Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre’s world première of The Riders, based on Australian author Tim Winton's novel, is an engrossing work of serious substance. It feels very contemporary, contains much to absorb and poses disturbing questions. The opera’s dramatic pace and burst of events might feel thorny at times, but it’s a work that needn’t lay forgotten after its current season.

© Jeff Busby
© Jeff Busby
Directed by Marion Potts, Artistic Director of Malthouse Theatre, with music composed by Iain Grandage to Alison Croggon’s libretto, the result is an identifiably Australian work but embedded in Europe. Scully, an Australian of Irish heritage, is renovating a cottage in Ireland in preparation for his wife Jennifer and daughter Billie’s arrival from Perth. At the airport, however, Billie arrives alone, after which Scully starts a desperate search across Europe for Jennifer with Billie in tow. Hauntingly, Scully’s fears are aggravated by visions of marauding horsemen, the riders, and Jennifer seems to symbolise one of them.

 I was reminded of Alban Berg’s psychologically disturbing Expressionist masterpiece, Wozzeck (1925). There are many similarities: both contain numerous short scenes, without interval, over three acts on a narratively linear path. Both protagonists are persistently taunted by others, both are fathers to one child and both are subjects of their wives’ infidelities. Wozzeck is, however, madly revengeful towards a penitent wife whereas Scully, perplexingly and hopelessly, tries to claw back Jennifer’s unattainable love.

Grandage’s music, his first opera, is a concoction of musical style that colours the visual and dramatic landscape throughout, often with supernatural awe. Folk, cabaret, Mediterranean vernacular and oratorio are employed with expressive force, accompanied by exceptional vocal structures. Occasionally, however, the diversity seems counter-productive and the momentum impacted.

Jessica Aszodi as Jennifer and Barry Ryan as Scully © Jeff Busby
Jessica Aszodi as Jennifer and Barry Ryan as Scully
© Jeff Busby
Croggon’s libretto is written with poetic beauty and blended gorgeously with everyday speech. The story begs questions. Why would a mother disappear without explanation, abandoning her young daughter? Why would a man embark on a frenzied journey over Europe with his daughter in search of an abandoned love while spending more than he has? The answers come but I wanted the tension to unfold differently.

In Act 2, in Greece, Scully confronts Arthur (a British expatriate) about Jennifer’s whereabouts. Enraged, he makes known to the audience that Jennifer “…is fucking Alex”, a local painter, giving us a reason why Jennifer didn’t return to him in Ireland. If Scully hadn’t uttered those words, the intrigue could have continued throughout the ensuing events (which include another affair with a woman in Paris) and heightened theatrical tension. Sadly, the suspense felt shattered.

Jennifer has no voice in the novel but Croggon potently gives her an ethereal on-stage presence. Jennifer spits out her own reasons for abandoning her family, adding to my feeling that greater dramatic tension could be achieved if Scully withheld from the audience his knowledge of her affairs until perhaps in one of the opera’s last powerful scenes, where Scully has a vision of Jennifer as the Madonna.

The work is, nonetheless an achievement. It is elevated in strength by Potts’ clear direction, Dale Ferguson’s insightful designs and its cast of just six role-perfect soloists and 14 musicians of Orchestra Victoria, conducted expertly by Victorian Opera Artistic Director, Richard Mills.

As Scully, Barry Ryan makes a formidable return to Victoria Opera (after an acclaimed performance in the title role of Nixon in China last year). Ryan’s expressive, dextrous baritone strength imbues his character with urgency, giving magnitude to every gasp of breath as Scully crumbles. He is matched in theatrical and vocal power by soprano Jessica Aszodi as Jennifer. She impresses immensely. Aszodi’s confidence, vocal range and polish are impeccably haunting as she conjures ghostly vocal power, full of determination and bitterness. I’m eager to see her tackle her next role.

Dimity Shepherd lets loose lashings of wild dramatic and vocal energy as Marianne. One of the night’s epic moments comes in her Act 2 duet with Jennifer as they mount the side-stage “rearing horses” in Wagnerian manner, bringing to mind the Valkyries. As Billie, young Isabela Calderon navigates the demanding role with confidence and ease. David Rogers-Smith as Alex and Jerzy Kozlowski as Arthur give solid performances and together with Shepherd, in a trio of onlookers, they reach great heights with music that generously broadens the score.

Ferguson’s set design is expansive and stimulating. A sleek, fuselage-like balcony spans the rear stage over which a curved, translucent sheet hovers (utilised to project an airport arrivals board and Jennifer’s shifting portrait). Countless saw horses make reference to Scully’s renovating labours and the riders’ horses, a grouping of which on each side of the stage rise like Tatlin-esque constructivist towers resembling rearing horses. A revolve adds to the drama as does Matt Scott’s perfectly moody lighting of many blues.

Not all newly staged operatic works have survived without alterations. The Riders, with its plethora of gifted elements, does however have the potential to sit comfortably in the repertoire to perhaps become Australia’s own Wozzeck