Does Edinburgh know what it's getting?main
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.
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.