Basing a contemporary Australian opera on a flawed 16th century genius may seem a risky proposition.
But audiences attending performances of Biographica at Theatre Works will find a production that hits all the right notes.
Five singers, one actor and an orchestra of 11 explore the chaotic but brilliant life and mind of Gerolamo Cardano, a scientist, mathematician, linguist and gambler who lived between 1501 and 1576.
The brainchild of leading Australian composer Mary Finsterer and librettist Tom Wright, the 85-minute opera, first premiered at the Sydney Festival in 2017 to rave reviews.
Melbourne audiences can now see why with Lyric Opera of Melbourne presenting a new production created by the multi-award-winning team of Heather Fairbairn (Director), Niklas Pajanti (Lighting Designer), Savanna Wegmann (Set and Costume Design) and Lyric’s Artistic Director, Patrick Burns (Conductor).
Set on the day Cardano had accurately predicted he would die, the opera features 12 scenes from his life. They depict his professional victories and failures, his character flaws and his dysfunctional family life.
Through spoken words and the music we learn of the jailing of one of his sons and the execution of another for murder. We also discover how he cured the Archbishop of Edinburgh from serious illness when no one else could and his exclusion from the College of Physicians in Milan.
Some of his major discoveries are also explored including the mechanisms of his most famous invention, which became the modern combination lock.
Actor Dion Mills expertly brings to life Cardano’s thoughts and actions clearly highlighting his manic, self-destructive behaviour and the torment he suffered.
Equally as impressive are the singers. On opening night they were sopranos Belinda Dalton and Rachael Joyce, mezzo soprano Juel Riggall, tenor Douglas Kelly and baritone Raphael Wong (who stepped in for the ill Bailey Montgomerie). They represent the people who impacted Cardano’s life including his mother, children and work colleagues.
The hard-working orchestra impressively presents a musical score which mixes renaissance and modern musical styles with 20th and 21st century innovations including electronics.
The clever use of lighting, projections and mirrors and subtle costume changes on stage effectively set the scene for each part of Cardona’s life highlighted in the opera.
While the music and the performance of the cast is the greatest joy of attending a performance of Biographica, there is another benefit. There’s the chance to learn more about a brilliant, flawed and tormented man whose many important discoveries have all but been forgotten over the years.
Biographica is playing at Theatre Works until October 1. Visit the Theatre Works website for more information and tickets.
* Photo credit: Jodie Hutchinson.
Jenny Burns attended the opening night of Biographica as a guest of the production company.
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