By Darby Turnbull
As an audience member who mainly exchanges the price of admission for some scribblings on my reflections on the piece I have just seen, I often return to the same question. Why now? Inevitably the follow up to that is, why am I asking why now? Can’t an exhibition, in this case live performance, exist for the viewing experience whether pleasurable, forgettable or anything in between?
This is especially true of Opera where the conversations of late have frequently returned to the antiquity of themes and presentation inescapable from their misogynistic colonialist roots but it is the music that endures. Iphis, the 1997 chamber opera for six vocalists and nine musicians, is that rare thing on the local stage; an opera written in the last 30 years, composed by a woman and thrives in an intimate setting; this one being Theatreworks as presented by Lyric Opera. Elena Kats-Chernin is one of Australia’s most notable multi-disciplinary artists with a vast range of compelling and seminary work. This presentation alone is an opportunity to hear her exhilarating, multi-faceted score performed by nine talented classical musicians under the experienced baton of Patrick Burns.
Iphis based on the myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses concerns our title character, born a girl but for her own safety raised as boy and when it comes time for an arranged marriage to another young woman, Ianthe she is exposed and a deal is made with the Gods, who as usual treat the mortals comings and goings as their own personal soap, offer to transform Ianthe into a man so their marriage is validated. Kats-Chernin and Librettist Richard Toop elect to explore some more explicit queerness by making Ianthe very aware of Iphis’ gender ahead of their marriage and being attracted to her because of not despite it. In the end it is toyed with that they both transform into men to be together. With so much ripe potential for a musical and choral exploration of gender fluidity and queerness the piece as written elects to be more neutrally binary. The power of the themes comes from the display of regressive hetero patriarchal oppression, symbolised by Iphis’ father Lidgus and his enforcement of compulsory heterosexuality and the constant threat of sexual/physical violence towards all the women in his orbit all under the protection of ‘tradition.’ He inconspicuous says he will kill his unborn child if it is born a girl, because they cost more to keep.
Iphis experiences intense pain at being raised against her nature and always explicitly identifies as a woman despite her upbringing. So far, so cis. It emulates a trans experience but projects it onto a cis person, and to my mind the libretto is not equal to exploring that with more depth and nuance that might reveal more than it explains. I can concede in 1996 and perhaps today that there was something that felt transgressive about the themes explored in this piece but it feels very rooted in the 90’s and would flourish with a fresh adaption.
Given that Iphis is the title character and by far the most complex we spend remarkably little time with her especially since the run time is only 70 minutes. A bulk of the first half is concerned with the disastrous heterosexual pairing of Lidgus and Telethusa and extended section showing Iphis’ academic development. They both serve their purpose, showing the sheer toxicity of the society and family Iphis will be born into and eventually despite an extensive scientific, philosophical, and mathematical education they have little sense of her own soul. Ianthe fairs even less, she does not even sing aloud until the opera’s final moments. So little time is given to what could be the soul of the piece that it often dilutes its power.
Katy Maudlin’s production however excels at amplifying the strength with an insightful, clever, and energetic presentation, gamely designed by Brynna Lowen. Maudlin, who incidentally gave a wonderful recently in Artshub about the dire need for local development opportunities for women directors, uses a high camp style influenced by the excesses of 17th century aestheticism where affluent masculinity and femininity is characterised by competing expressions of vanity and pomp. Lowen, really goes to town with this interpretation by featuring lush, confectionary designs that combine French restoration with modern street wear with an excess of pastels, lace, and ribbons; it is an aesthetic that utilises lush extravagance but under certain lights and angles looks like it is moulting, and poisonous Richard Vabre does some excellent work with evoking different moods with his lighting design.
Maudlin also excels at leading her cast into nuanced, carefully insightful characterisations who all can almost make up for what lacks in the libretto and dramaturgy.
Imperious soprano Nicole Wallace as Telethusa combines a frivolous, ‘shrewish’ countenance (her pregnancy belly is a stroke of innovation by Lowen) with very deep fear and self-preservation instincts when she is around her vile husband, Tigus played and sung with predatory pomposity by Douglas Kelly. His very funny performance accentuating his danger emphasising his frivolous stupidity. They each do excellent work at playing to and subverting the archetypes of the domineering wife and hen-pecked husband alongside the tyrannical sleaze and subservient spouse. They allow both dynamics to exist alongside each other and reveal themselves to the audience.
Timothy Daly and Troy Castle are an endless delight as the two Gods who keep showing up in other guises throughout the production, including an extended interlude and the fiercest midwives you have ever seen. They use aristocratic hauteur as the gods combined with well-timed physical comedy that brings them down to the level of the mortals they condescend.
Thank those gods Breanna Stuart is as strong an actor as she is given how little agency and opportunities for expression she gets in her (gorgeously sung) moments as Ianthe. She gives a palpably sensual response to Iphis and powerfully conveys the ever-present danger of being and presenting as a woman in public and private.
Morgan Carter, who I have had the pleasure of reviewing before, is given another thrilling showcase for their rich, characterful mezzo soprano and impressive enunciation. They have that hard fought for ability for making clear, intentional dictional choices even at the height of vocal emotion when so many singers end up sacrificing clarity for the notes. They are also a passionate, resonant actor being able to portray high emotion whilst keeping their presence grounded. Their Iphis is a manic, tortured individual, seething with a whole lifetime of rage and dysphoria that could explode in any direction and equally sad and lonely within their unique predicament. They are a performer to watch out for and one of the essential pioneers for openly non binary opera performers.
As much as I wanted more from the material, Lyric Opera’s brief season a Theatreworks is still an indelible opportunity to see a rarely performed Opera from one of our most underappreciated notable (somewhat contradictory statement I know) composers directed, designed, performed, and played by some exemplary creatives.