director Stuart Maunder

Cast: Samuel Dundas, Emma Pearson, Pelham Andrews, Nicholas Jones, Michael Petruccelli, Joshua Rowe, Jessica Dean, Mark Oates, Cherie Boogaart, Jeremy Tatchell, Rachel McCall, Jiacheng Ding

State Opera Chorus
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra

Voss was performed for one night only on 7 May 2022 at Adelaide Festival Theatre.

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.