The Sleeping Beauty: a refreshing interpretation of Respighi
by Jennifer Bryce
Lockdown caused postponement of the opening night of the Victorian Opera’s presentation of Respighi’s The Sleeping Beauty — fortunately the delay was just a few days. A review in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper was rather uncomplimentary: ‘it felt more weary than wondrous’. I totoally disagree. I went away thinking that here was a stage production so imaginative that no amount of fancy 3D filming or other complex technology could have improved it.
The story is the well-known fairy tale. A king and queen have been unable to conceive a child. At last they do and a little princess is born, but the jealous Green Fairy (who has been excluded from celebratory festivities) pronounces that on her 20th birthday the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a deep sleep. This happens, and the whole castle is put under a spell of deep sleep. But this is ameliorated a little when the Blue Fairy pronounces that one day the princess will be awoken by the kiss of a prince. In the story I remember from childhood, a bramble hedge grows thickly around the castle. In this opera, humming spiders wrap the castle in their silvery web.
Respighi wrote this opera in 1921, straight after the devastation of World War I and the Spanish Flu. It was written for a puppet theatre in Naples, where the puppets were marionettes and the singers were in the orchestra pit. In this 2021 production, the singers are onstage with the puppets, working in a parallel universe. There are clear comparisons with the state of Italy in 1921 and the state of our world in 2021 — these are made subtly, even when a puppet, ‘Mr Dollar Cheque’ looks remarkably like Donald Trump. I found this new kind of interaction refreshing, where a character is both a puppet and, standing just a metre or so away, a singer — or, in the case of the Princess and the Prince, a singer and a ballet dancer. The use of lighting was, literally, fantastic — particularly when we, the audience, were enmeshed in the spiders’ web spun around the sleeping palace.
The Age review https://www.theage.com.au/culture/opera/exquisite-voices-save-opera-that-proves-more-weary-than-wondrous-20210224-p575c9.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_feed suggests that there is some uncertainty as to whether this production is for adults or children: ‘The huge puppets, slapstick humour, dancing and running around feels entirely for children. There are also moments of darkness, grief and references intended for adults – some work, some do not. (Please spare us the Donald Trump cameo. It’s just not funny anymore). It was difficult to grasp the greater moral lesson amidst the madness.’ I found none of this confusion. It didn’t occur to me once that this production was aimed particularly for children. Although the whole idea of a palace going into ‘lockdown’ in a deep sleep is very close to the bone, through fantasy, I was taken there willingly and I left the theatre feeling uplifted and refreshed.
The music was superb. I was particularly entranced by Kathryn Radcliffe’s Blue Fairy and Juel Rigall’s Green Fairy. Orchestra Victoria was led by Jenny Khafagi conducted by Phoebe Briggs. The director of this brilliant production was Nancy Black.