The Selfish Giant review by Henry Shaw

****.5 Stars

As I write this review, I am listening to the available online recordings of The Selfish Giant. Having watched the show earlier this night, I (along with many others in the audience) am not in the slightest finished with the piece. It is a fascinating composition by Simon Bruckard, perfectly evoking each season and emotion that it sets out to, cheeky and playful at moments and sombre and melancholic at others. Despite being written for younger singers and audiences to perform and enjoy, it is beautifully intricate and doesn’t oversimplify any of its motifs or shy away from clever musical references creating an opera that begs to be deciphered by keen listeners. With such an incredible score, the opera has a sturdy foundation to build on and Victorian Opera has constructed something truly special using everything at their disposal to do justice to this work.

Along with a ripper score, the libretto by Emma Muir-Smith holds up alongside the music and elevates the source material from a simple allegorical tale with religious overtones to a modern commentary on class, morality and greed without alienating the younger audience that it is aimed towards. I reread Oscar Wilde’s 1888 short story to contextualise the opera and found that I was more intrigued by the new interpretation of the story by Muir-Smith with her nuanced storytelling, focussing on more universal ideas and lessons to be taught to children and adults alike. The intense collaboration between the writer and composer is evident in the final product as there is not a single wasted moment in the piece, constantly reinforcing its themes and ideas while keeping the audience enraptured with its whimsical imagery and style. If they haven’t already, Victorian Opera should immediately commission these two artists to create more work because the passion and talent that went into the opera is plain for all to see and it has created the kind of work that Australia needs.

The text and music are nothing, however, without singers and musicians to bring them to life and much like Spring causes flowers to bloom, the music showcases young talent in their best possible light. Leading the cast is Stephen Marsh as the titular Selfish Giant, full of glorious curmudgeonly spite and vitriol at the youths that have infested his pristine garden. Marsh sings clearly and strongly throughout, the warmth in his voice surely being what brought so many to his garden in the first place. Despite not being 100% healthy, Marsh demonstrates the true sign of a professional by not letting it show in his performance and delivering the shows most melancholic moments, baiting the audience to sympathise with him despite his aforementioned selfishness. While Marsh is the true main character of the piece, he is supported by several groups of performers each acting as personifications of various seasons and factions of people. Spring is portrayed by Saffrey Brown, Stephanie Ciantar and Chloe Maree Harris, a trio of singers that harken the coming season. Their musical motif recurs several times throughout the opera and marks the beginning, middle and end. The three voices worked off each other very well, with none of them pulling focus from the other but rather creating an ethereal whole that gave structure to the entirety. While young, the three performers all sang with maturity and confidence, clearly very comfortable with their individual lines highlighting again the care that went into the composition and development process.

When the children are away, winter will play, this time portrayed by three males Michael Dimovski, Darcy Carroll and Noah Ryland and their leader, Olivia Federow-Yemm. Winter, unlike in real life, is the most fun season. The three males play off each other with such cool ease, that they almost steal the show. Dressed as vagrant frosty boys, each performer personifies a different element of Winter, namely Snow, Frost and Wind and their characterisations play into these traits as well. Wind is constantly sneezing; snow collects and frost…wears fancy boots? Ok, I wasn’t as clear on whether Frost acted in a particularly frosty way, but Carroll was so charming it didn’t matter. The winters also had the most tightly choreographed sections in the piece, full of slapstick and pratfalls, sight gags and mugging. The melodramatic performances worked fantastically, teetering on the edge of panto territory without jumping fully in. Federow-Yemm’s Winter adopted an appropriately cold demeanour, clearly taking great pleasure in ruining the Giant’s day and keeping her minions in line. The singing from all four was impressive, although their role in the opera was not primarily musically focussed and felt like well executed comic relief.

The ensemble, made up of younger singers ranging from teens to early twenty-year-olds, filled out the cast as the students that infiltrated the Giant’s garden. Along with singing chorus numbers, they also acted as the set in many scenes by bringing in flowers, leaves, ice and whatever the scenes called for. The music provided for the young performers was perfect, weaving schoolyard chants and taunts seamlessly with the original motifs that captured the frenetic energy of youth. There were several solo performers amongst the youth chorus, each bringing their own style and nailing their moments to shine, but even those without solo lines were always engaged with the action and constantly emoting. Truly a joy to watch.

Crafting these performances in such a short time frame requires an incredibly dedicated and talented production team and Cameron Menzies clear direction shows just that. Menzies showed a strong understanding of not just the text, but the composition itself in his staging as nothing conflicted with the central themes and there was no dissonance between any of the theatrical elements. Menzies knew exactly how much to give at each moment of the opera, showing a lot of restraint to allow the audience to have their own ideas about the piece while still guiding them through the journey. As mentioned before, the tight choreography is a delight in this piece and special mention should go to Elizabeth Hill-Cooper for her work on the movement of the opera. The set design and costume design were particularly inspired, bright, colourful and unique yet reinforcing of the story. I loved that as part of the set, the house played with forced perspective causing me to think I was looking at the outside of a house when I was actually looking at the inside. Everything was used effectively and purposefully, nothing felt cluttered or unnecessary and the transformational nature of the design made it that much more fun to experience. Lighting was often well executed, colour matching each season to enhance the connection to each season, although it sometimes felt a bit simple. There were a few moments that the music was off in its own world, painting these bright landscapes yet the onstage visuals didn’t quite match the intensity. More effect heavy lighting may have been distracting, but a moment or two of more intensity would have been welcome.

The only drawback to this production was not the production itself, but the audience. Not that the audience wasn’t receptive or uninterested, but the audience was far too old. As I walked in, I looked around and thought “where are the children?” and after watching the whole production I really thought “WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN?”. This is a fantastic show, and it has been crafted in such a way that it would be a fantastic entry point for younger people into opera, with over the top acting and comedy, simple yet endearing characters and relatable themes, but all the effort in making it approachable and whimsical is a bit lost on an older audience. This opera needs to be seen by school kids, teens and younger especially, as it seems to have been designed with them in mind; but is being consumed by a very evidently not young audience. It’s ironic that an opera about a selfish giant keeping kids out of his garden has apparently kept kids out of the theatre. I know Victorian Opera makes education a priority and should be commended for that, I just hope that this production doesn’t stop here and opens up for a wider audiences or travels to find them. It would be an incredible shame to keep children out of this garden.

Images: Charlie Kinross