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The Age review of Fly

Fly review: an emotional slice of Australian opera history

If there is an art form where one is to be commended for bucking trends, it’s the grand old world of opera. And it’s a world divided: some believe the form must evolve to survive, while others aren’t interested in much past Puccini. New works are often programmed between Carmen and La Boheme – some Romantic sugar to help swallow the 21st-century medicine.

With a new production of the 1984 opera Fly, Lyric Opera of Melbourne has taken an admirably unapologetic approach. Things were unconventional even before the show started, when instead of asking patrons to put their phones away conductor Pat Miller encouraged them to stay online and check in on social media. “We want people to know you’re here,” he said.

A second rarity: we were joined in-house by the work’s composer, Barry Conyngham. His is an Australian opera, about a real Australian man, sung in Australian accents.

The cast was excellent. Young baritone Sam Roberts-Smith, as turn-of-the-20th-century engineer and inventor Lawrence Hargrave, was superb. He navigated the tricky vocal line with skill and power at the top.

As his wife, the always reliable Caroline Vercoe gave the most emotionally impactful performance of the evening. She and mezzo Shakira Dugan, as daughter Meg, were heart-breaking in the final scene.

Miller brought calmness to the score: when the singers appeared a little uncomfortable with the challenging rhythms, he was a firm but flexible guide. But as is often the case when performing in spaces not intended to house opera, the balance between chamber orchestra and singers was not always right. And the text, though in English, was at times difficult to discern. Conyngham’s through-composed style certainly doesn’t fall into the easy-listening category, but it’s refreshing to hear.

The opportunity to witness a slice of Australian opera history on any stage rarely rears its head. Fly was last performed 35 years ago. It would be a shame if another three decades pass before it takes flight again.

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