Opera Review: Bliss

Thanks to the kindness of Opera Australia and their Twitter presence, I managed to score myself tickets to the second-only-in-the-world performance of Australia’s newest opera Bliss. I should warn you that my review is going to contain spoilers, but considering that the opera always spoil plots by handing you a synopsis the minute you walk in the door, it’s not really a big deal.

This opera has been a long time coming. Bliss started life as a novel by Peter Carey in the early 80s, which was a bit later turned into a film of the same name by Ray Lawrence (who has subsequently directed the famous Lantana and Jindabyne). It’s been in the planning by Opera Australia for several years, but OA has turned over two chief conductors since that time, so for a while, no one was sure if it would ever be produced. But now at last it has. The music is by Brett Dean, violist, composer and Artistic Director of the Australian National Music Academy in Melbourne, and the opera is directed by the legendary theatre and film director, Neil Armfield.

If you’ve watched a few operas, you very quickly work out that there’s not a lot of correlation between the quality of the story and the quality of the music that goes with it. (Oddly enough, musical theatre tends to get it better more often – where you have a strong story with equally strong music to tell it.) But there’s many an opera with an absolutely rubbish storyline, but glorious music that has stood the test of time and keeps drawing audiences again and again. In fact, as a brief sidenote, I highly recommend that you get hold of the book A Night At The Opera (in the US) or The Good Opera Guide (in the UK – but it’s the same book). In it, he gives guides to all the major operas split into two parts – a serious discussion of the musical highlights and a tongue-in-cheek synopsis where he rips the plots to shreds. It’s great fun, and one of the few books on opera I’d give to a friend.

So how does Bliss hold up? Well, it’s a curious story, that’s for sure. I haven’t read the book or seen the film, so I can’t comment on its similarity to those, but the story I saw on Wednesday night was a bizarre mix of tragedy, satire and domestic drama. Set quite distinctly in the 80s in Australia, it tells of Harry Bliss, advertising executive, wife to Betty, and a father of a grown son and daughter. He’s at a party celebration 20 years of his advertising business, when he suffers a heart attack and is taken off to hospital. Shortly thereafter, Harry wakes up and decides that he’s actually died and now he’s in Hell.

Things are a bit slow for the next 30-45 minutes, and the story feels more like a satire, with Harry making his observations about life and how it resembles Hell. Things pick up when he suffers one particularly bad night of misfortunes –  beginning with an elephant sitting on his car and moving through a rather unpleasant discovery about the unfaithfulness of his wife and the even more depraved private lives of his children. After this Harry really falls apart. He retreates to a room in the Hilton, and holes himself up – pausing only to get rid of his largest advertising client, who he now feels it would be immoral to support any longer, because this particular client deals in cancer-causing materials.

However – and this is where I think the story starts to veer to the ridiculous – what would you expect a man to do who’s suffering from moral outrage that his family is immoral and his advertising business is causing cancer? Of course! You hire a prostitute! Enter the character of Honey, who from what I’ve read is only a part-time prostitute. The rest of the time, she’s a hippy. Once she enters – and this is where I think the story gets really stupid – it turns out that she’s the ray of brightness that helps Harry see some hope in the world.

Or at least that’s the way it appears. The problem is Act III which caps all this off. In Act III, Harry finds himself chucked into a mental asylum which is paid for by his son, the drug dealer. Then his wife bails him out. I’m not sure whether the insane asylum has done something to him (it’s unclear, because Harry has stopped really doing anything by this stage), but he goes right back into the advertising world working for his wife. The plot then forgets about him and focuses mainly on his ambitious wife, Betty, who we follow for the next 10-15 minutes till that subplot ends with probably the most explosive moment in the whole opera.

Then somebody must have remembered that this opera is about Harry, and we come back to a low-key fizzer of an ending which hints that he’s coping with life okay now.

Look, that’s my reaction to the story – other people may enjoy it more.

But let’s move on to the music.

Brett Dean is a very clever orchestrator. The palette of sound colours that he creates, and even subtle use of modern instruments such as electric guitars and synthesisers is great. He also has a bit of a sense of humour – so there’s a brief reference to Puccini’s La Boheme at one moment. Another clever joke is when people are talking on the phone that a squawky “conversation” sound is played on the trumpet.

And in the film’s dramatic or surreal moments, it’s brilliant. When Harry is at the restaurant with the circus, creepy carnivalistic themes enter the score. For the more shocking moments in the story, the music lends an intensity to the story.

But there are other times (like the opening party) where opera doesn’t feel like the right medium to convey the story – or certainly not this type of operatic music. While Dean’s work is not completely atonal and much more accessible than many other 20th century works I can think of, I can’t help but feel that there needed to be an element of tonality in there to give the score a sense of beauty and pathos in places. Call me old-fashioned, expecting good old-fashioned diatonic music to express beauty – but I think most of the Western world would be with me on this one (even if they weren’t quite sure what the word “diatonic” meant).

It’s quite possible, that if we’d had a bit more tonality in the final scene (the reunion between Harry and Barbara), that it would have been quite moving. Instead, we end up with the scenario that the music is telling us something potentially awful is about to happen, but the action on stage tells us that they love one another. It didn’t work for me at all.

So we end up with a story so abstract from humanity that we can’t really relate to it and a score that doesn’t provide the emotional catharsis that most great operas do. Don’t get me wrong – there’s still plenty to see – Peter Coleman-Wright (Harry) is a great baritone, and there’s some stunningly dramatic moments. But it’s never going to become a beloved favourite to millions of people.

2 1/2 out of 5.