Horti Hall, Melbourne – until 15 October 2017
Programmed well over a year ago, the presentation of The Second Hurricane turns out to be prescient indeed, sharing a message of the power of banding together in chaotic times. Presented in Horti Hall, in Victorian Opera’s Melbourne headquarters, the sixty-minute youth opera is exquisitely sung.
Written in 1937 for school students in New York City, The Second Hurricane was American composer Aaron Copland’s first opera. Librettist Edwin Denby tells what is ostensibly a simple tale but one which nimbly conveys its potent message.
A group of six school students volunteer to assist with the clean up and rescue mission after a hurricane hits the tropics. Stranded after the pilot experiences engine troubles, the group of hungry, tired and scared individuals cannot resolve upon the best course of action. It is not until the second hurricane wreaks further devastation that the young survivors willingly band together to achieve far more than they could separately.
Director Alastair Clark, a 2017 Victorian Opera Developing Artist, has adopted a bold, clear directorial style. Performers raise an arm when singing or speaking a solo line, and face the front directly, even if the person they are addressing is across the other side of the stage. This technique engages the audience and simplifies the action in a way that allows the audience to focus on the meaning behind the words.
Following Copland’s instruction in the score to adopt an “ascetic Brechtian performance style,” Clark eschews traditional scenery for a broad tiered platform with scattered chairs hanging precariously overhead. Lighting his own scenic design, Eduard Inglés highlights these chairs when the second hurricane hits, sending tumultuous shadows to all reaches of the performance space.
The six lead performers are well cast. Each gives a very strong performance, matching the quality of their singing with the strength of their acting. For a production that deliberately uses little or no scenery and props, the performers tell the story with confidence and with great commitment to the scenario. The six lead school children are played by Shimona Thevathasan (Queenie), Saskia Mascitti (Gwen), James Emerson (Gyp), Thomas Harvey (Lowrie), Lachlan McLean (Butch) and James Young (Fat), with Dorcas Lim joining in later as Jeff, a local child who has lost track of their parents in the storm.
In two all too rare solo arias, Emerson gives a tender, sensitive rendition of “Gyp’s Song” and Young conveys the gentle mellowing of a bully in “Fat’s Song.”
The ample chorus is given as much, if not more, to sing than the leads, and they sing it beautifully. Harmonies, tone, dynamics and diction all reflect exacting preparation from Conductor Angus Grant. Accompanied by Tom Griffiths on grand piano, and mixing high overhead beneath the grand ceiling of the Hall, the music really is a pleasure to hear.
Featured performers playing the School Principal and the Pilot (not named in the program) each gave crisp, clear, expressive performances of their vital dialogue.
Rather than break the chorus up, Clark has them adopt different body language when playing parents rather than students. The parents are hunched and cross, contrasting with the effusive optimism of the students. Ultimately, this optimism is the message we want, and need, to hear.