Australia may have produced the singing Dames Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland, and have a spectacular opera house overlooking Sydney Harbour but, surely, it can't have much of a homegrown operatic history? Actually, Australia's impressive record with opera goes back a long way, as this production, which forms part of Spitalfields' "Opera from Oz" season, demonstrates.
In Don John of Austria we have the very first opera ever written in the Australian continent, dating from 1847 (the year in which Mendelssohn died). Isaac Nathan was born in Canterbury yet, once ensconced in the antipodes, he was determined to bring the rarefied operatic form to life. What must its first audience of recent settlers have thought of Nathan's vibrant musical telling of the story of the two sons of Philip of Spain, one legitimate, the other, the charming Don John of Austria, a bastard?
Though Nathan's orchestration of his Romantic melodrama has long been lost, a new arrangement has been made for these performances by no less a current Australian musical luminary than Sir Charles Mackerras - who also happens to be Nathan's great-great-great grandson. The family connection goes further: Don John will be conducted by Sir Charles's nephew, Alex Briger, another of Nathan's descendants, of course.
But what about Don John's actual idiom and pedigree? "Not to be dismissed lightly," comments its director, and the overall Artistic Director of Opera from Oz, Philip Parr. "To begin with, the story is a thrilling one - exciting, dramatic, vivid, and tautly expressed."
Even more interesting, perhaps, is Nathan's musical language. There he was, out in Australia, almost having to dream up the sort of opera which was being written back in Europe at the time. Amazingly, he comes up with something not too dissimilar to Rossini or Bellini while also constituting a very original work in its own right. And Sir Charles's orchestration is both faithful and dazzling. This isn't just an odd white elephant we're putting on but an unduly neglected and considerable opera." All of this perhaps goes to show, too, that Nathan, like so many British artists, might have worked far more perspicaciously in exile than at home. After all, who in the 1840s was writing opera on these shores?Reuse content