Patriarchal norms crashed against the surge of modern women at ‘Lorelei’ (QPAC Concert Hall in Brisbane, 6 March).
Presented by Opera Queensland by arrangement with Victorian Opera, this contemporary reimagining of a legend charts the story of a siren of devastatingly distracting beauty, Lorelei.
According to German lore, after being betrayed by her sweetheart, Lorelei is accused of bewitching men and causing their death. Consigned to a nunnery by a bishop for her beguiling ways, Lorelei escapes the clutches of three knights en route to the nunnery, and finds herself at the Lorelei rock on a cliff above the River Rhine. Believing that she sees her love below, Lorelei falls to her death and is forever damned to sing atop the rock, luring sailors to their untimely deaths with her enchanting songs.
A combination of cabaret, burlesque and opera, Victorian Opera’s ‘Lorelei’ was my initiation into the world of opera, and it was surprising to say the least. Blending contemporary art and issues with undercurrents of traditional opera, it sank every pre-conception I had.
Long intrigued by the story of the sirens, I had come to hear their song in all its operatic splendour. What I got was an eye-opening and thought-provoking dialogue of misogyny and sexism.
In this commission of the old story, Lorelei is split into three when she falls from the cliff – Lorelei A, B and C – performed by mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd and sopranos Ali McGregor and Antoinette Halloran.
With the parting of the stage curtain, the trio of modern day sirens stood defiantly resplendent in dresses by Costume Designer Marg Horwell, who took inspiration from runway collections by major international fashion houses. Shepherd – in a dress made from 140 metres of pale pink tulle – swayed with the delicate deadliness of a sea anemone, while McGregor swelled in a sea of voluminous red, and Halloran enticed in a figure-hugging, velvet fishtail frock.
As each Lorelei backstory was sung in turn, the three sirens appeared smug, titillated and free from remorse. That is until one Lorelei (Halloran) had a crisis of conscience. Must it always be this way? Are they forever doomed to be cursed, blamed and shamed for the downfall of men?
And this is where this operatic cabaret takes a surprising twist, as it explores the role of not only the traditional female in literature and opera, but the still-current theme that the will and self-control of men can somehow be overpowered by the seductive charms of women.
Agreeing to take a short sabbatical from their plight, the sirens are shocked to discover that the passing sailors perish anyhow. Have they been duped? Were their seductive powers real, or a ruse of coercive control?
Railing against their fate, each siren rebelliously strips off their bewitchingly constrictive finery only to reveal the confines of another societal pressure-inspired garment – shapewear.
And this is where Shepherd shines. I had hoped for a ‘Pretty Woman’ operatic moment where (like Julia Roberts’ Vivian Ward) I held my breath in wonder and had tears well, and Shepherd’s portrayal of wretched despair almost got me there.
Detractions to utter operatic wonderment were the subtitles displayed beneath each singer, which on more than one occasion didn’t match the sung word, and were often out of sync with the performance.
So too the scene in which Shepherd’s Lorelei tries to escape her damnation, only to discover that every stage door leads back to her place on the cliff. It would have been more powerful, had it not gone on so long.
Adorned in their restrictive finery once again by stagehands, the production ends with the sirens once again powerlessly consigned to their roles of temptress and executioner.
While not swept away by ‘Lorelei’ as I had hoped, I was, as a woman, left feeling a little lost at sea by the questions posed.
‘Lorelei' is on at Queensland Performing Arts Centre until 13 March.