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Adelaide Festival Seeks to Recapture its Glory Days

Image Caption: Handel’s Saul. Image Credit: State Opera of South Australia
Graham Strahle
| February 27, 2017

Co-directors of the 32nd Adelaide Festival of Arts, Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, have promised a return to staging ambitious, large scale music and theatre productions that helped establish the event’s standing in former decades. In the 2017 brochure they write: “we have sought work of scale and generosity: work that contests, interprets, and connects us to the great ideas and challenges of our time”.

Well, there are two centrepieces that Armfield and Healy have chosen to deliver their vision: these are Handel’s Saul in a production by Barrie Kosky for Glyndebourne Opera, and Andrew Bovell’s play The Secret River in a remount of that acclaimed play in an Adelaide Hills stone quarry – the same one where it held an unforgettable all-night production of The Mahabarata in 1988.

“We talked a lot about what had made Adelaide so great in its early years, why was it seen as one of the top … festivals in the world”, Healy told the Sydney Morning Herald. “It was because it took risks and it created unexpected theatre experiences. That might have been because of the scale and ambition of operas like Voss, Death in Venice and Nixon In China, or because it staged Peter Brook’s The Mahabarata … People are still talking about that decades later.”

The last time the Adelaide Festival staged a major opera production was in 2010 with Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, and in preceding years it clocked up an impressive run of new operas with Golijov’s Ainadamar in 2008, Dove’s Flight in 2006 and other landmark works going back to the 1980s that Healy cites. Since then though, the Festival has staged no operas, and its classical music content in general has waned. Previous director David Sefton favoured contemporary popular and experimental streams.

Amusingly, the official 2017 Adelaide Festival brochure describes Saul as an opera, and many media outlets are mistaking it likewise (The Guardian, Financial Review and ABC to name but three), when of course this work is actually an oratorio. But never mind that, Kosky’s version is fully staged. The Telegraph described it as “utterly enthralling” at its UK premiere in 2015.

Opera fans can always choose to see Monteverdi’s Orfeo, with the much vaunted period instrument band Concerto Italiano. This year’s music program also includes a 12-concert ‘Chamber Landscapes’ series featuring La Gaia Scientia, the Australian String Quartet, Seraphim Trio, and Indigenous artists Deborah Cheetham and William Barton.

The Adelaide Festival of Arts runs 3-19 March. Full program here.

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