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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

English Eccentrics (Victorian Opera), at Union Theatre, University of Melbourne - 2 hours, including a 20-minute interval

First up, an admission – I love Victorian Opera's commitment to diversity in performance. Its range of operatic offerings is grand and most welcome.

 

This, their latest work, another endeavour in its ongoing VO Emerges series –  committed to fostering new talent – is no exception.

 

Decidedly different to usual operatic fare, English Eccentrics is … well, markedly left of centre … odd and quirky.

 

It is a 1964 chamber opera consisting of seven vignettes – three in the first act and four in the second.

Photos by Hilary Walker


The production presents a whimsical glimpse at 39 characters through 20 performers, including 11 principals, who assume multiple roles with alacrity.

 

Infused with English wit (libretto by Geoffrey Dunn) and Australian larrikinism (composed by Malcolm Williamson), it is based on a 1933 book by Edith Sitwell.

 

She, herself, was regarded as eccentric.

 

Scene I, titled Goose Weather, introduces us to a parade of self-serving characters. They include a snuffbox collector, a lady afraid of being taken for dead, another who doesn’t wash, a man who wants to be buried head down and one married 17 times.

An unconventional interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, an Amateur of Fashion concerns an amateur actor. His lack of talent and taste is no impediment to popularity.

 

The God of this World is the story of a woman abandoned by her loving, banker brother who was hanged for forgery.

 

After interval, Quacks and a Beau concerns fraudulent doctors who are too willing to cure all ills and two ladies engaging a dandy in conversation.

 

An Ornamental Hermit is about an old military man who details his adventures in a memoir, but is aggrieved by his treatment, which impinges upon his solitary lifestyle.

The Traveller appears to be a Princess – called Caraboo – from an unknown foreign land or is she? She appears at the door of a cottage in rural Gloucestershire.

 

The Beau Again takes us back to the dandy we saw earlier. He is now in exile and in decline.

 

With vocal strength and dexterity from a strong cast, English Eccentrics is intriguing and engaging.

 

The artistes take pride and pleasure in amping up the outrageous personas they inhabit.

 

Among the standouts are bass baritone Henry Shaw and sopranos Michaela Cadwgan and Alessia Pintabona.

I long to see and hear more from them and other cast members.

 

The Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra, led by Susan Collins, is highly praiseworthy, breathing life into the musical pastiche.

 

Louisa Fitzgerald has excelled with her creative array of evocative period costuming and modest but effective cloud-based staging.

 

I loved the “reveal” inherent in the opening scene, with lighting design by Harrie Hogan.

 

Frankly, the longer the English Eccentrics went, the more I enjoyed it. Zany, to be sure, but a real feast for the eyes and ears, one you can really lean into.

Bravo to Victorian Opera on yet another triumph, this time at Union Theatre at the University of Melbourne.

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