REVIEW: The Eighth Wonder is a wonderful celebration of Sydney

The set of Opera Australia’s outdoors performance. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Sydney Opera House – The Opera: The Eighth Wonder

Opera Australia
Sydney Opera House forecourt
October 28 – November 5

Composed by Alan John. Libretto by Dennis Watkins & Alan John.
Starring Adam Frandsen, Stacey Alleaume.
Directed by David Freeman. Conducted by Anthony Legge.

Some of my favourite Sydney Opera House concerts have taken place outside Jorn Utzon’s astonishing building rather than in it, so when Opera Australia decided to mark its 60th anniversary by reprising this 21-year-old local work outdoors, is was inspired as the building itself.

And while The Eighth Wonder (rebranded for this 3rd production as Sydney Opera House – The Opera) isn’t as toe-tapping as Crowded House, Florence and the Machine, or The National, it should be on everyone’s essential Sydney list.

How could you create a set this brilliant inside? The Eighth Wonder is the quintessential Sydney experience, and really only exists in this particular city as a moment that rises above the day-to-day pettiness and gripes that qualify you as a local.

It’s also a technical triumph, billed as “the world’s first large-scale, live silent opera”. By that, Opera Australia means the orchestra remains inside performing while the cast is miked up, watching the conductor and stage director on large screens behind the audience. As for the 3,000 strong audience sitting on the forecourt gazing up the city’s world heritage-listed building, we’ve got wireless Audio Technica headphones, marrying the music and voices (which, if you’re worrying about coughing, takes away a major fear) into acoustics that trump the oft critised options inside.

Of course Opera Australia under artistic director Lyndon Terracini has form when it comes to outdoor performances thanks to Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, and this experience follows in that ilk, like a little festival village, with food and bars and even Hills Hoists strewn around the picnic area like an Aussie backyard of old. And Sydney has Handa to thank once again for making this happen. Is it a sign that one of the most vibrant supporters of Australian arts right now is a 65-year-old Japanese businessman and philanthropist?

A scene from The Eighth Wonder. Photo: Prudence Upton

Architect Jorn Utzon’s story is perfect operatic material – the soaring artistic genius of a man plucked from foreign shores to a nascent civilisation eager to prove its credentials amid venal, popularist politicians and bloody-minded bureaucrats who crush it – offers a national tragedy Sydney is still coming to terms with. It’s also our story, the tensions between parochialism and a craving for global recognition.

And right now, six decades after its conception, it seems to have additional resonance in an arts community that considers itself currently in a life-and-death fight to exist.

Librettist Dennis Watkins has enormous fun with Australian idiom – after years of Italian and German, the local cast seems to relish singing about “bloody” this and “bloody” that – and cleverly weaves the big picture with a small one about a budding soprano, Alex (Stacey Alleaume) torn between international glory and local loyalty.

Photo: Prudence Upton

“I want to leave my name on more than expressways,” premier Joe Cahill says, unveiling his big idea. Cahill died 15 years before his vision came into being. Instead he’s mostly remembered for that much-detested road over Circular Quay. Take note Mike Baird.

There’s even a joke at Patrick White’s expense, during a visit by HM Queen Elizabeth II (Gerry Connolly) when she asks him how his novel “Floss” is going. (White’s Voss was turned into an opera in 1986). And you can’t help cringe a little as litany of put downs of Utzon’s idea, including fornicating turtles, to the tragic loss of parking, are part of the performance.

Alan John’s score gallops along, climaxing brilliantly in the storm scene which became something of a 4D experience as light rain fell and lighting skipped across the actual heavens above us on opening night.

But it’s a model of modern opera and one comment overheard was “I wouldn’t mind a show tune I could leave humming”. Yeah. Na.

Really, the music almost doesn’t matter. The staging is exquisite on the granite Monumental Steps, both epic yet remarkably intimate, with set pieces amid 15 scenes unfurling like kabuki.

One scene, with everyone arranged on the steps in bathers with towels, is like an homage to the famed Charles Meere painting Australian beach pattern. The sets slide along creating a construction site. Giant glowing balls of screwed up paper are scattered across the stairs. Giant screens inflates to mimic the Fort Macquarie tram sheds that once stood on Bennelong Point, and become a canvas for the sort of digital visual wizardry associated with lighting buildings at Vivid. Utzon’s sketches and idea drift by in a multi-sensory experience.

As The Architect (Adam Frandsen) explains of his design, drawn from Aztec architecture, he wants “so many steps so we approach like pilgrims”. Even if you think you know the building, this opera still offers insights and understanding that make it worth seeing for those reasons alone. Frandsen is superb in his role. Commanding yet tender, another ghostly presence from Elsinore. His voice soaring like the building behind.

Adam Frandsen as The Architect. Photo: Prudence Upton

Samuel Dundas delivers a meagre, Machiavellian Bob Askin, true to the manner many older members of the audience would remember from his time as premier. In contrast Stacey Alleaume’s heroine is a welcome balm. David Greco’s Engineer strikes the right balance between ambition and exasperation.

At 3 hours in length, including a 30 minute intermission, having a whole bottle of wine at your feet in an ice bucket comes in handy, but you can’t help thinking that this should almost be an annual event, retold down generations, about a man now gone, and a building that lives on and fills so many with sheer bloody wonder.

And it’s a reminder of the bloody wonder of this city, from the cruise liners leaving at sunset to the flying foxes speckling the sky, to the Harbour Bridge sitting stage left to that building, that this is a magical place. At interval, we got chatting to a group of Texan ranchers sitting behind us who’d just spent the previous weeks jetting about Australia staying in the country’s finest resorts and lodges.

Sitting there, in clear plastic ponchos, as light rain fell, couldn’t have been a more perfect ending, they said.

Too bloody right.

• The Eighth Wonder is on November 3, 4 & 5 at the Sydney Opera House forecourt at 7.30pm. Tickets from $62.

Alex (Stacey Alleaume) meets the Queen (Gerry Connolly). Photo: Prudence Upton

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