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Our Man in Havana

Lyric Opera
Athenaeum 2, Melbourne
September 2016

Milly Bramble - Kate Amos
Beatrice Weston - Elizabeth Stannard
Jim Bramble  - Martin Buckingham
Captain Segura - Stephen Marsh
Carter - Raphael Wong
Hawthorne - Michael Leighton Jones
Dr Hasselbacher - Matt Thomas

plus Jessica Harris, Alison Lemoh, Kerry Bolton, Cameron Sibly, Tim Daley, Matthew Hyde and Timothy Newton

Direction - Suzanne Chaundy
Design - Lucy Wilkins
Lighting - Lucy Birkenshaw
Choreography - Priscilla Hyde
Conductor - Pat Miller

White Hat attended on opening night - Saturday 17th September 2016

Lyric Opera has done Melbourne a great service with their production of Our Man in Havana. Not only have they staged a quality Australian work that has been overlooked by our larger companies, they have done so with a minimum of compromise and at a standard that warrants praise for all involved.

Malcolm Williamson’s opera received high praise at its premiere but then quickly disappeared from sight. You can find a discussion of the work and its background at The White Hat Guide to Our Man in Havana.

The venue presents a number of challenges. The top floor of the Athenaeum has seen service over the years as a venue boxing and wrestling, revivalist meetings and more recently for comedy events. Unlike the more familiar theatre downstairs, it has no proscenium, no wings, no pit. The rectangular space is set up with orchestra on raked seating at one end, a functioning bar performing its traditional function at intervals but pressed into service as part of the set during performance) and the audience seated cabaret-style along the length of the small hall. The remaining space has a rudimentary but perfectly adequate set with actors making their entrances and exits through the only available doors which provide access to and from the foyer.  All of this puts the audience at close quarters to the singers and some of the audience quite close to the orchestra. It also meant the singers often had no direct line of sight to the conductor, but this produced no problems with the ensemble remaining tight from start to finish.

There were some cuts to the original work with some characters dropped and some singers doubling up on roles. None of this did any major violence to the work, and since the it is quite long anyway, may well have occurred naturally if Williamson had experienced multiple seasons of staging.

The orchestra is close to full strength and although in an ideal world a larger body of strings would have added a bit more warmth to some lyrical sections this was no major compromise. Similarly, a pit would have smoothed some of the sharper sounds from the piccolo and percussion, it was than worth to both hear and see Williamson’s masterful orchestration in detail.

Martin Buckingham, who had to learn the role at short notice, put his rock steady tenor to fine use in the leading role of the vacuum cleaner salesman cum secret agent. He was ably partnered by Matthew Thomas in the role of Dr Hasselbacher. Although some sections would have benefited from a darker, deeper bass, Thomas’ bass-baritone was always musical and secure. Kate Amos as Millie negotiated her role with seeming ease while Elizabeth Stannard-Cohen and Michael Leighton Jones brought an experience and assurance we have come to expect from these fine singers. The smaller roles and chorus / ensemble were all handled well and there was not one weak link in the chain.

Diction was sometimes an issue, but for full-throated singers close proximity can be present a challenge for diction just as much projecting to the back of a large theatre can. Acting was solid throughout but without any performer establishing a compelling presence on stage. The singing/dancing ensemble were not given the latitude to portray any of the dark seediness of the Havana of the time, but after all, this is a tongue-n-cheek piece and cutout palm trees and dance costumes that aren’t going to give parents any sleepless night are possibly in order. With the considerable challenges of opening might out of the way, we expect performers can now relax a little with the singing actors bringing a bit more swagger to their roles and the conductor and orchestra allowing a bit more elasticity in the lyrical passages.

Which brings us back to the conductor and orchestra. This is a fine achievement by Pat Miller and the orchestra brought together under the name of ‘The Buena Vista Antisocial Club’. Even an establishment orchestra with the familiarity of a long season would face challenges from some of Williamson’s scoring. However, Miller was able to guide his charges through a range of ever-changing metres, tempos and rhythms with suitable authority and attention detail. Particular mention should be made of clarinet and bassoon playing which were both of a high order.

With Our Man in Havana. Williamson appeared to have initiated a new genre which might be pursued by himself and others. As it turned out, it became another fascinating blind alley in the history of 20th century opera that was not to lead any further. However, as any good Melburnian knows,  not all the rewards are to be found on the familiar main streets. Sometimes a blind alley will reveal a flash of clashing colours, a vibrant collection of characters but all tinged with a frisson that there may be something sinister nearby.

White Hat recommends that anyone interested in experiencing the music of one of Australia’s most talented and neglected composers should go out of their way to catch this production by Lyric opera

Our rating - 4 Hats

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Some forthcoming performances featuring music from Our Man in Havana:


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Selected Sheet Music of Our Man in Havana