Does Edinburgh know what it's getting?

Does Edinburgh know what it's getting?


norman lebrecht

March 26, 2010

Bliss, Brett Dean’s opera on Peter Carey’s novel, opened in Sydney amid a tide of patriotism for Australia’s most important operatic venture in decades. The opera, put online by the ABC, could not be accessed outside Australia so I am forced to reply on the views of those who were there.

Amid a flush of generally heated reviews, the careful Peter McCallum, in the Sydney Morning Herald, put the question that was on everyone’s lips: was this really, at last, possibly, the Great Australian Opera? Whether it earns that crown is for posterity to decide (wrote McCallum). Bliss is a significant work and unusual in operatic terms for the amount of plot detail that (librettist Amanda) Holden works into the narrative. Further pruning may be in order but the work holds the attention to the end, sustained by Dean’s wonderful score. To his well-known skills as an orchestral composer, Dean has added an under-utilised empathy for the voice.

Some of that empathy was put to the test by such lines as (look away if you are under 18):

“stick ’em up your arse”,

“a fucking elephant sat on my fucking car”,

“no golden showers”,

“I’m an ambitious bitch”.

It cannot have been easy to set those texts to agreeable music and more than one musician told me they found the opera charmless and, at certain points, revolting. The third act opens in an insane asylum with a psychotic patient masturbating beneath a digital sign that flashes: ‘No Fucking’.  There is also sister-brother incest and threats of a police gang-bang. 

Edinburgh is no longer a prim place and these excesses may well pass with no more than a collective sad sigh at the way the world’s going, ‘m’dear. But the festival director Jonathan Mills looked (I am told) several degrees paler than his ebullient self after the final curtain, having booked the opera’s European premiere sight unseen for the coming summer.
I am keen to see Bliss. Brett Dean, former principal viola player of the Berlin Philharmonic, knows how to make an arresting sound and I am interested to see if Peter Carey’s 1981 portrait of advertising hell can endure in the epoch of Mad Men. First reactions to Bliss have been reported by Tim Cornwell in The Scotsman, under the headline ‘XXXX-rated Australian opera comes to Edinburgh’. There may well be a festival row over it.
Mills has taken a considerable risk in booking Bliss, knowing that if it provokes too much adverse comment and too few ticket sales he will be blamed for advancing Australia fair at the expense of Scottish and British composers. Personally, I believe he has done the right thing in bringing Bliss to Edinburgh, but all will depend on how the opera goes down in a less supportive environment than the Sydney Opera House – and whether the much-touted cuts in the text are made before it arrives.


  • Huw Belling says:

    Dear Norman,
    Surely Dean’s recent Grawemeyer success is justification enough for booking Bliss? Let us not forget that Turnage’s Anna Nicole Smith is coming up at Covent Garden; Adès taught Cheltenham all about felatio; Shostakovich did nasty things with the trombone in Mtsensk; and Birtwistle Punched the living crap out of Judy.
    It certainly is the way things are going, and why not? If an elephant sat on my car, I might be inclined towards an expletive response…perhaps realism is the new surrealism.