In 1944, Stella Bowen was commissioned by the Australian War Memorial as a WWII War Artist in London. Bowen’s famous portrait of a Lancaster bomber crew who perished the night she had sketched them, frames the opera’s beginning and ending. (Many other paintings are projected and interweave with her story.)
Stella Bowen goes to London in 1914 as a young woman dreaming of becoming a painter. She is befriended by writer Violet Hunt who introduces her at a party to her lover, the famous Ford Madox Ford. Ford and Stella fall deeply in love and he deserts the older woman, Violet. They live out their fairytale dream in a cottage for three years, even having a baby, but tire of the poverty and isolation. On moving to Paris, they become the toast of the town, with weekly bal musettes for the arts crowd and start the transatlantic review with the proceeds of their farm sale. Their relationship unravels when Ford becomes entangled with the writer Jean Rhys and a dangerous love triangle unfolds. Stella agrees to Jean moving in with them, as Ford agonises about his choices and behaviour. Stella eventually throws them both out and reclaims herself through painting. Later, she takes their daughter to France to farewell a dying Ford and all the women who have loved him farewell Ford together. Stella awakes from her reverie and sings with the airmen about to fly to their fates of the courage of facing each day with a brave heart.
1. “The Portrait” reviewed by Ewart Shaw, The Adelaide Advertiser, February 6th 2006
Singing about painting is a bit like dancing about architecture, but add the ingredients, love, loss, betrayal and sex, and you find yourself in familiar operatic territory. The portrait of Stella Bowen, created by Becky Llewellyn and directed by Tessa Bremner, is a tribute by two fine living artists to this fascinating character in Australian art history.
Conceived as a series of panels, lightly sketching in moments of her life, we see her paint and see some of her works projected behind her, and we see her grapple with Ford Madox Ford, her older selfish and untrustworthy lover. We see too much of him, and while he's superbly sung by Pelham Andrews, his constant presence keeps us anchored in the part of Bowen's life most people share, as opposed to her life as an artist which separates her out from us.
Jessica Dean as Bowen is a graceful figure, emotionally reserved with a voice of brightness though her color palette, rather like Bowen's is limited.
The music possesses immense charm and accessibility, with some striking solos, a highly perceptive duet about domestic responsibility, and some ensembles, especially the lamenting quartet and the final anthem which display Llewellyn's considerable gifts to great advantage.
Anthony Hunt is completely at home with the pastiche of popular styles in the piano part, and the other singers rise individually to the challenges of the deceptively simple vocal writing.
The time, effort and commitment that Co-Opera, under Brian Chatterton, have put into developing this work is bearing fruit. It will bring great pleasure to many, who might then want to find out more about Stella Bowen for themselves.
2. “Sensitivity and Clarity” reviewed by Graham Strahle, Adelaide Review, February 10 – 23, 2006
The story of artist Stella Bowen is a compelling one. After taking art classes with Margaret Preston, she left Adelaide and entered the furnace of London's literary and artistic avant-garde during and following WWI, later moving to France where she encountered Gris, Matisse and Gertrude Stein. Intriguingly for such a well-connected artist, Bowen chose to completely side-step modernism in her paintings and settled on a distinctly personal figurative style that is only now starting to be recognized and prized for its originality.
Recent interest in her work has spawned an award-winning book, Stravinsky's Lunch, by Drusilla Modjeska, a dramatic monologue, Homeless by writer Elizabeth Bennett, and now a chamber opera by Adelaide composer Becky Llewellyn.
The Portrait is a sensitive, searching account of Bowen's life that concentrates on her nine-year liaison with novelist and ladies' man Ford Madox Ford. We don't get to see much of what motivates her as an artist, but we do learn a lot about her emotional fiber as she responds to their turbulent and ultimately unproductive time together.
The opera refrains from taking sides. Typically Ford is seen as exploitative and callous in his dealings with women, but Llewellyn, in showing how he genuinely cared for Bowen's career, even if in the end he probably impeded it, reveals Ford's redeeming qualities. Constantly neglectful of her daughter Julie, Bowen emerges as no heroine either. With soprano Jessica Dean as the protagonist and bass baritone Pelham Andrews as Ford, this is an exceptionally well cast production. The supporting cast are strong, especially Sarah Sweeting as the jilted Violet Hunt and Tessa Miller as Ford's next-in-line lover Jean Rhys. To have written both the libretto and music is rare in music theatre, and to bring such sharp clarity into The Portrait makes it an outstanding first foray into opera for Llewellyn.
3. “Co-Opera: The Portrait”, reviewed by Christopher Wainwright, State of the Arts online magazine, 13th February 2006
In 2003, national touring opera company, Co-Opera commissioned South Australian composer, Becky Llewellyn to write the libretto and music for their new music theatre work, The Portrait about South Australian painter, Stella Bowen and literary figure, Ford Madox Ford and his many loves.
Lasting close to two hours, Llewellyn developed the libretto through painstaking research, which included going through Stella’s family scrapbook and visiting both London and Paris to see where she lived and worked between the 1920s and '40s. While Llewellyn read Drusilla Modjeska’s novel Stravinsky’s Lunch, which explores Bowen and her relationship to Maddox Ford, she decided not to take her subjective, more feminist approach when creating the libretto.
Despite a shoe-string budget, Co-Opera, with their casting, costumes and imaginative staging by Tessa Bremner have created an interesting and engaging theatre work which brilliantly brings the challenges of Stella’s life with literary great Ford Madox Ford to life and Becky Llewellyn’s ingenious use and development of historically-informed musical idioms is central to that success.
For those seeking an opera that looked solely at Stella’s works and lives, some may have been disappointed by the fact that Ford Maddox Ford’s loves and whims steal some of Bowen’s limelight.
While that was so, Bowen’s significant artworks including: Bomber crew, Reclining Nude and Ford Madox Ford playing Solitaire were projected though occasionally the stage lighting also came onto the projected artworks, which marred one’s appreciation of the artworks and her approach to colors.
For The Portrait, Co-Opera brought together a fine cast of emerging and established singers who, through their mostly well-polished performances, clearly communicated the many mixed emotions of happiness, humor and sadness.
Cast in the lead roles of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen are two of South Australia’s rising young opera stars, Pelham Andrews and Jessica Dean. Both of them not only have magnificent techniques, they also know how to act, to bring emotional depth to their roles and to have an audience almost totally spellbound by their performances.
In the few occasions where ensemble performances were called upon, thanks to the casting of an excellent group of talented singers, there was a mixture of voices that blended well and that were able to cope with sometimes rather complex melodies.
Llewellyn, in composing this score, innovatively engaged with the musical genres of the 1920s to '40s and at times one could identify particular musical signposts close to those in the style of Vaughan Williams, Grainger and Porter or Coward. Despite these signposts it was also always possible to hear an original voice that extended those ideas into something new, captivating and intriguing.
While the chamber ensemble score to accompany the work is yet to be arranged, the complex accompaniment played by pianist, Anthony Hunt brought the musical flavours to light with a refined air that is rarely witnessed in theatrical accompaniments.
The Portrait makes a significant addition to Australia’s music-theatre repertoire. Not only is it a refined theatrical creation, but also as a work celebrating one of Australia’s leading women artists, Stella Bowen.