State Opera of South Australia has achieved an outstanding success with this new fast moving, dramatic opera by versatile Sydney composer George Palmer, who has cleverly adapted Tim Winton’s iconic Australian novel Cloudstreet.

It is the story of two country families hit by tragedy, forced to move to the big city, who end up sharing a large house at No.1 Cloud Street. Cleverly, costume designer Ailsa Paterson has distinguished the mid-20th-century costumes of the Pickles family, who own the house, with touches of red, from the more enterprising Lambs, the tenants, in shades of blue. The house has a history. The spirits of three aboriginal girls once mistreated there have been trapped in the house, and now ‘magic man’ Bob Crab, convincingly sung by baritone Don Bemrose, is attempting to free them. That this can only happen when love and new life is brought back to Cloudstreet becomes a sub-plot in the opera.

Director Gale Edwards, artistic director Timothy Sexton and composer Palmer have succeeded in crafting this rambling story of twenty-odd years in the life of these struggling, challenged families into an absorbing musical experience. There are haunting evocative melodies like the opening River Song sung by all 15 of the ensemble cast, exciting arias, none better than Fish Lamb standing in a rowing boat singing of water, sky, moon and sun where he becomes free of his impediment and is transformed to his natural self. Tenor Nicholas Jones was a remarkable Fish. With remarkable voice, and remarkable acting ability, he completely captured the hearts and emotions of most, if not everyone, in the audience, so believable was his portrayal of this intellectually impaired young man. There was also a bit of “Hokey-pokey” at a party, and other moments reminiscent of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

At the heart of the story is the Lamb family’s tragedy. Youngest and favourite child, “Fish”, rescued lifeless from the water, is ‘miraculously’ revived by his mother. However part of Fish Lamb does not come back from the dead. He and his family are permanently changed by the experience. Water and the river take on an almost mystically alluring undertow. Cloudstreet is an opera sung with an Australian accent, replete with Australian idioms—“I’m goin’ to be a friggin’ landlady” sings Dolly Pickles, portrayed dramatically by rich soprano Joanna McWaters, “whacko” and “a fair whack”, “I’m goin’ bush”, “yeah mate”, “too bloody right”, “thanks mate, you’re true blue” some of the more repeatable phrases sung with gusto. They slip so naturally into the music.

Lighting designer Nigel Levings has created remarkable moods which complement the actions, adding focus to dramatize pivotal events.

Baritone Barry Ryan, whom I first heard in an earlier Australian opera, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, was at his best singing the role of Sam Pickles, now owner of Cloudstreet, burdened by a damaged hand, a gambler and cuckolded husband whose love of wife Dolly and daughter Rose remained undiminished. Life for Sam had little joy. Dolly, his wayward wife, talented soprano Joanne McWaters, accompanied by an aura of ‘sleaze music’, sang magnificently all night, keeping her most poignant till last, in her plea for daughter Rose’s understanding, revealing the horrific experiences that shaped her past-a moving operatic moment. Daughter Rose, a remarkable Desiree Frahn, grew from young girl through to expectant mother with many costume and appearance changes, consistently charging her singing with emotion and passion.

In the Lamb family bass Pelham Andrews was at his best as a caring Lester Lamb, caring for his family, patient with wife Oriel’s strangeness, and befriending neighbour Sam Pickles from across the hall. Some of the opera’s happiest music comes when the industrious Lambs establish a shop in the front room of the house, and pitch in to help, singing all the while. Oriel, his wife, a changed woman since their son Fish’s near drowning, eventually goes to live in a tent in the back yard. Soprano Antoinette Halloran is convincing in this sober role. Nicholas Cannon is a confident Quick, the elder son portrays deep love and concern for brother Fish. Mellow baritoned Cannon was at his best in scenes with the rowboat, a duet between himself and Fish, a remarkable trio between himself, Fish and Bob Crab, and then the deeply moving trio of himself, Fish and Rose.

For me though, it was Nicholas Jones’ as Fish who stood out, his best singing coming when he was on the boat, or singing about the water, or among the stars. The opera concludes as he returns to the water “and for one brief instant returns to his true self before his soul floats on the river out to the sea”.

This is an opera I enjoyed immensely.