One of Australia's leading sopranos takes a journey inside in this surprising melding of music and theatre
Emma Matthews is one of this country’s finest operatic talents, and if you’re looking for a crash course on the range of her skill, this might be a good place to start. The Space Between is a strange hybrid work, a semi-autobiographical song cycle that plays with form and content in a way that isn’t always lucid but is consistently fascinating. It’s a prismatic, fractured mirror into Matthews’ soul, and complete confirmation of her vocal genius. What is truly revelatory about the piece, though, is the matched genius of the composer, Paul Grabowsky.
Grabowsky has been such a presence in the musical life of this city that it’s easy to forget just how magnificent a composer he is. The score here is extraordinary; at once experimental and steeped in tradition, it reaches across jazz, musical theatre and classic operatic forms. It leans heavily on arioso – that musical technique that sits halfway between aria and recitative – for its effect, but can switch gear on a dime. It moves from the roiling and modernist to the jaunty and melodic in seconds, and it’s thrilling to watch the performer match the material with such confidence.
The conceit is quite brilliant, even if the results don’t entirely fulfil the promise: Matthews enters playing herself on the cusp of the final note of one of her most celebrated roles, Lucia di Lammermoor. Instead of singing that note, she oscillates and then stops; she has an actual life she wants to examine before any final chords resolve, and she invites the audience to join her. What follows is a gloriously sung meander through her consciousness, from imagistic childhood memory through romantic loves to arch vocal techniques. It’s engaging but it isn’t completely successful dramatically.
Some of this can be attributed to the score – the piece follows a musical rather than a narrative logic, and this can occasionally work against the effect – but some of the blame lies with Steve Vizard’s often superb, but also opaque, libretto. Unlike Vigil, his previous collaboration with Joe Chindamo that was a vehicle for Christie Whelan Browne and was partly born from his own experiences losing his mother, The Space Between is an exercise in ventriloquism; it never feels more than an approximation of the singer’s inner life. It tends to lurch from idea to idea, without psychological bridges between, and the overall effect is almost exhausting.
Director Leticia Cáceres isn’t entirely successful in wrangling the material into a coherent piece, either. Too often she has Matthews run up and down the steps of the set for little discernible effect; she has her engage directly with the audience to little effect; and, while she makes the occasionally powerful tableaux, she rarely lifts the material visually. Esther and Rebecca Hayes’ costume design is strong, with an ingenious blood-red sash signifying Lucia’s hellish honeymoon neatly folding away. And Nick Schlieper’s moody and responsive lighting design helps differentiate the piece’s modes.
There’s a spirited vein of experimentation about this work. The idea of a solo show that mines the consciousness of a treasured operatic star is an unusual one, and if all the elements don’t quite cohere, there’s an enormous amount to like and admire. Matthews is a wonderful home-grown talent, and this collaboration with the now well-established, if idiosyncratic, pairing of Grabowsky and Vizard has enough in it to surprise audiences who may feel they’ve seen it all. It’s also a great way to introduce less familiar audience members with a voice that normally fills far larger theatres around the world.