Of Mice and Metaphors

Miri Jassy

[August 2011.]

Carlisle FLOYD: Of Mice and Men (1970). Sydney Opera House, July 23-August 11.

Hair has caused its share of trouble. Samson was helpless without it, Rapunzel had too much of it and Anne of Green Gables hated hers. Hair is Lennie’s undoing in the novella-turned-opera Of Mice and Men, a pastoral tale the tragedy of which hinges on more than one catalyst.

Australian audiences now experience the debut production of Carlisle Floyd’s operatic adaptation of Steinbeck’s novella. Composed in the 1960s, Of Mice and Men operates from a style both modern and unsettling. If opera’s function is to narrate an atmosphere, then Floyd’s score accurately mirrors the alienation and imagery of Steinbeck’s story. The work’s orchestral aspects signal hunted or hopeful moods.

Conductor Andrea Molino was in his comfort zone, conducting at a suitably cracking pace for this taut pinch of a story. A composer dedicated to writing music on contemporary issues as diverse as the death penalty and advertising / religious conflict, Molino’s musical portrayals of the world’s ills find a knowing older cousin in Of Mice and Men.

The bond between Lennie and George is crucial to any staged version of Steinbeck’s classic tale. Director Bruce Beresford demonstrates apt control in directing the relationships at the right pitch. An Academy Award Winner (Driving Miss Daisy) and director of legendary Australian films (The Getting of Wisdom, Puberty Blues), Beresford’s large-scale experiences are ideal for opera.

“We’ll live off the fat of the land,” sing George and Lennie, a dream set up to be shattered. We know the story well. From our high school reading of the text, to parodies in popular culture, George and Lennie are the doomed odd couple. Anthony Dean Griffey embodies the simple, clunky Lennie with integrity. Through shuffling steps and twisting hands, his soaring tenor is mellifluous and evocative of Lennie’s innocence. Barry Ryan as George is a strong and confident performer. My imagined George is a younger, hungrier and somewhat bitter character. Ryan played a stoic and gentle George, happily avoiding melodrama in the process.

The colour of the opera resides in Curley’s Wife, the unnamed “tramp” not a fortnight married, still in shock at the lot of the lonely farmer’s wife. Currently playing a flirt-with-a-heart as La Boheme’s Musetta, Jacqueline Mabardi successfully portrays a heartless flirt in Of Mice and Men. Mabardi is sassy and surprisingly powerful. The pity of it is that she doesn’t stick around to give Curley hell.

The plot clinches neatly around Lennie’s demise. Desperately attracted to soft things despite a brute physical strength over which he has no control, Lennie has inadvertently killed a pet mouse and a puppy. The silky, soft hair of Curley’s wife and her fondness for a bit of flirting imperil them both. They are victims of their own innocence.

Designer John Stoddart teamed with Beresford years ago on the 1972 set of The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. Forty years later they collaborate with the trust of old comrades. The Godot-esque dead tree and maudlin overcast backdrop are perfect for the opening and final acts. The middle acts use simple carpentry for the bunkhouse and the dreaded barn.

A fascinating directorial choice shows the penultimate scene on film rather than on stage. This short filmed sequence of Curley on the warpath with his posse is screened on an intermission curtain used earlier for stylised paintings of haystacks and shying horses. The tense and at times turbulent score maintains its force, and the film sequence strikes the right tone of suspense without descending into hokey farce. Close-ups on the central characters’ faces set in grim determination are effective, and surprisingly intimate after three acts at so many metres removed from the stage.

A cameo reveals the limitations of stage realism. The ranch-hands call for Candy’s sick old old dog to be put down as one of the tale’s metaphors for human heartlessness. The young, bouncing Labrador in the role of Old Mangy is unconvincingly cute and healthy. Though not the fault of the hair and makeup artists, streaks of dirt-coloured powder smeared on the Lab’s coat were not enough to inspire canine method acting. It is surprising also that the dog didn’t pitch in as a chorus member and let loose a few mournful aroohs.

One of the mostly Australian cast’s minor failings is the tendency to patchy accents. Luke Gabbedy as the short notice understudy for Slim had an excuse, but I was not convinced by the company’s commitment to the California setting. While it’s true that the story depicts immigrant rural labour, the history books don’t indicate Aussies among those migrants.

A 2003 CD of the Grand Houston Opera features the star tenor Griffey as Lennie. The poignancy of his live performance is supported by a robust cast. ABC Radio in Australia occasionally broadcasts local operas in full. Of Mice and Men would sound great as an ephemeral offering.

Of Mice and Men is a welcome first at the Sydney Opera House. With its simple story the opera asks the same complex question Steinbeck asked in 1937: How can ordinary people prevent extraordinary tragedy? Like audience reactions to modern opera, responses are varied and at times uncomprehending.

 

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