Evita (Opera Australia, John Frost and David Ian)
Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre
December 5, 2018 – February 23, 2019
Opera Australia’s production of “Evita” starts slowly, but understandably so given that it begins with us witnessing the 1954 state funeral of enigmatic Argentinian icon Eva Peron (nicknamed Evita). It’s an appropriate opening for a show that at-once tells a personal and political story, emphasised by the incorporation of real-life video content (design by Duncan McLean) as testament to the extent of Evita worship that is still so much a part of the emotion and iconography of experience of Argentina (where the musical has been banned).
From this opening, the recreation of the original West End and Broadway production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” then takes the audience back through Eva’s (Tina Arena) story from poverty, leaving her family as a teenager with tango singer Agustin Magaldi (Michael Falzon, with a wonderful stage presence) and through life as a fledgling actress to her self-determined assent to status as a still-revered figurehead and symbol of hope for Argentina’s working class as the second wife of President Juan Peron (Paulo Szot).
Under Guy Simpson’s musical direction, the orchestra is masterful, meaning that the score stands the test of time, with addition of ‘You Must Love Me’, written for the 1996 film version. As highlight, the percussive ‘Peron’s Latest Flame’ provides a pop of colour and militaristic movement before the bombast ‘New Argentina’ rallies into intermission with a big and bold company number. The score also affords memorable tender moments too, like the duet between Eva and narrator Che (Kurt Kansley), ‘High Flying Adored’, in which the price of her fame is analysed.
While her Eva is one of ambition more than vulnerability, making it difficult to elicit empathy from the audience, Tina Arena brings a big touch of star quality to the production. Her performance is passionate, both dramatically and vocally. She makes ‘Buenos Aires’ and ‘Rainbow High’ her own and is of beautiful voice in Act Two’s show-stopping ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ in recognition of the song’s stately orchestration, stirring refrain and also melodic vulnerability. Indeed, it makes for a breathtaking moment as she strikes iconic pose on the balcony of Casa Rosada, backdropped by of-the-time footage of a sea-like crowd.
Although this is Eva’s story, it is the charismatic narrator Che (in this production visually based on famed revolutionary and guerrilla leader Che Guevara, more than as an anonymous everyman) who also spends significant time on stage. Kansley is also vocally excellent, as both Eva’s conscience and the voice of the people, ensuring that the audience is given the ‘authentic’ story of the nation’s ‘spiritual chief’. And Brazilian opera singer Paulo Szot is a commanding vocal presence as the presidential Peron.
“Evita” is a show full of detail, meaning that some knowledge of the story is advisable for audience members. This also allows for appreciation of its accompanying historical images, such as newsreal footage from the Peron’s 1947 goodwill ‘rainbow’ tour of Europe, fresh off Juan’s presidential election win. Clever mid-scene costume changes also add interest, such as when a crowd of Argentine elite in judgment of Eva’s chorus girl ambition is morphed into members of the working class masses adoring of her as advocate of labour rights and charitable championing. Makeup and lighting also work well, particularly in enhancement of Arena’s poignant performance, which aids immensely in helping us regard her as a dying woman being ravaged by cervical cancer at just 33.
As with its introduction, “Evita” ends soberly, with mourners gathered around Eva’s deathbed. While this does detract from its experience, given the unusual feel of not leaving a musical buoyanted by its final number or encore, it does not diminish the all-around artistry of this homage to the life of the first lady of Argentina.