Kate Miller-Heidke’s The Rabbits – a songbird of a musical – is a richly patterned singspiel that lets its simple story unfold with all its surefooted ambivalence in tact, as the song, ‘Where’, hauntingly testifies - https://youtu.be/ZL7v4YFowSE
Based on the 1998 picture book written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan – the new work is, like the book, highly allegorical and eclectic in its stylistic influences. It combines various musical styles (patter song, arioso, and pop ballad) into an agreeable kaleidoscope. Each turn is aligned to meaning and emotion and aptly illustrates the dark trajectory of the simple story (adapted by Lally Katz) whence curiosity and amity are ultimately usurped by the forces of displacement.
The composer provides differentiated sounds worlds for the Marsupials (Hollie Andrew, Jessica Hitchcock, Lisa Maza, Marcus Corowa, David Leha) and the all male Rabbits (Kaneen Breen, Nicholas Jones, Christopher Hillier, Simon Meadows, Robert Mitchell) and Bird (Miller-Heidke). These gradations seemed to draw strong inspiration from Britten (Midsummer Nights Dream and the War Requiem).
The composer sang spectacularly as the ‘bird god’ hovering above the landscape, seeing all, but unable to influence the unfolding terror. The soaring lines brought recollection of another operatic fairy tale and its regal ‘Queen of the Night’ – who, in Mozart’s singspiel, is equally vanquished. The very passivity of this bird god (reflecting on the well-off world of middle class Australia?) left her incapacity for intervention and action a somewhat weak link in the opera’s drama.
The staging by John Sheedy is inspired by the richly coloured illustrations of Shaun Tan. The costuming, particularly for the marsupials, pays homage to the red earth and scorching sun of the Australian desert. The designer Gabriela Tylesova has produced a feast of visual wonders – touchingly real and surreal.
There is much heartbreak in this new work, but also flashes of ‘Aussie’ humour, particularly via the posturing rabbits who bring a dash of operetta, never-never land to their patter and buck toothed bravura.
The scene illustrating the stolen children is breathtaking, as the young joeys are strapped into kites by the rabbits and float away never to be seen again: Kitesong, is a profound lament and brings us to the still heart of this work.
The more operatic voices of the Rabbits allow for much humour and rhythmic excess. The effervescent Kaneen Breen, as the Scientist Rabbit, provided some thrilling and flaky coloratura through his flights of falsetto excess. The pomposity of the invading rabbits was nicely judged by staging and music - making us laugh until we alighted on our shared inheritance of their dark intent.
The five-piece band added a rich energy to the staging providing some imagination juxtapositions of sounds and commenting effectively on the stage action with deft strokes of instrumental colour.
The end is beautifully staged, leaving the audience with recognition of the loss that both marsupials and rabbits have ultimately encountered and the hint that reconciliation, along some fault line, might be possible. The integration of vocal types in the finale gave us such hope, while the questioning look of sole marsupial and sole rabbit hinted at the tensions that remain.
Opera Australia – SYDNEY THEATRE (Roslyn Packer) – January 15, 2016