Sunday, September 22, 2013


Chamber Opera in 2 Acts
Music by Sandra France
Libretto by Helen Nourse
Musical Director: David Kram
Directed by Caroline Stacey
The Street Theatre
September 20 - 22, 2013

Review by Len Power
20 September 2013

Having been through that terrible day in January 2003 when Canberra experienced its bushfire tragedy, I was keen to see how ‘From A Black Sky’, a new opera by composer, Sandra France, and librettist, Helen Nourse, would present the drama of that day musically on stage.

In this production by Caroline Stacey, four principal singers, a large chorus including singers from Erindale College and children from Arawang Primary School play out a tragic story of relationships against the background of the fires.

The set design by Christiane Nowak utilizes the bare walls of the Street Theatre stage to great effect with small acting areas surrounding the onstage orchestra.  While the principles were in appropriate modern dress, it was not clear what some of the more uniform chorus costumes were meant to signify.  Lighting design by Gillian Schwab and sound design by Seth Edwards-Ellis are very atmospheric, creating a genuine sense of the gathering darkness, shadows and smoke which will be well-remembered by anyone who experienced that day in Canberra.

The principal singers, Judith Dodsworth, Don Bemrose, Rachael Duncan and David Rogers-Smith handle the vocal challenge of the score very well.  Characterisations were also clear and believable.  The chorus produced a fine sound and the large group sections with some intricate harmonies were very well sung.  Musical director, David Kram, produced an excellent sound from his 12 piece chamber orchestra.

The music by Sandra France is modern but not inaccessible.  Some of the solos and duets sung by the principal characters were quite beautiful in their range and emotion.  Unfortunately it was difficult to hear clearly the words that were being sung and that affected the level of involvement in the personal stories being played out.  While I liked the music, there could have been a more distinctive ‘voice’ of the fire underlying the drama.

Some editing would benefit the show, especially in the first half where characters and motivations had been established and the plot began to seem a bit laboured.  Also in the second half, Tony’s speech about the fires seemed to signal a climax to the show, but there was still some twenty minutes to go.

This was an uneven, but worthwhile attempt to bring to life musically the memories of that tragic Canberra day.  Sandra France is certainly a musical talent to be encouraged.  I look forward to her next work.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM's 'Dress Circle' program, Sunday 22 September 2013

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