The New Musicals Australia project is a means of fostering the creation and development of original home-grown works. It provides the opportunity for emerging writers and composers to have their ideas taken through to full production stage at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre. In 2017, Melba: A new musical is the show that was chosen to receive this treatment.
What is wonderful about Melba, adapted from Ann Blainey’s book Marvelous Melba, is that it’s not only an Australian work, but one that celebrates the life of one of Australia’s most accomplished talents on the international stage. With its book and lyrics by Nicholas Christo and music by Johannes Luebbers, Melba tells the story of Melbourne-born Helen Porter Mitchell, who later came to be known as Nellie Melba (Emma Matthews). Born in 1861 and once described as ‘the world’s greatest singer’, Melba blossomed into an exceptional coloratura soprano under the tutelage of the internationally-renowned Mathilda Marchesi (Genevieve Lemon) in Paris. As her career flourished, Melba went on to perform on some of the greatest stages in the world, including London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and the Met in New York, as well as delivering many triumphant performances back here in Australia. Melba was the first Australian to receive international recognition as a classical musician. American theatre impresario Oscar Hammerstein I once said of her, “Nobody sings like Melba, and nobody ever will.”
In this tribute to Melba’s life, the story is structured so that Matthews’ Melba is depicted looking back on the earliest years of her international career. It picks up in 1886 when 25-year-old Nellie (played by Annie Aitken) travels to England with her father, David (Michael Beckley), her young son, George (Samuel Skuthrop), and her husband, Charlie Armstrong (Andrew Cutcliffe). Nellie travels on to Paris with George, in order to audition for Marchesi. Taken aback by her astonishing talent, Marchesi takes Nellie on as a student. It’s not long before Nellie’s talents are revealed to the world. She becomes friendly with patron of the arts, Gladys de Grey (Caitlin Berry), and her husband, Frederick (Blake Erickson), who introduce her to London society (de Grey, in fact, plays a pivotal role in her initial success in London – success that would ultimately see Melba become the prima donna of Covent Garden for 25 years.)
But while her professional career soars, substantial troubles emerge behind the scenes. Melba’s marriage to Armstrong deteriorates, and as news spreads of an alleged affair between her and Prince Philippe, Duke of Orleans (Adam Rennie), Armstrong files for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Yet despite the personal challenges that confront her in the times that follow, Melba’s stunning voice sees her continuing to build upon her legacy through a career that eventually spans nearly four decades.
Melba’s story is remarkable and makes excellent subject matter for a musical, if for no other reason than to ensure that future generations of Australians are aware of this amazing artist who occupies an important place in the artistic and cultural history of our nation. What she achieved on the world stage is outstanding. Christo has penned a book for Melba that succeeds in creating a portrait of the ambitious diva that effectively conveys a sense of the lofty heights to which she was able to climb, and the parochial politics of the Victorian era, which prevented a woman so motivated to artistically achieve from simultaneously having a happy and normal family life. It’s a well-structured book with good dialogue, appropriately emphasising integral moments during the initial years of Melba’s international success. Wayne Harrison’s smart direction ensures that, overall, the show’s pace is right and scenes consistently flow well one to the next.
As well as Luebbers’ original compositions, several well-known arias have been incorporated into Melba: ‘Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro’ from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, ‘Ah, Fors’e lui’ from Verdi’s La Traviata, ‘Caro Nome’ from Verdi’s Rigoletto, and ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca are among those inclusions. It’s a joy to hear these grand pieces performed in such an unusually intimate setting for opera. But where a decision is made to lay acclaimed classic pieces side-by-side in a score with new material, it’s imperative that the new compositions can comfortably do so and leave their own lasting impression. Unfortunately, while there are some good moments in the score, and the repetition of ‘I Am Here To Be The Best’ ensures it does linger in the memory, there are no truly standout original compositions. It is the musical moments that draw from the repertoire of classics that make the greatest impact.
Not only is it a joy to hear the classic arias performed in the 120-seat Hayes Theatre auditorium, but it’s an absolute treat to have each sung by one of Australia’s most acclaimed and accomplished contemporary coloratura sopranos, Emma Matthews. She has tremendous presence and her beautiful, sweet delivery of each piece is worth well above the ticket price on its own. Matthews is undeniably a huge asset to this production.
Performing for the first time in a leading role, Aitken is highly engaging and hits her own high notes as young Nellie. She convinces in her depiction of the passionate and strong-willed artist on a mission to conquer the world of opera, possessing an acute awareness – and, in fact, a high opinion – of her own talent.
Berry is a standout with a confident and sassy portrayal of de Grey, the elegant and glamourous lady of high society London who becomes a crucial supporter of Nellie. She also impresses later on in Act Two as Armstrong’s legal counsel during the divorce proceedings. Berry is strong both in song and in terms of her characterisations. As Armstrong, Nellie’s conservative husband, Cutcliffe is commanding, and authentic; as the successful Scotsman Mitchell, Nellie’s father, Beckley is similarly believable as a hard-faced but loving patriarch. And as the famous Marchesi, stage veteran Lemon is every bit the tough taskmaster you expect the German teacher to be.
Michael Tyack leads a talented team of only four musicians, who more than ably perform Luebbers’ score and the classic arias, further enhancing the intimate opera experience.
While maybe further development work lies ahead for this still-fresh musical, this is well worth seeing in its limited run at the Hayes Theatre. Melba pays tribute to a supremely talented artist who made an indelible contribution to the arts in Australia and around the world, and it does so in a well-crafted and entertaining production, led by a principal artist with Opera Australia who’s rarely seen in musical theatre. As Americans have recently become far more au fait with the man who appears on their ten-dollar bill (Alexander Hamilton), so too should Australians have, at least, a basic knowledge of the woman featured on our hundred-dollar note.
MELBA – SEASON DETAILS
Playing: Now until Saturday 9 September
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point)
Times: Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30pm, Mondays at 6.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm
Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or phone 02 8065 7337