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Melba

Lynne Lancaster

A most exciting new production about Dame Nellie Melba.
Melba

Emma Matthews as Melba photograph by Clare Hawley. Via Hayes Theatre.

Melba is a new Australian musical about one (or if not) the first Australian megastar Dame Nellie Melba, you may recognise her as she is featured on the current $100 note.

Based on the book Marvellous Melba by Anne Blainey, the story is set as if we are one of the audiences in Melba’s 1902 Australian tour. We learn that Melba married and was a mother early in life, rather usual in the late 19th century. We follow her struggles to acquire the independence necessary for professional success.

As well as including original music by Johannes Luebbers, the show features some of Melba’s most famous arias at appropriate points in the story – excerpts from La TraviataRigolettoToscaCarmen and Lucia Di Lammermoor – sung over a small hidden backstage orchestra deftly led by Michael Tyack. This is well done in the scene where Charlie finally kidnaps George and disappears with him to the USA, Nellie’s (Matthews) rendition of ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca is extremely moving.

One of the delicious highlights in the first act, fluidly combining music and narrative is the party scene where young Nellie dances with her Duc to the diva Nellie’s exultant ‘Sempre liber’ (from La Traviata). The dialogue is often full of crackling wit and there is an excellent interweaving of both music and text in the old and new elements.  

The set, designed by Mark Thompson, is rather cramped and perhaps restricts the cast on the small stage – it’s a semi-circular white draped backdrop splashed with masses of red roses. It opens on either side to provide glimpses of a dressing room and is also sometimes lit to throw silhouettes. In front of this is a raised and raked circular mini-stage which is used to provide various projections of important information – Covent Garden, La Scala, The Met and The Paris Opera – and acts as setting the scene for the central motif of Melba’s 1902 tour of Australia.

Costumes (Claire-Louise Rasmussen) are realistically of the period with natty waistcoats for the men, dripping pearls for the women and in particular one amazingly confectioned hat think – Ascot My Fair Lady but in colour.

We follow Melba’s life from struggling to obtain an audition in Paris for the leading voice tutor Madame Marchesi, rumoured to be quite a dragon, and eventually being accepted. There is an amazing scene in which Marchesi (Genevieve Lemon) gasps to her husband Salvatore (Blake Erickson) that she has found a STAR, and it is well noted that Lemon also plays various other characters.

This work is somewhat unusual in that it uses two Melbas (Emma Matthews and Annie Aitken) to tell the story. Matthews trained in the Marchesi method, and the two silently interact at times and sometimes duet delightfully together. What is stressed is Melba’s passion for opera, determination to become a success and her love for her son. The harsh attitude towards independent women – this was the late Victorian era remember – is also addressed and criticised.

We see Melba’s passionate affair with the exiled pretender to the French throne, Philippe D'Orleans (charismatically handsome Adam Rennie) and the scandal of her divorce trial. Melba is befriended by the high society arts patron Gladys de Grey (Caitlin Berry who also plays Madame Marchesi’s high and mighty elegant daughter Blanche and a lawyer) who delights in spending her husband Frederick’s (Blake Erickson) money; together the enable Melba to conquer Covent Garden and eventually Europe – then the world.

Under Wayne Harrison’s magnificent direction the rest of the ensemble deliver thrilling performances, many doubling/tripling various roles. Special mention must be made of  Andrew Cutcliffe as Melba’s husband Charles Armstrong. Cutcliffe presents Armstrong generally as an arrogant, obnoxious scheming villain but we do also (perhaps) see a sympathetic side to him. Their son George is delightfully played by Samuel Skuthorp who is also required to be a puppeteer, manipulating various sized puppets as he matures. Melba’s gruff father is wonderfully played by Michael Beckley who also portrays other roles.

A most fascinating analysis of one of Australia’s early megastars and a must see.  

4 stars out of 5 

MELBA
A new musical

Book & Lyrics by Nicholas Christo
Music by Johannes Luebbers
Adapted from the book “Marvelous Melba” by Ann Blainey
Director Wayne Harrison
Musical Director Michael Tyack
Movement Director
& Assistant Director Nigel Turner-Carroll
Production Designer Mark Thompson
Lighting Designer Trudy Dalgleish
Sound Designer Caitlin Porter
Production Manager Di Misirdjieff
Executive Producer Kerry Comerford
Starring Emma Matthews as Melba, Annie Aitken, Michael Beckley, Caitlin Berry, Andrew Cutcliffe, Blake Erickson, Genevieve Lemon, Adam Rennie and Samuel Skuthorp

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.

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