By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
Victorian Opera’s The Sleeping Beauty. 23 – 26 February, Palais Theatre.
Director: Nancy Black
Conductor: Phoebe Briggs
Puppet design and construction: Joe Blanck
Composer: Ottorino Respighi
Libretto: Gian Bistolfi
Full cast listed here
Fairy tales are so overly familiar, that we can forget how magical and whimsical they can be when done with a light touch.
Victorian Opera’s 2021 production of Ottorino Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty is a reprise from 2017. The characters were portrayed by singers, dressed in simple theatre blacks, and a skilled team of puppeteers. The puppets were brought to life with such animation it feels rude to not refer to them as living beings. Throughout the night, Orchestra Victoria delivered a lush kaleidoscope of instrumental colour and dynamics.
The vocal performances were strong across the board. Kathryn Radcliffe shone as the incandescent Blue Fairy, with her crystal-clear soprano and appropriately sparkly coloratura. Baritones Michael Lampard and Raphael Wong both delivered commanding and resonant turns as the Royal Ambassador and King respectively. Liane Keegan brought a rich tone and unforced resonance to the role of the Old Woman. The chorus supplied some sublime harmonies, particularly those singing as fairies.
I couldn’t review this production without describing the puppets in greater detail. Many of them translated very well to the back row of the circle. The Royal Ambassador was a striking presence in his stylish uniform, the King had a delightful beard which rippled and shivered when emotions were high, and a host of supporting characters added to the charm of the magical kingdom. (Honourable mentions go to a gorgeously detailed tree puppet and a horse with comedic timing). I was entranced by the miniature fairies, which had a mystical quality as they glided through the air. This was despite, or perhaps because of, the simplicity of their design: a featureless, glowing orb for a face encircled by a trailing cloak.
The characters of Sleeping Beauty and the Prince were portrayed by a singer and dancer each, who would interact with each other and occasionally mirror gestures. This efficiently set the star-crossed lovers apart from other characters on stage.
The production was peppered with deft touches by set designer Morwenna Schenck and lighting designer Philip Lethlean. As the King and Queen cradled their baby daughter during the festivities, they were surrounded by supporters carrying bouquets with glittering fairy lights sprinkled among the flowers. As the crowd performed a sequence of dance steps, holding the bouquets aloft, it created a visually striking image.
The set itself was versatile, shifting with lighting and projection changes. A great example was when the Prince was scrambling across a rugged landscape to reach the castle and Sleeping Beauty inside it. After gingerly edging around cliff faces and ducking between trees, he had to cross a stream. This was deftly represented by a blue light shone onto the stage, while the Prince was propelled across on a float.
One moment which fell flat compared to the rest of the staging, was immediately after Sleeping Beauty fell into her slumber. After being pricked by the spindle, dancer Nadine Dimitrievitch unsteadily made her way across the stage. She cast off a layer of her costume and set it down, exiting the stage along with her soprano counterpart Georgia Wilkinson. The royal household directed their distress at the Princess’ fate towards the pile of fabric, which felt like a missed opportunity.
Victorian Opera’s motto is to make ‘creative, accessible and affordable work for everyone, while adventurously evolving our art form’. In my opinion, they deliver on this in spades.