The set of Of Mice And Men | Opera Theatre

Having big-time veteran Australian film director Bruce Beresford at the directorial helm, I have to admit, piqued my interest in this opera. We all fall prey to the cult of celebrity, I suppose, one way or another, no matter how strenuously we might resist, philosophically and otherwise. Another major attraction was the fact it’s composer, Carlisle Floyd, though elderly, is still very much alive, and how many operas can you say that about? (Of course, given his political leanings, we’re all probably glad the likes of Wagner are dead, but that’s another story.) What’s more, though there are numerous operas that allude to the American way of life, few, if any, apart from Floyd’s, have their roots in all-American soil.

The worrying aspect is that Floyd’s opera is based on John Steinbeck’s immortal, iconic novella and, thus, notwithstanding, for example, a highly-successful theatrical adaptation, warning bells ring loudly. Can any composer and, more to the point, librettist (in this case, one and the same) hope to reach Steinbeck’s standard? What will be lost in translation? It’s a debate that could rage, in detail, for a long time, amongst eggheads and wankers. But one thing’s certain in my mind: if nothing else, Floyd has captured Steinbeck’s intent, the true spirits of his key characters and the confounding moral complexities that pervade even the simplest of human existences.

Steinbeck’s triumph, for mine, is his ability to tell a good story in the very best conventional sense, while musing, potently, on existential dilemmas. A gift not lost on Floyd and one he’s brought to the stage of the Sydney Opera House’s Opera Theatre, with a little bit of help from Bruce and company.

The setting is not a gilt drawing-room somewhere in middle Europe, but Salinas, California. It’s all barns and tumbleweed; card games and liquor. Men are men, and there are many of them, beavering away on Curley’s ranch. Only one busty, lusty lass is on-site, testing the involuntary celibacy of the bunkhouse males, day in, day out, with her flirtatious ways. She’s Curley’s wife, untouchable and frustrated by his lack of attention and all-round impotence. Jacqueline Mabardi eats up this role, throwing her voice out there every bit as brazenly as her role demands. She has a charismatic presence and you can’t take your eyes or ears off her. Brad Daley also wears the character of Curley very well.

Other strong performances come from Jud Arthur as foreman, Candy; Andrew Jones as Slim; David Corcoran as Carlson. But the stars are, inevitably, Barry Ryan as George Milton (a man whose word is his bond if ever there was one, having promised Lennie Small’s aunt he’d watch over Lennie come hell or high water), and Anthony Dean Griffey as Lennie. The latter is utterly luminous, with his fidgety hands and personification of a man trying to his best with what he’s got, which isn’t quite as much as he might like, intellectually, or materially. It’s easy to feel for this sensitive soul who doesn’t know his own strength. Griffey’s strength isn’t just the acting, however; here’s a virtuoso tenor, with the most pleasing and powerful, round sound, which are qualities that are, perhaps, sometimes, mutually exclusive.

Andrea Molino and my beloved AO&BO ensure the score is read in a spritely, bright way, too. And, while accessible, it’s one that’s not without it’s challenges for audience and orchestra. So, too, the libretto.

Beresford has called upon, or had the exceptional fortune to be endowed with the design talents of John Stoddart, who has found substantial scale, in all dimensions, as if to mimic the expanse of the wild west and America’s still prodigious wilderness and frontiers. There’s a large, nostalgic nod, also, to the flat, painted backdrops that were once to be found on so many Hollywood sound stages. The aesthetic is so effective, one can almost smell the dust kicked up by the horses.

It’s hard to know, given what we already know about BB, if I would’ve found his vision to be cinematic, otherwise. But it is, very much, to my mind; unapologetically so. It even includes a film clip, even if, ironically (with, one suspects, a mischievous wink), directed by Kathryn Millis.

The long and the short of it is it succeeds, admirably, on all levels: design; drama; musicality; meaning. On the strength of it, I’d welcome more direction from Beresford. To say nothing of more operas from living, not decomposing, composers.

The details: Of Mice And Men has three more performances (August 2, 5 and 11) at the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House. It has four performances at the Arts Centre in Melbourne from November 26. Tickets on the company website.