Celebrated Australian soprano Emma Matthews will take the Hayes Theatre stage in a new musical about the life of Dame Nellie Melba
Forget ‘Our Hugh.’ Sorry ‘Our Nic.’ Move over ‘Our Cate.’ Dame Nellie Melba was Australia’s original international superstar, a pre-Federation opera diva who found unprecedented success on the biggest stages in the world: Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, La Scala, the Met. She has four dishes – four! – named after her. She’s on the hundred dollar note. And now, there’s a musical named after her.
Adapted from Ann Blainey’s biography, Melba was developed through the New Musicals Australia program and features a book and lyrics by Nicholas Christo and a score by Johannes Luebbers. It’s a work of admirable ambition: it charts the making of one of history’s greatest divas; it tells a distinctly Australian story without cultural cringe; and it blends famous arias (from Carmen, Tosca, La Traviata and more) with a new score.
The show is told in flashback, a time-honoured musical theatre tradition for bio-stories (Mack and Mabel, Jersey Boys, Dream Lover and even Wicked all start at the end of their stories and rewind, to name just a few). We open at the singer’s welcome-home concert tour in 1902. The older Melba (opera superstar Emma Matthews) sings ‘Home Sweet Home’ and a little Marriage of Figaro. The crowd cheers.
And then we re-set. We’re in Paris with young Nellie (firebrand Annie Aitken), who has absconded from London with son George (Samuel Skuthorp) to audition for the legendary Madame Marchesi (Genevieve Lemon). Despite Marchesi’s initial disdain for this plainly-dressed, brash colonial, Nellie soon wins her over with her voice and dedication to her craft.
From this first moment of true recognition and respect, we’re off and running. Sure, Nellie’s father (Michael Beckley) and quickly estranged husband (Andrew Cutcliffe, who is disturbingly good at playing every blokey but somehow still-charming misogynist you’ve ever met) think music studies, the stage and Paris are no place for a mother – or a son; but despite their loudest objections, Nellie’s world expands beyond her expectations.
She receives rapturous applause and flashy gifts from actual royalty. She makes close friends with patron Gladys de Gray (Caitlin Berry, stealing the show) and maintains a firmly no-strings affair with Philippe, Duc D’Orléans (Adam Rennie). She writes daily letters to George, now in boarding school.
But it’s the late 1800s, and a woman’s success can be a dangerous thing in a world of suffocatingly traditional roles. When Nellie’s affair is revealed to the public and her husband tries to take custody of George, Christo’s book points an accusing finger at the patriarchy. His dialogue is blunt to the point of heavy-handed on this topic, and he is repetitive in iterating that Nellie’s success is an act of social defiance, and that she resents the way men have assumed ownership over her livelihood for the entirety of her life. Aitken’s Nellie spits out the word ‘man’ with distaste and impatience. She won’t be owned by a man; she won’t let a man take credit for her career; she won’t be painted as a bad mother just because she cares about her own life as well as the life of her son.
But Christo is so preoccupied with insisting that Nellie is more than a wife and a mother that it feels like all we see or hear about is her role as a wife and mother. She seems more a product of that struggle (to not be ‘only a wife and mother’) than an individual in her own right. Meanwhile, we see precious little of her career success, and while Emma Matthews steps in as Melba to sing periodic aria snippets, (and they are gorgeous) we have no real sense of the shape of Melba’s musical journey. It happens almost in the background, while conflict with her son, lovers, and father move frequently to the forefront. There is a way to talk about the female struggle that still allows the woman to be defined by more than that struggle; perhaps having a woman in the director’s chair could have helped back up Christo’s clear feminist intent with broader and more insightful actions in the development process.
Still, Christo’s book is the strongest element of the show and director Wayne Harrison has embraced the shape of its scenes, barrelling one into another with charm: they have solid internal structure and dramatic tension; the dialogue is consistently charming and frequently witty (Nellie and Gladys’ friendship sparkles). The tone is recognisably Australian without descending into caricature (a well-placed “bullshit” goes a long and satisfying way).
The success of the book makes the tepid lyrics, also by Christo, all the more disappointing: the spirited, generous appeal of the script is absent here. Instead, the songs trade in cliché and vague proclamations. One common refrain – “I am here to be the best” – will burrow its way into your head and remain there for days, but there’s little else exciting about these new songs, which tend to comment on the action rather than take us on a journey either through the plot or a character’s feelings. Luebbers’ score is romantic and in no rush to reach a climax, handled with respect by musical director Michael Tyack; but there isn’t much colour there.
Happily, the cast are all strong and pleasing singers who elevate the material. Caitlin Porter’s sound design is thoughtful and clever; even though Emma Matthews is amplified with mics alongside the rest of the cast, her powerful instrument is well mixed with the others and it never overpowers. It’s also never lost, and hearing her sing in such close quarters is a treat.
Mark Thompson’s production design is baffling – a white curtain half-heartedly covered in roses feels like a poor imitation of operatic luxury, and Skuthorp carries blank-faced puppets to represent young George, Nellie’s son. The ensemble can’t decide whether to address the actor or the puppet directly (especially because they’re wearing the same costume and seem to be splitting the role for no clear dramaturgical reason). Because the characters can’t decide if the puppet is George or Skuthorp is George or both are George, we can’t suspend our disbelief. Puppet aside, Skuthorp gives a sensitive, nuanced performance.
All the performances are top-notch. Aitken is a star in the making, bringing young Nellie to life with nuance, a dash of recklessness, and a beautiful soprano in her own right. With Matthews’ classical gravitas and Berry’s twinkling secret weapon of support roles – and a strong ensemble to boot, wearing many hats with aplomb – Melba is a success in casting and performance.