Byron Watson and Antoinette Halloran in Midnight Son (Pic: Jeff Busby)

Opera has been in the public eye recently with the discussions around the drafting of a National Cultural Policy and structural changes at the Australia Council. There has been vigorous debate over the relevance of an artform that is attended by so few. This contemporary opera by Victorian Opera does little to help opera’s cause.

Midnight Son‘s inspiration, the grubby murder of Maria Korp, is both relatively recent and local, so it ticks the box marked “controversial new work”. But there’s a question that hangs over the work: why is this story being retold as an opera?

The Victorian Opera’s media release refers to a story of passion and obsession, yet on stage there is little to suggest the great love that forms the basis of the narrative. Rather than heighten the emotional intensity, Louis Nowra’s libretto highlights the banality and triteness of the relationships.

The story is recounted from the perspective of Joe Korp, here called Ray Clark, as he prepares to hang himself in his garage. We experience the narrative in reverse, travelling backwards in time to his first meeting with Maria, here named Marisa. It’s a storytelling technique that can certainly work: Harold Pinter memorably used it in his play Betrayal. But where Pinter added layers of dramatic irony by withholding information from the audience, in Midnight Son, Nowra strips away the ambiguity as the opera progresses, revealing far too early a story of remarkable shallowness.

The decision to reverse the narrative means the climactic scenes occur in the first half hour of the 90-minute work and the remaining hour is robbed of dramatic tension. There is not much to maintain the audience’s interest as we step inexorably back through the tacky affair. We learn very little about Ray, what made him so attractive to the women, and even more crucially, both women are so thinly sketched they appear as powerless victims. Opera has never treated its women with much respect and, here too, they are portrayed in the libretto with little dignity.

Gordon Kerry’s music takes its cues from a range of influences, working its way back from a breathless shrillness in the opening scenes to some beautiful harmonies in the final act. Byron Watson as Ray and Antoinette Halloran as Marisa work hard to invest their characters with some depth while Dimity Shepherd as Clara, the “other woman”, manages to convey a level of desperation and pain not immediately apparent in the character. Roxanne Hislop and Jonathan Bode play a variety of smaller roles and occasionally serve as a proxy Greek chorus.

Andrew Bellchambers and Nigel Levings wisely keep the set and lighting simple; special mention must go to Esther Marie Hayes’ attractive costumes. Ollivier-Philippe Cuneo, conducting Orchestra Victoria, keeps the pace brisk but little can save the narrative arc from sagging. Nicky Wendt’s direction is uneven with some awkward transitions between scenes slowing the action further.

Relatives of the Korps were understandably upset when they learned that their family tragedy was to be made into an opera. If Midnight Son offered some new angle on the story, Victorian Opera could argue the work did not capitalise on their grief. With this production, however, it is difficult to understand why this story was ever chosen to be staged.

Dimity Shepherd, Watson and Halloran in Midnight Son (Pic: Jeff Busby)

The details: Midnight Son is at the Malthouse Theatre, in the Merlyn Theatre, until May 23. Tickets on the company website.