A Legend Eternal
Hayes Theatre | Sydney
music Johannes Luebbers
book & lyrics Nicholas Christo
directed by Wayne Harrison
Dame Nellie Melba was the first Australian musician to have achieved international stardom, a legendary figure whose story provides inspiration not only to artists who dream of making it big, but also for women everywhere who know how it is to be told to tame their ambitions. She became wife and mother early in life, as was de rigueur in late nineteenth century, and in the musical Melba, we see her struggle to acquire the independence necessary for professional success. A fabulous selection of classical arias are inserted into a new work of musical theatre, with book and lyrics by Nicholas Christo, and music by Johannes Luebbers.
The original material is delightful, with scandalous details in Melba’s story providing an unexpected sense of titillation to proceedings. Director Wayne Harrison keeps us invested in the show’s characters and narratives, for a production that captivates at every point. Design elements, however, are generally underwhelming. Set and costumes by Mark Thompson requiring greater imagination and boldness for a more accurate approximation of our fantasies of the diva and her circles.
Performers Annie Aitken and Emma Matthews share the eponymous role, each bringing to the stage their phenomenal talents and abilities. It is a strong concept to have disparate disciplines, opera and musical theatre, represented in this quite unique format for Melba. Although it is not always a seamless blend in its efforts to accommodate two physical manifestations of the same personality. Nonetheless, the magnificent quality of singing in the show is sufficient to remedy most of its shortcomings. Also noteworthy is Andrew Cutcliffe who successfully turns us against the forsaken husband Charlie. His creation of a persuasive villain for the piece is efficacious and impressive.
In its efforts to keep the memory of our heroine dignified and noble, Melba can often feel compromising in how it portrays her humanity. The picture it delivers is unbelievably pristine, and the drama is subsequently more gently rendered than is perhaps desired. We need people to look up to, especially trailblazers who show us that the impossible can be done. Nonetheless, it is important we understand that flaws and foibles are what we have in common, especially when the magic they possess can seem so unattainable to mere mortals.
photo | ©Clare Hawley