11 October 2007

2007 Melbourne International Festival Opens

2007 Melbourne International Festival Opens

No more sleeps. Tonight is the opening of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. For the next 17 days we will be treated to an arts program that has silenced even the harshest critics. Much is already sold out, but there are still opportunities to buy tickets and an extensive free program.

Opening Night kicks off with a free family sing-a-long at 6pm in Federation Square with Grammy Award winning Dan Zanes and Friends.

The highlight of the festival’s first week also opens tonight. Last year we were treated to Robert Wilson’s mesmerising I La Galigo, in 1992 we had Einstein On The Beach. This year he returns with The Temptation of St Anthony. Yesterday afternoon I spent a couple of hours watching Wilson perfect a couple of minutes of this show during the dress rehearsal.

St Anthony is as astonishingly beautiful as the international reviews have said. Wilson creates art that somehow bypasses conscious thought and goes straight to your heart and soul. The gentle and almost haunting opening moments had me wiping away a tear, without even realising what I was feeling. The cast enter from the auditorium with bamboo bird puppets. Its so Lion King! I also cried in the opening scene of The Lion King, but this show is something so, so much more than a commercial musical.

This is music theatre of a calibre and standard we rarely see.

It is possibly Wilson’s most accessible piece. It’s sung in English, is under two hours and has a discernable story line. Starting from the figure of Saint Anthony in Flaubert's novel, this production asks questions about sin, goodness and the temptations of the flesh.

Wilson collaborated with Bernice Johnson Reagon to create Saint Anthony. Reagon is probably best known to our audiences as the founder and artistic director of the divine a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock. The score is based deeply in the history of African-American music and culture ranging from spirituals, blues, shouts, gospel, hymns, jazz and doo wop to hip hop and rock. It features an all African-American cast of singers and dancers and is accompanied by a live band led by music director Toshi Reagon. Toshi is Bernice’s daughter and also appearing with her own band BIGLovely at the Speigeltent. Toshi Reagon simply has a voice you can’t tear yourself away from.

Then there is the colour. The Festival’s Artistic Director Kristy Edmunds intrigued us last year by saying that Wilson invents colour before our eyes. I can promise you that you will never see lighting and colour as phenomenal as this again. Wilson and lighting designer AJ Weissbard paint the stage with an intricacy comparable to an impressionist master. The colours of I La Galigo were primary and striking. St Anthony’s are subtle and complex and rich. I cannot even begin to describe the multitudes of blue. I just know that I wanted to wrap myself in them. Colour and light are Wilson’s expression of feeling and emotion. He makes words irrelevant.

Wilson is a perfectionist. His precision leaves no room for vagueness or spontaneous artistic interpretation. In the rehearsal a few minutes of the show were perfected over two hours. The first run already had me mesmerized. Then Wilson fixed some spacing, spent minutes directing a performer to make one tiny step and insisted on the exact speed of the removal of a piece of set. These moments would be unnoticed by most, but that is what makes this director’s work so addictive. He takes an already beautiful moment and makes it exquisite.

The Temptation of St Anthony runs from tonight until Sunday at the State Theatre. There are still some tickets available, but be quick or you may miss this spectacular and astonishing work. Go to www.melbournefestival.com.au for details.

This story originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

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