Waltzing our Matilda

Conservatorium Theatre, then on tour (Opera Queensland)


Beauty! Opera Queensland and the Queensland Arts are doing a very good thing with their production Waltzing Our Matilda.

Clever, often funny, sometimes mildly bawdy and always entertaining, it is an important contribution to the Q150 celebrations. Designed to tour, it deserves sold-out houses wherever it plays in the further reaches of the state, as indeed it achieved on its opening night at the Conservatorium in Brisbane.

Written and directed by Jason and Lisa Barry-Smith, this is a two-hour concert honouring the contribution to Queensland and Australian culture of five of our best-known artists.

As the writers tell us in the program notes, searching for suitable characters, a few were obvious: Donald Smith, legendary tenor and proud Queenslander; Gladys Moncrieff, a Bundaberg-born soprano who found international fame; and Dame Nellie Melba, not a native Queenslander but someone who lived here for a short while and so, of course, we claimed her as our own. . . . and who better to round out the masculinity of singing than the indomitable Peter Dawson. And to narrate the story line, who better to spin descriptive magic than the most iconic Australian wordsmith of all, Banjo Patterson.

Some other names come to mind, but we shouldnt be greedy. How about, to pick just three, Greta Elkins, Lisa Gasteen, Marilyn Richardson?

The story line is straightforward. Patterson is making heavy weather of creating what was to become our de facto national anthem. The singers help him through the block. Dont worry about anachronism. The personalities match what we know of the characters but there is no point in comparing the voices, though the only one your reviewer heard live was that of the down-to-earth Mr Smith, who had the voice to have been one of the great tenors of his century.

Creators and cast are classically-trained musicians, well experienced in the theatre arts. Narelle French is co-creator and musical director, Donna Balson performer and associate musical director, Mr Barry-Smith plays Patterson, Guy Booth is Peter Dawson, Emily Burke is Dame Nellie, David Kidd is Don and Zoe Taylor is our Glad. Between them they tackle and generally triumph in some of the more demanding challenges of opera, music theatre and some original composition.

The mix is generous, from On the Road to Mandalay to Brindisi (ending up as a quintet), a most moving The Dying Stockman, to Lo, Here the Gentle Lark (with flute, of course), They Call Me Mimi and the Gilda-Rigoletto duet.

Especially clever is the rendering of the words of Waltzing Matilda in several operatic melodies including that of the Flower Duet and In the Depths of the Temple.

It is great to hear Clancy of the Overflow again and done properly.

The key to all of this is that there is nothing dumbed down, and practically nothing that wont appeal to the dedicated opera buff.

The stage is nicely and economically set, backgrounded by big photographs of the main protagonists. Costumes are in character Melba the grand dame, Our Glad stylishly less so, Don as sharp-suited as a pox doctors clerk, Dawson in white tie and Banjo in poets casual working clothes.

This outstanding show deserves to be shown in other states, as radio 4MBS has done and is doing triumphantly with Amadeus. Queensland can be proud of it. Do we hear a sponsor?

Matilda waltzes again at the Conservatorium on Friday, July 31, then heads out on a regional tour: Bowen Tuesday August 4, Proserpine Wednesday 5, Moranbah Friday 7, Emerald Saturday 8, Longreach Tuesday 11, Winton Wednesday 12, Barcaldine Thursday 13, Biloela Saturday 15, Gladstone Monday 17, Maryborough Tuesday 18, Caloundra Wednesday 19, Toowoomba Saturday 22.

— David Bray
(Performance seen: Thu 23rd July 2009)