I like Brett Dean’s Bliss enough to have seen it three times, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find it problematical. The stumbling block for me has been the ending, which (at its core) is simply not very operatic, or even theatrical.
The first performance I saw left me feeling slightly deflated, as if I’d just read to the end of a certain kind of New Yorker short story. Like the woman I overhead at another performance, I was thinking “That’s it then…” At this point I still hadn’t managed to finish reading Carey’s novel, so I heard Act III of the opera with no idea of what was in store other than curiosity as to whether Harry would actually die that third time. After I had finished the novel, it seemed to me that Brett Dean and Amanda Holden had dealt very well with the challenges presented by the book itself, which meanders to its conclusion in a way that isn’t suited to theatre.
And after tonight I’ve decided that New-Yorker-short-story is the wrong analogy.
Here’s what really happens: Acts I and II are Harry Joy’s story. He’s the one you care about, the one whose struggles you share. But Act III is really Betty Joy’s story. She becomes the one whose ambition, pain and self-destruction draws empathy. A certain kind of good opera ends with someone dying, and as one person said to me, half joking, Bliss could easily end with Betty’s inflammatory suicide (not necessarily musically spectacular, but dramatically spectacular). That’s not entirely true, but you get the point. After the Board Room scene, the conclusion is something of an anticlimax. And I realised tonight that if Bliss weren’t strictly speaking all about Harry, then the final scene would probably be labelled in the libretto as the Epilogue.
You know what an epilogue is…
“No epilogue, I pray you; for your play needs no excuse. Never excuse; for when the players are all dead, there needs none to be blamed.…But come, your Bergomask: let your epilogue alone.”
But the players in Bliss are not all dead, and Harry must be there at the end, no question, and so we get the final scene, In Elysium. It’s not a Shakespearean epilogue, an “apology” and summons to applause, it’s more like the final chapter of a Regency novel. All the action has come to a conclusion, but we must needs find out what happens to the characters after and be given something improving, and possibly epigrammatic, to take away:
“If you would seek salvation, remember this:
a life in Hell can still aspire to BLISS.”
I’m not the first to say this, but it sure is bliss to have the libretto of a new opera reproduced in the program. Bravo Opera Australia!