Composer Ross Harris has had mixed success with the operatic genre: he was awarded a QSM for his 1985 work Waituhi with librettist Witi Ihimaera, but his 2002 opera Black Ice (with libretto by Vincent O’Sullivan) still awaits even a single performance. It looked for a time as if Brass Poppies might suffer the same fate, but it has been brought to life by NZOpera seven years after its creation. Each opera is an undertaking of some magnitude, and requires the careful alignment of multiple visions across words, music and dramaturgy.
Here Vincent O’Sullivan’s libretto was succinct and witty, loaded with the idioms of the time and place: a farewell shag suited Fred “down to the ground” while Tommo talked of Wellington winds “blow[ing] you to buggery”.
In a hardworking, polished cast there were standouts: Wade Kernot as Fred was by turns suave and acerbic, a mellifluous bass against some more earnest vocal colours. Sarah Court’s Mrs Malone had yearning and gravitas, an excellent foil for James Egglestone’s powerful but occasionally raw high register. Egglestone as Malone bore the brunt of Harris’s demanding, often angular vocal writing, but carried the responsibility well with help from an impressive team of singers.
The score at seventy minutes was impressively compact, but with an emotional heft that many much larger productions would envy. Harris took his lead from the words, seeking a musical language largely unadorned and yet characteristically sophisticated. Though there were moments when the music seemed utilitarian, even apathetic, this was still richly layered, contrapuntal stuff: the ensemble numbers in particular bustled with interaction and rippling colour. But there were also moments of reflection where one longed for a truly pared-back texture, and some space to breathe.
Hamish McKeich’s regiment of musicians brought expression and polish to this music, from the acerbic opening chords to the haunting last post.
Unfortunately the rich detail and cadence of the music and words was overshadowed by a large-scale form that was strangely lopsided and often dramatically flat: the work felt at times like it had been ineptly butchered by director Jonathan Alver, whose staging decisions were a mixture of patchy, bewildering and trite. There was a disjunction between on one hand the light-heartedness and ordinariness of many elements of the work – especially the text and music – and on the other an attempt to impose farce, absurdity, and gigantic slow-motion video screens, which to me only came off as insincere.
Sometimes the production seemed to contradict the libretto itself: at the crux of the work, the climactic battle scene, we were told poignantly that “you know how the story goes”, and then subsequently we were visually told again and again how that story had gone, how very dead those soldiers were, how very sad their bereft wives. Instead of picking up the threads of the individual characters from the libretto, the dramaturgy treated the men and the women as increasingly symbolic blocks of undifferentiated emotion, avoiding any attempt to develop character. Jonathan Eyers’s achingly naïve Billy never received a reply to his letter home, and in fact his sweetheart Joyce (a charming Madison Nonoa) had soon begun dating other men – and yet for the extended coda of the work she was portrayed just the same as the newly widowed, dutifully sorrowful.
Despite the dramaturgical flaws, Brass Poppies has resonated strongly with its audiences, and the musical and lyrical heart of the work deserves a life beyond this worthy but imperfect production.