Theatre review: Ulla's Odyssey/Love Thy Neighbour

By William Dart

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Elizabeth Mandeno as Ulla in Anthony Young's Ulla Odyssey/Love Thy Neighbour. Photo / Supplied
Elizabeth Mandeno as Ulla in Anthony Young's Ulla Odyssey/Love Thy Neighbour. Photo / Supplied

Opera Factory's nifty double bill of new Kiwi opera, like the best Broadway shows, did not spring up overnight.

Anthony Young's Ulla's Odyssey and Callum Blackmore's Love Thy Neighbour had both been workshopped before winning the company's Chamber Opera Competition earlier this year.

And now the sure directorial hand of Sally Sloman, with some delightful sets and costumes, as well as the ever-resourceful piano of David Kelly, brings them to life for a short season that deserves full houses.

Anthony Young is an experienced composer and theatre musician; it shows in the strong streak of Sondheim running through Ulla's Revenge, from hearty opening chorus to the carefully manicured writing for its heroine.

Yet, for all the sangfroid and assurance of Elizabeth Mandeno as the dauntless sea-farer, the impact of Leanna Brodie's ambitious libretto suffers from jokey name-tagging (Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga) and the self-conscious cuteness of a shipboard cat, however charmingly played by Alysia Han.

Amongst the bizarre creatures encountered by the sea-bound Ulla, Patrick Kelly's robust tenor makes the most of the composer's cleverly sketched Cy-Ops, a robotic lighthouse and border security system.

Callum Blackmore's Love Thy Neighbour, a tongue-in-cheek tale of rivalry over the garden fence, is a mighty achievement for its 17-year-old composer.

The kingpin of the plot is Winston, a giant turnip, played with panache by Robert Enari, punctuating the proceedings with amiable, witty rap.

Setting his own libretto, Blackmore keeps it light and breezy. He's a style bandit of the most winning kind, whether introducing Catherine Reaburn with a blithe springtime waltz or having Adam Thompson, as the hypochondriac, patter through his ailments.

Recitatives are scrumptiously pointed, Reaburn ascends into operatic rapture over her love for the hapless tuber, and the sparring neighbours eventually come together in a love duet worthy of Sir Andrew himself.

Sometimes the humour spills off the stage. Reaburn has an altercation with keyboardist Flavio Villani over his cellphone, and the composer joins the action at the end to defend his work to the sceptical Winston.

All in all, a most enjoyable night at the theatre, proving that homegrown opera could live up to our hopes for it.

What: Ulla's Odyssey/Love Thy Neighbour
Where: Opera Factory, 7 Eden St, Newmarket, to Sunday

- NZ Herald

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