Regional Lakeside Festival Hits the Right Note

In a celebration of opera’s 400-year history, the inaugural Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival released the magic of the art form in picturesque settings.

Artistic director Linda Thompson’s ambitious project brought opera to three vineyards in the Goulburn River region, giving young artists valuable performance exposure alongsideaccomplished guest artists. For her audience, Thompson offered a smorgasbord of short works and sessions in 10 events with high-quality performances.

Criss-crossing between the wineries of Mitchelton, Tahbilk and Fowles, artists and attendees mingled in appealing venues from restaurants to barrel room and cellar. A fun night of La Triviata opened the festival with singing and trivia inspired by, of course, La Traviata. A cooking-class opera Bon Appetit, a formal dinner accompanied by an array of artists singing A Very Very Very Short History of Opera, and Max Gillies as the learned judge in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury highlighted that opera can tell any story from the profound to the ridiculous.

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On my full Sunday program of four events, Thomas Arne’s Thomas and Sally (1760), a 50-minute hearty comedic test on the separation of lovers, sparkled across the clink of cutlery and china at Baroque Breakfast. In a studio-like setting, a masterclass with renowned soprano Cheryl Barker followed in Diva Knows Best, as rewardingly instructive to its audience as for its three young artists refining their technique. After lunch, Guido’s Cat (1858), an early, zany Offenbach work written for his little theatre with a capacity of just 50, was given a cool-as-cats English update. Directed and performed with flair and sung delightfully.., it sits among no less than 25 other of his one-act operas. There’s plenty more to feed future festivals just there.

When the festival culminated in a hauntingly sung Australian premiere of David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field (2002), it was clear all the hard work had paid off. Set in segregated slave-era Alabama on a cotton plantation, the open-air disappearance of its master sparks a tornado of talk. The mood, distance and drawl shone effectively with heightened movement under US director Luke Leonard. It’s a deeply thought-provoking piece with open-ended interpretation that builds a case upon, then undoes, our notion of reason. The work is interpreted superbly by the dark, penetrating voice of Dimity Shepherd, Khary Wilson’s steaming tenor and Adrian McEniery’s fortified spoken words. And in Mac Wellman’s surrealistic libretto, when the spiritually rich soprano of Michelle McCarthy sings What is the point of talking crap like that?, the poignancy rings. A sole performance is not enough.

The festival’s beginnings are small, but its success will hopefully guarantee a return next year. Since seating limits in the intimate-scaled venues were close to capacity, the direction the festival heads in and how it grows requires careful consideration. After an escape to the countryside with a head full of opera and an arm full of fine regional wine, the return home was indeed a satisfying one. ------------

NAGAMBIE LAKES OPERA FESTIVAL Mitchelton, Tahbilk and Fowles Wineries, October 9-11

Rating: ★★★★

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