By Irene Vela
Cast: Melita Jurisic, Lisa-Marie Charalambous, Sandro Colarelli, and Lily Chang, Lionel Theunissen with Canto Coro
Think back to the heady days of the mid-’70s, the Whitlam era. Were you out celebrating on election night? Eating and drinking? What were you wearing? Mentally fast forward through the hard-left swing of politics, free tertiary study and Medibank, end of conscription. Perhaps the picture blurs a little over Southeast Asian events? Didn’t East Timor gain independence, and Whitlam supported its integration into Indonesia if achieved through non-military means? Ah, and didn’t Indonesia invade East Timor but the Australia government turned a blind eye? Remember, the “Balibo Five” Australian journalists were killed while trying to expose a covered up bloodbath, reportedly in “crossfire,” and their bodies were burned to cover evidence.
These events are fleshed out in Irene Vela’s ambitious musical with Romeo and Juliet undertones about Greek-Australian radical student, Rosa (Charalambous) who falls in love with Aussie journalist Tom (Colarelli). Her Greek papa is incensed and kicks her out of the house so she moves in with Tom and his possessive divorced mother, activist ALP member and candidate, Paula Risic (Jurisic). When Rosa encourages Tom to investigate East Timorese atrocities, leading to his death, there’s a conflagration of guilt and maternal/girlfriend conflict that is uneasily resolved over his coffin.
It’s performed by Canto Coro, a community choir which was formed in Brisbane in 1995; its Melbourne sister choir premiered the work in 2003. Lead roles are sung by professional actor/singers, while the chorus draws from multicultural (especially Greek and Hispanic) and indigenous communities, including students from the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing arts.
Does it capture the zeitgeist of the Whitlam era? Remember the colourful kaftans, flowing Indian and cheesecloth skirts and blouses, platform shoes, the ubiquitous jeans that we wore? This production, much as it portrays the Indonesian invasion, the journalists’ deaths and a cynical excuse for their funeral, is already bleak enough, set as it is against black stage and curtains. The opening scenes of the election night celebration needed bright colour, lively movement rather than synchronised shuffling; flowing long hair, tie-dyed clothing and far more knee-high boots and jeans. The opening mood would have been lifted by investing a few dollars of their shoestring budget in cheese and Jatz bikkies, carafes, beer cartons and plastic glasses, rather than miming the drinking. Ah, but there’s the rub; this production was totally self-funded with no assistance from arts organisations, as was pointedly noted in the program.
Vocally, the lead singers show professionalism and experience; an assured Rosa (Charalambous) shines through the production and is a pleasure to watch and hear, though her sweet voice is sometimes overwhelmed by the musicians. Her lover, Tom (Colarelli) is a convincing actor with a pleasant and resonant voice that might be stunning with deeper breath control. While Jurisic is respected and experienced as an international and award winning actor with some singing credits, her Paula struggles with ungainly melodies apparently out of her range. Intonation lacks focus, especially obvious when joined with close harmonies from the cast. She projects a tension and off-balance posture which initially seems at odds with political candidature, but more convincingly reveals the trauma and heartbreak of losing her son.
There are some psychological and personality insights as when Tom quotes his last meeting with his father on a tram ten years ago, saying: “I thought I married a wife and I married a struggle instead.” (This line later boomerangs back at Rosa.) At times the libretto resorts to clichés (“Everything I’ve worked hard for is hanging by a thread”) and strings of Gilbert and Sullivanesque rhymes (enemies-history-hypocrisy-sympathy and anticipate-interrogate-pontificate.)
Some discordant harmonies don’t ring true, though usually effective orchestration is well projected by the six musicians capably directed by Mark Dunbar. Special commendation goes to David Kemp on percussion and the brass and reeds players. It’s commendable for Vela to compose such an ambitious score without formal musical education, and Dunbar’s skills are evident in orchestration (flavoured by Weill, Bernstein and Stravinsky) direction and above all his indefatigable enthusiasm. Sue Rider’s direction lifts the standard of amateur performers to acceptable if rather careful levels.
The first half is over-long and concentration begins to fade before it ends abruptly. There are no curtain calls so we have to gather this means interval time rather than The End. However, the second half opens up-tempo with percussive choreography and excellent voices from a fly swatting, rubber-stamping Ambassador (wittily captured by Theunissen with crisp diction and fine voice which ranges up to the falsetto) and his sidekick aides, Libby Schmidt and Lily Change. The prolonged and largely static choral funeral needs editing and focus, yet from its dirge rises an uplifting final scene in which Rosa, radiant in brightened lighting, vows to not return home until she finds witnesses to the atrocity.
Inevitably Whitlam’s messianic lines “Men and women of Australia” and “Well may we say…” are featured. This semi-staged production is brave and overall succeeds quite well in its goal to reflect contemporary multicultural Australia. With closer attention to diction and vocal technique, livelier stagecraft and musical polish, Canto Coro may become a cultural force worth watching in future productions. Oh, and more funding would help.
Directed by Sue Rider; Artistic Director/Conductor Mark Dunbar
Playing Thursday – Sundays, 15-25 September 2006 at 8pm, Saturday matinee 1.30pm
Duration: 150 minutes, 20-minute interval