Much anticipated, ten years in the making, interrupted by some fairly momentous bumpy bits at Opera Australia such as the removal of Music Director Simone Young who comissionned the work in the first place, Bliss has finally arrived. And the good news is that audiences in Sydney received it warmly: the season of just five performances sold out. True, the company had blitzed the media with an effective, virtual saturation marketing campaign, but given the price of the tickets and the fact that opera goers here are not especially known as risk-takers, Bliss has been vindicated by its popular and critical reception.

It’s a long piece, with the performance running two hours forty including a twenty minute interval, but it starts at such a pace and moves so fluidly from scene to scene that it is immediately engrossing. Based on Peter Carey’s first novel of the same name, it is the story of successful Sydney ad man Harry Joy and his family - wife Betty, children David and Lucy and what happens when he has a heart attack and believes he’s died and gone to hell.

He gets a second chance, but his take on life has soured; suddenly it is all too clear to him that, as Sartre put is so succinctly, Hell is Other People: colleagues who are corrupted by greed, an adulterous and ambitious wife, an incestuous son and a drug-taking daughter. They are the ultimate dysfunctional family surrounded by toxic friends, living a life riddled with various cancers of one kind or another.

Only when Harry hires a prostitute with a hippy philosophy (she calls him Harry Krishna) and a somewhat cliched heart of gold who feeds him leatherwood honey does life appear to have any possibility of redemption. Harry seeks to correct his past venality but society deems him insane. He has to struggle against his demons to find peace in the forest with his barefoot green goddess.

Brett Dean’s energetic music references many genres - there are some jazzy asides, some additional layers of texture added with taped elecronic sound and an onstage electric violin, and moments when the chorus (in superb form) sound like they belong in a Broadway musical. The score’s colour, verve and wit (including a hilarious reference to la Boheme) is more than matched by Amanda Holden’s libretto, which despite moments when the characters sing some slightly clumsy expositional dialogue, is bracing, clever and faithful to the spirit of the book, with plenty of light and shade. The words fit the music like a glove, making it extremely easy to follow the text without glancing at the surtitles. You could probably trim ten minutes from the whole thing but that’s a minor quibble. Particularly effective are the exchanges between two nurses at Harry’s bedside, two policemen when an escaped circus elephant sits on Harry’s car and the tug of love trio in the insane asylum where his family has had him committed.

Neil Armfield’s direction is Sydney slick and shiny. Its style is greatly enhanced by the set made up of LED lights designed by Brian Thomson with Nigel Levings and the seamless transitions of people and furniture by Kate Champion. Some wigs and costumes were a little unfortunate and lacking in detail - where were the big shoulder pads of that era, the door-knocker earrings...? The cast were beyond reproach. The night really does belong to Peter Coleman-Wright for whom the role was conceived and who is on stage for most of the evening. He gets a few moments off when Merlyn Quaife as Betty chairs a board meeting with disastrous consequences. Lorina Gore reached for and hit some very high notes as Harry’s angel of salvation Honey B.

Satirical, ironic, comic and dark, Bliss the novel may have been written last century but its themes resonate in these times. The opera bring a fresh approach to urgent questions about consumerism, greed and cynicism. It was definitely worth the wait. The production goes to the Edinburgh Festival under the auspices of Aussie artistic director Jonathan Mills and will at last be conducted by Simone Young in Hamburg.

Caro Baum 4th April 2010

Peter Coleman-Wright (Harry Joy) & Lorina Gore (Honey B) in Opera Australia's 'Bliss' SS10 ©Branco Gaica 10.3.2010