Opera, Reviews, Stage

Ghost Sonata review (Opera Australia scenery workshop, Sydney)

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We’re not in the Opera House anymore, Toto. It’s cold. The seats are uncomfortably plastic. And the opera is unlike any you’ve probably experienced before.

In fact, the drafty, dusty setting – a warehouse in post-industrial Surry Hills, Opera Australia’s scenery workshop by day – befits the creepy nature of the work at hand. But I’m not sure the work befits what is a charitable cause: reviving little-heard chamber pieces in a more intimate arena than the size (and economics) of the Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre allow. It’s an altogether strange affair.

German composer Aribert Reimann’s The Ghost Sonata (here, sans-The) is a 1984 adaptation of Swedish master August Strindberg’s 1907 play, an influential yet also now rarely performed work of modernist drama. Its unearthly delights inspired Reimann’s spare, percussive, unsettlingly discordant orchestrations and grimly atonal singing. That won’t be for everyone.

More importantly perhaps, Strindberg’s themes – the ties that bind, familial masks and the longing and regret behind them – feel opaque. Even here sung in English, or perhaps lost in translation as a result, despite director Greg Eldridge’s best efforts.

Our cast of oddballs include a local hero student and the wheelchair-bound old crank he comes across, claiming to have bankrupt his father. To make amends, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the student is urged to find his way into a house haunted by a colonel, his beguiling daughter and a resident mad mummy who’s perched in a cupboard squawking like a parrot.

It makes more sense, presumably, in Strindberg’s play. Reimann’s libretto can be as disorientating as his music (the titles are awkwardly placed to the side of the stage, though the score’s sparseness and skilled singing make them largely unnecessary). Some of that makes sense, some of it simply frustrates.

Under the baton of Warwick Stengårds, leading a small band tucked to the side of the makeshift stage, a fine ensemble of all-Australian talent has been assembled on stage.

Rookie tenor Shanul Sharma (he made his Opera Australia debut earlier this in Wozzeck) has a boyish energy and supple voice as The Student. He’s a real find for the company. Established players Richard Anderson (a gruffly resounding Old Man) and Dominica Matthews (terrifically ghostly and batty as The Mummy) anchor the cast, along with John Longmuir as The Colonel. Danita Weatherstone’s silvery soprano suits the ingénue Young Woman role. Mezzo Ruth Strutt, tenor Virgilio Marino and baritone Alexander Hargreaves complete the cast as scheming house staff.

Designer Emma Kingsbury projects the horror house onto a giant mirror hitched above the stage, then constantly plays with our perspective. It’s a great conceit, particularly in the first act, though less useful as the work continues. John Rayment has the challenging task of lighting the temporary space and creates just the right mood.

The effort is laudable. If the theatre can’t accommodate more challenging work, find a space that does. But Ghost Sonata is hard work for all but opera super-fans. And not just because of the plastic seats.

Ghost Sonata plays the scenery workshop space at Opera Australia’s Sydney headquarters on September 13 and 14. It moves to Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre for four performances on September 25-28.

Photo: Richard Anderson, Dominica Matthews and John Longmuir in Opera Australia’s Ghost Sonata. Photo by Prudence Upton

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