Sydney Chamber Opera has more than established itself as a leading force in Australian contemporary opera in just five years. While the national opera company Opera Australia hasn’t produced a single new opera during those five years (it does so this year with Kate Miller-Heidke’s The Rabbits), the lean SCO has produced five.
SCO’s latest world premiere, an adaptation of David Malouf’s 1982 novel Fly Away Peter, is a work of dramatic and musical integrity which manages to, in moments, tug at the heartstrings as well as any of the great classic tragic operas. The opera follows Jim Saddler (Mitchell Riley), a birdwatcher from the Gold Coast, as he enlists in the army and travels to the Western front during World War I.
In the opening scenes of the opera, Jim meets a landowner Ashley (Brenton Spiteri) and photographer Imogen (Jessica Aszodi), who work together to establish a bird sanctuary. Elliott Gyger’s score, in the first scenes, sparsely reflects the sounds of the birds and landscapes, with each of the seven instruments rapidly leaping about at unusual intervals.
When Jim travels to Europe, the music takes on a more industrial, harsh and overwhelming edge as a snare drum conjures up the image of marching militia. While the whimsical turns of the birds sing throughout the background, the score becomes more forceful with more regular rhythms, and the harmonies take on greater complexity.
It’s not an easy score — to play or necessarily to listen to — but it’s consistently inventive and dynamic, and has a genuine emotional tug. It’s brought to life by conductor Jack Symonds and a tight seven-piece ensemble. Violinist James Wannan has some moments of excitement and frenzy, whereas clarinettist Peter Smith often provides the steadying force with a well-rounded timbre which almost neutralises some of the score’s harsher phrases.
At first, with its completely unpredictable rhythms, it feels like many dissonant contemporary works (although the harmonies are rarely actually dissonant) which impress with their formal inventiveness, but have little dramatic force. It becomes apparent, soon enough, that Gyger’s work as composer is entirely in service of the storytelling and inner worlds of the characters.
It’s also connected brilliantly with Piece Wilcox’s libretto, not only matching natural speech patterns (as much as is possible in an opera), but elevating the text, rather than having it simply float above the score. And it’s a fine libretto which manages to tell the overarching narrative with clarity, and strips away much of the plot detail to focus on how a rapidly shifting landscape is affecting Malouf’s characters.
Director Imara Savage has a similar focus in her impressionistic production. With designer Elizabeth Gadsby’s overbearing white pyramid set and Verity Hampson’s bold lighting design, it’s a theatrically thrilling take on the work. The singers cover themselves with white clay as the performance progresses, becoming part of the landscape. It’s the perfect visual metaphor for just how much the war has shaped them all, and it conjures up images of soldiers covered in mud as they trudge through trenches.
But the work wouldn’t have the impact that it does without fine performances, and the cast is made up of three excellent singers who dive headfirst into the musical and dramatic challenges.
Jessica Aszodi shines brightly, with plenty of vocal versatility as Imogen and other sounds and voices that Jim encounters along the journey.
Mitchell Riley has plenty of energy as the young, innocent Jim. It’s a particularly challenging role for a baritone, requiring the singer to leap up difficult intervals with agility and sensitivity. Riley more than meets those challenges, even if he sounded a little tired, vocally, at the performance I attended.
But I can’t help feeling that this production belongs to Brenton Spiteri, whose tenor has extraordinary depth and clarity and works perfectly within the Carriageworks space, which has quite different acoustics to a traditional opera house. As Ashley and all of the soldiers who Jim meets along his journey (many of whom who are killed in battle), Spiteri is the emotional core of the piece. If it does receive further productions around the country (and it deserves to), Spiteri should certainly be invited back.