Heaven knows I have channeled all my anticipatory energies into Bliss. I read the novel, bought (though never watched) the DVD, listened to the orchestral suite and other Brett Dean bits. I promoted it online with a determination which surprised even me. I threw myself into the Twitter campaign. I read every interview and article I could. I mastered the art of subtitles on Movie Maker, just so I could make a surreal Downfall parody. I compulsively photographed the poster and scanned city streets for the back-of-taxi ads. I organised a costume party. And I booked tickets for the entire season before I'd even seen a single performance, an honour not even accorded to Arabella or Peter Grimes. After a long time just being quietly intrigued that it was happening — and pleased that Peter Coleman-Wright was in it because, you know, I quite like him — I turned Bliss into a sort of crucial life event, and the focus of as much explosive excitement as I could muster.
Which was reckless of me, I suppose, but what could I do? After all, there was never really any possibility that I'd hate it. Even if the music had been unbearable — though frankly, I've never yet run up against any operatic music I'd describe as such — the cast, director and source material were all guarantees against a total trainwreck. And let's be honest, any evening involving three hours in the company of Peter Coleman-Wright is fine by me. Still, lack of hatred — or even just moderate esteem — isn't nearly enough, especially not for a enthusiast like me. What I wanted was the thing I couldn't guarantee. I wanted to fall in love. I could feign a more rational outlook if required, and find a hundred things about Bliss to admire and respect, but the fact is that without that ultimate seduction, the experience would always have been less than complete.
And it happened. But not right away. I mean, opening night was special. It had to be. It was a capital-E Event. It was the culmination of so many hopes and expectations and of so much preparation, and it was wonderful. It was the only night that garnered a decent standing ovation, too. It still wasn't my night, though. Bliss had caught my imagination and sparked a good deal of affection, but it hadn't captured my heart just yet. Instead, it was my brain that was engaged. I was looking at it lovingly, but critically too: spotting flaws alongside delights. Opening night gave me plenty of fodder for a rave review, and that's essentially what I gave it, but the urge to rush out into the night and declare my love? That hadn't kicked in yet.
Already, though, I felt that it might. While I was troubled by what I perceived as the opera's theatrical shortcomings, I also felt that these had as much do with my own struggle to separate the opera from the novel as anything else. Because on that first night, of course, the novel was my only point of reference — I had nothing else to compare it to. Afterwards, I could compare it to itself; I could respond to each performance in the context of those which had come before, and thus approach the opera as a separate entity. The trick was to convince myself that the material which Amanda Holden had necessarily jettisoned in adapting the novel wasn't now missing from the opera — the opera was an alternate Bliss in which that stuff simply didn't exist. And while one performance wasn't nearly enough to begin to take in Brett Dean's unbelievably rich and complex score, I could already feel it seeping into my veins. No, I couldn't hum any of the tunes (well, except "You won't die") after opening night, but unlike more than one reviewer, I find it impossible to view that as some sort of failing — in the style of Groucho Marx, I think I'd tend to distrust that any opera which I could hum after only one hearing.
The second performance was thus a bit of a clincher — I wanted confirmation of my hopes and my optimistic theories, and I got it. The performances were better and less tentative, my reservations about the drama of it began to matter less, and I could feel my mind begin to wrap itself a bit more tightly around the score. It seemed everything was heading in the right direction. I was still waiting for my own personal explosion, but after this one, felt surer it would come. The third performance, the matinée, was the best yet, helped along by what seemed to me the most responsive audience, if also the smallest.
It was a turning point for me, too. I felt as if I'd finally caught up with Bliss; that I had absorbed the basic shape and texture of it now, and could thus really focus on the particular glories of a single performance, rather than feel I was still coming to terms with the opera itself. In other words, it had become a part of my repertoire, if still in a fledgling sense — I felt I was coming to Bliss now in, broadly speaking, the same state of mind as I did to Tosca, or as I will to Sonnambula or (tempting fate here) Kat'a Kabanova. Not quite engraved upon my soul like Don Giovanni or Madama Butterfly or La voix humaine, but definitely a part of my musical consciousness.
Number four — also known as 80s Night — was a little bit different, an amicable conflict between Bliss-as-event and Bliss-as-opera. The event side was magnificent. For once, my somewhat carefully laid plans came to fruition. At interval we met Brett Dean, a completely lovely man and the only person all evening who appreciated my Joy Division t-shirt without being prompted. And afterwards the leading man obligingly came down to inspect us in our finery, managing (as he does) to charm everybody within a ten-metre radius in the process. Programs were signed, compliments offered, photos taken. So from that point of view it was a thorough success. But our seats at the brass-section end of the front row were not ideal, and while I could appreciate how well everyone was singing and playing — and was heartened to see the standard hadn't slipped one bit — the skewed balance made it hard for me to bask in the glory of it all as completely as I would have liked. And I was still waiting for That Performance.
Which, as I expounded at length, was exactly what came next. No need to repeat all that here, but the crux of it is that here, at performance number five, was where I fell. Actually, no. Not where I fell, but where I realised I had already fallen. I loved it. Not as an idea, or an event, or a vehicle for a favourite singer, but just for itself. More than that, it had become mine. The #donotmissBliss campaign had given me a sense of personal investment in the opera, but that sense of ownership is different, less tangible and more exciting. Without it, I could still have enjoyed my six performances and lavished genuine praise upon Bliss, but with it, well, all that stuff is a lot more fun — and it's the reason this blog post is so unbelievably long. Adoration, as we know, always does make me long-winded.
And closing night was just beautiful. Not heavy or solemn. In spirit, it was like a three-hour version of Harry's final sonnet — peaceful, radiant, at ease with life and with the eventual end of it. The cast seemed more relaxed than ever, to the point that we even enjoyed the odd, harmless blooper. Peter's Harry seemed warmer and looser-limbed than ever, and in the restaurant, more wonderfully drunk than ever. Later, in the asylum and back at home, there was something eerie about him, a sad, quiet sense of helplessness. He was doing less, it seemed, than he had in previous performances, and once I'd adjusted to that, the effect was unexpectedly poignant. The sonnet itself was some kind of perfect. It was the right way to finish.
Not that it has finished. One season down, two more to go — for this cast — and a second production before the year is out. I hope it won't finish then, either. I want Bliss to live. Not just on principle, although that would be enough, but because I love it. I'm not much interested in whether it's the Great Australian Opera — I'm not even sure such a creature will ever exist, or need to. It's just a really, really good opera and one which deserves a meaningful future. Perfect it ain't, but when the ink dries and the hype settles, I'd like to think we'll come to accept the flaws of this opera as we do those of (let's face it) every single other opera ever written, and let its brilliance flourish. Bliss is a thing of beauty — so let's hope it is indeed a Joy for ever.