Stepping out of the auditorium after Victorian Opera's 2016 youth opera, I overheard an audience member's comment about having been liberated from the tyranny of plot. This neatly summarised a key aspect of the experience, as Gertrude Stein's libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts intentionally makes no sense; rather, it creates an intriguing cascade of sounds and ideas that neatly merge with Virgil Thomson's simple, folksy score. The cast enthusiastically embraced this hour-long nonsense opera, and sang very well considering nearly all were 15-25 years old.
Rarely performed – indeed this was the Australian premiere – Four Saints in Three Acts made its debut in New York in 1934. The characters are saints, both real, including Ignatius and Teresa, and imagined, such as St Answers and St Settlement. They number 20 rather than four (just as there are four acts, not three). Together with a chorus, the saints appear in vignettes set in environments loosely suggested by the libretto, including a cathedral and walled garden. The master and mistress of ceremonies, the compère and commère, sing Stein's stage directions; for this production, they were mostly located in public balconies either side of, and somewhat removed from, the stage.
The opera itself is surprising for those used to plot, well defined characters and grand themes, and the production pushes the envelope further with 3D imagery projected on a large screen behind the cast. Running throughout the performance, and viewed through 3D glasses provided, this digital imagery was produced by Deakin University's Motion.Lab under the direction of Professor Kim Vincs. Much more chunky than Hollywood's hyper-real animation, most likely due to budget constraints, it was nevertheless effective in conjuring Stein's suggested settings, added visual excitement to the otherwise very simple production design, and played with reality in a way that underscored the opera's surreal nature.
This scenic imagery quickly impressed during the prelude: a tree, shifting through seasonal attributes, tumbled through the sky, with clouds behind the cast and the tree, rather magically, appearing in front of them. Other highlights included a shoal of brightly coloured fish swimming in air, and a bird flying out of the screen (which startled some audience members).
The other points of visual interest were confined to the key saints' all-white costumes that suggested Europe of the 16th or 17th century: hooped skirts, frock coats, bonnets and an elaborately feathered hat. The other saints, also in white, were dressed more simply, the chorus wore white T-shirts, blue jeans and sneakers, while the compère and commère were attired in black eveningwear that suggested the era in which Four Saints in Three Acts was created. The large, open stage was also white, as were a handful of simple blocks and other shapes that formed steps and seats. Lighting was subdued and uncomplicated, perhaps to facilitate the projections.
The opera's St Teresa is played by two singers simultaneously, and for this production they were Sophia Wasley and Shakira Dugan. Both sang sweetly, but Wasley was the highlight of opening night thanks to her soprano's lovely tone (one could hear The Marriage of Figaro's Countess in her future). Raphael Wong (St Ignatius) displayed an even, pleasant tenor and Carlos Bárcenas (St Chavez), though he struggled with some awkward high notes, sang confidently. Although a large man, he moved about the stage with authority. Indeed the entire cast, including a bright, almost entirely female chorus, moved seamlessly through director Nancy Black's stage directions, which were uncomplicated but utilised the space well.
The compère, Jerzy Kozlowski, and commère, Margaret Arnold, were mostly seated, off-stage but spotlit, and were the only mature singers. Perhaps cast because their voices, which were showing signs of age, are in contrast to the much younger voices, they sang with zest and playfulness. Under the baton of Phoebe Briggs, the small orchestra also performed vigorously.
Four Saints in Three Acts is an avant-garde curiosity very much of its time, but this production's focus on youth, technology and play make it a refreshing hour that looks to the future.
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