Bliss, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh<br/>Euridice/La bohème, Peacock Theatre, London

Opera Australia's zingy staging of a Peter Carey novel cheerfully quotes from Stravinsky, Puccini, Beethoven and Wagner

Anna Picard
Sunday 12 September 2010 00:00 BST

Raucous and tender, tongue-in-cheek and foul-mouthed, Brett Dean and Amanda Holden's adaptation of Peter Carey's novel Bliss bursts into life on a cloud of hedonism and hyperbole. Here is Harry Joy (Peter Coleman-Wright), the "marvellous, magnificent and maddening" advertising executive whose life, it appears, is perfect. Toasted in a triple-time drinking song by his colleague Alex (Barry Ryan), this loving husband, kind father and "truly decent bloke" is about to die.

Bliss is not the first opera to open with a brindisi, and just as Verdi did in La traviata, Dean hints at tragedy in his first notes. Blink and you'll miss this brief pre-echo of Harry's out-of-body experience, the humid flutes and popping pizzicato of limbo. Only later, when his heart has been shocked back to life, does Harry tell us what he saw, while waiting for the by-pass surgery that sends him to hell and back. Here, and in the rainforest home of "professional bee-keeper and talented amateur tart" Honey B (Lorina Gore), Dean's semi-tropical filaments quiver at leisure.

Holden's skilful distillation of Carey's redemptive comedy clears the way for a juicy succession of cameos and ensembles. There's a belching Ländler for Reverend Des (Shane Lowrencev), Rameau-esque fanfares to illustrate the destruction of Harry's car by an elephant, wah-wah trumpets on the other end of the telephone, even an Immolation Scene for Harry's commerce- and cancer-stricken wife, Betty (Merlyn Quaife). There's a shrieking Dies Irae over a festering coil of brass, and a nod to The Rake's Progress in the opening chorus in the asylum where Harry ends up after firing his most poisonous and lucrative clients. (House rules: "No talking, fucking, farting, spitting, thinking, laughing.") There are direct quotes: a blush of "Si, mi chiamano Mimi", a glint of Das Rheingold, Beethoven's "Muss es sein?". If this is Hell – and what parent wouldn't despair if their son were dealing drugs to his sister in return for a blow job? – it's Hell with a sense of humour.

As the final import in this year's Edinburgh International Festival, Bliss redeemed the execrable Montezuma. Framed by Brian Thomson's brilliant LED set – its lights depicting Harry's weakened heartbeat, the pixelated turquoise and green of limbo and the priapic skyline of the 1980s – Neil Armfield's Opera Australia production is as confident and playful as Dean's score. Under Elgar Howarth, the BBC Symphony Orchestra played zingily (if too loudly), enlivened by a change of scene. Among the supporting cast, Ryan's Alex, Henry Choo's Aldo and Sharon Olde and Jane Parkin's saucy Nurses stood out, while Gore's melismatic apiarist and Coleman-Wright's genial, weary, innocent Harry were superlative.

British Youth Opera's annual season at the Peacock Theatre saw another journey to hell. Stephen Oliver's adaptation of Jacopo Peri's Euridice is most remarkable for the quality of its libretto. The musical translation is another matter. Though the vocal lines remain intact, the continuo and ritornellos are rescored for banjo, piano, double-bass, brass, recorders and handbells. The result is disconcerting for anyone with an interest in early opera, for while one ear is busy absorbing Oliver's neologisms, the other supplies an approximation of Peri's implied harmony.

Unsurprisingly, the most satisfying moments are the madrigals, which allow no reharmonisation. If you can swallow the insertion of a monotheistic chorus within a polytheistic myth, Act II has the best of Oliver's writing – a desperate Miserere, a frigid swirl of handbells and musky canzonas for broken consort. Led by Paul Curievici's ardent, stylish Orpheus, the cast coped well in a production notable for an excess of group hugs.

Director Stephen Barlow brought a touch of magic realism to La Bohème. This was a staging that celebrated the glorious fragility of first love. Designer Yannis Thavoris's delicate, exploded sketch of 1950s Paris saw silk flowers blossom and bedsteads and café tables float up into the air as Mimi (Susana Gaspar) and Rodolfo (John Pierce), and Musetta (Anna Patalong) and Marcello (Koji Terada), fell in and out of love. Conductor Peter Robinson kept the tempi swift and the textures clean. The chorus direction was faultless, the lighting (David Howe) exquisite. Though Pierce was a reticent Rodolfo, too devoted to his typewriter, BYO's cast warmed into their roles. All showed strong personalities and promising voices, with Terada's glossy baritone and Gaspar's dark-tinted soprano especially attractive.

Next week

Anna Picard squirms at Kafka's torture machine in Philip Glass's opera In the Penal Colony

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