Biographica – Theatre Works (VIC)
Music by Mary Finsterer, words by Tom Wright. Directed by Heather Fairbairn and conducted by Patrick Burns.
Review by Carla Di Maggio
Lyric Opera of Melbourne and Theatre Works
Season 22 September – 1 October 2023
- After a sold-out season in Sydney, Mary Finsterer and Tom Wright have devised a smashing opening in Melbourne that celebrates modern opera -
When first walking into the black box theatre in St Kilda, you cannot help but feel trepidatious as you are immediately transported to Italy in the 1600s. Douglas Kelly greets us at the end of a darkened hall clad in angelic robes. Other chorus members join Kelly on stage, but instead of being heavenly figures to guide us through Cardano’s life, they stare menacingly at the audience, daring us to take seat. And what a brilliant way to tonally set the evening. Biographica takes us back to the 1600s to observe Gerolamo Cardano’s life. It is packed with obsession, tragedy and contemplation as this twelve-scene opera weaves us between heaven and Earth.
Biographica (2023) Images: Jodie Hutchinson
The phenomenal set immediately transports the audience and elevates Cardano’s lectures and the discordantly heavenly music. The production is ambitious in positioning the audience as lesser beings. It is handled brilliantly as Cardano lectures about how he was able to deduct from the stars the day of his demise. We see how this fact corrupts every corner of his life as he was unable to predict the many tragedies that are to befall him before his death. Cardano positions himself as a god while the audience watches his corruption, drifting from his workstation to his memories amongst angels.
Biographica is an intimidating piece for creatives and audiences alike. Our sole actor, Dion Mills, is our guide and main character. He handles this huge role brilliantly, taking in reactions from the corruption and hardships in life as a man from an elevated position as he acts as an observer. I particularly enjoyed watching how his growing ego took hold of the opera, corrupting it more as we delved deeper.
Our chorus of angels – ever-changing in roles played out in Cardano’s life – are never less than brilliant. Belinda Dalton beautifully frames the tragedy in Cardano’s life with her gorgeously raw rendition of Cardano’s mother; her soprano is ever-perfect at reflecting her distain in such a role. Rachael Joyce then carried this mood forward into her portrayal of Chiara, Cardano’s daughter. Her strong soprano, paired with masterful acting, drew the audience right into the palm of her hand.
Biographica is triumphant in presenting new Australian work...only amplified by the company’s brilliant performance and the work of the design team.
I must also commend the work of Raphael Wong as he stepped in as baritone due to an illness within the company. His performance moved me still, even as he held the score in a couple of scenes.
The work by the actors on stage is only elevated by the lighting, designed by Niklas Pajanti, and set design by Savanna Wegman and assisted by Maya Anderson. The use of projection throughout the piece guided the audience through the twelve parts and aided in setting the scene, often projecting visuals of stars and zodiac constellations. I found the set design to be the most intriguing. Actors had to navigate through and around three golden rings that occupied the space. Fringe fabric hangs like a curtain from the right-most ring, distorting the projections in a magnificent way and veils the actors in significant ways throughout the show. I also enjoyed how this segregated the sole actor from the rest of the chorus, as he always felt like a lonely figure throughout Biographica.
Unfortunately, the show was let down by the sound levels, as Don Mill’s monologues were often fighting to be heard over the loud operatic chorus. The constant adjustments took away the focus from the action.
Overall, Biographica is triumphant in presenting new Australian work. The form is perfect for telling Cardano’s story, in all its dramatics and intrigue, and such is only amplified by the company’s brilliant performance and the work of the design team.
If you wish to be transported somewhere between Italy in the 1600s and heaven, I highly recommend getting your tickets before the production leaves us in October.
BIOGRAPHICA - THEATRE WORKS, ST KILDA
Gerolamo Cardano - Dion Mills
Cardano's Mother, Doctor, Examiner, (Soprano 1) - Belinda Dalton
Chiara (Cardano's Daughter), Doctor, Examiner, (Soprano 2) - Rachael Joyce
Catterina (Giambattista's Wife), Doctor, Examiner, (Mezzo Soprano) - Juel Riggall
Aldo (Cardano's Youngest Son), Cassante (Physician), Examiner, (Tenor) - Douglas Kelly
Giambattista (Cardano's Oldest Son), Archbishop, Examiner, (Baritone) - Bailey Montgomerie
Director - Heather Fairbairn
Conductor - Patrick Burns
Set and Costume Design - Savanna Wegman
Lighting - Niklas Pajanti
Stage Manager - Brittany Coombs
Repetiteur - Isaac Mouskovias
Producer - Suzanne Chaundy
Production Manager - Katelyn B
Associate Designer - Maya Anderson