Mayakovsky opera review (Carriageworks, Sydney)

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It’s one of those uncompromisingly, stubbornly, proudly Russian names: Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky. Poet, playwright, actor … you name it. But not just any poet. Stalin’s favourite. Which is far preferable to being Stalin’s least favourite. Mayakovsky spearheaded the futurist movement in his homeland, which cleaved to the manifesto of Italian poet, Marinetti. “Let bygones be bygones” was its essence.

I’m not sure what captivated librettist Alison Croggon or composer Michael Smetanin so (but presumably the heritage implicit in Smetanin’s name had a role to play), such that they put their hearts and minds together to create an opera now presented by Sydney Chamber Opera. Granted, Mayakovsky is known as the quintessential people’s poet — which is probably enough. The Soviet answer to Henry Lawson, perhaps. And, to the best of my knowledge, his story’s never been told in this way before.

Croggon’s libretto hovers somewhere between biographical narrative, psychosocial treatise, political history and Shakespearean comedy drama. Some of the text is oblique and meandering; occasionally it’s amusing and, now and then, arguably as poetic as anything by Mayakovksy. Much is made of Mayakovsky’s freewheeling love life: his ménage à trois with Lily and her husband, which turns sour; spookily analogous to fellow revolutionaries ironically turning on him, when, at one of the regime’s bleakest, most irredeemable moments, art is deemed decadent and bourgeois.

Smetanin’s score is perhaps best thought of thus: if Frank Zappa had written an opera (and many might argue he did), it would probably sound like this. It’s certainly not everyone’s bottle of vodka; as one very prominent virtuoso put it to me, “What’s wrong with melody?” But, there’s plenty with which to engage: jazz cadences vie with post-modern compositional tropes — which isn’t to say it’s all derivative, for Smetanin has orchestrated some very ear-catching sections, both in terms of instrumentation and the playing techniques specified.

Some of the music was prepared earlier by way of special effects — which proved a little too resonant in the love space of Carriageworks Bay 20 — and the opera seemed to be afflicted by extraneous noises throughout, compromising SCO’s usually punctilious sound production. A shame, as it did distract from the musicality. If you like “new” music, of the ilk of, say, Glass, you’re bound to find interest, if not solace, in the music’s restlessness, which is deeply evocative of the gathering Soviet zeitgeist.

It’s a tricky journey for the musicians, comprised of percussion (ostensibly xylophone, cymbals and toms), grand piano, ’bone, French horn, trumpet, saxophones and six-string electric bass. And some passages work better than others with the inherently live acoustic of the massive, hard-walled space. One can only but marvel at Jack Symonds’ ability to conduct and play piano simultaneously, without the slightest compromise in either pursuit.

Kat Henry directs and has adapted the work well, making the most of the large stage and walls. Designer Davros’ audiovisual contribution is pivotal and the key focal point. Sheridan Harbridge is the filmed Phosphorescent Woman (with the voice of Natalia Novikova, for ethnic authenticity), musing on the nature of time: the awkward, uncomfortable dialectic between past and future, which affords so little opportunity for now.

There are issues with Henry’s decisions: surtitles are projected above screened images, on the left-hand wall, which more or less necessitates continuous head-swivelling. It’s a rather tiring demand to place on an audience in an already challenging, 90 minute production.

For the most part, however, the rewards are there, even if, on occasion, Guy Harding’s lighting design fails to live up to expectation and Hanna Sandgren’s set (perhaps the viewing difficulties should be at least partly laid at her feet) and costumes are a little also-ran. On the plus side, the unyielding concrete greyness of Soviet architecture and aesthetics, such as they were, is communicated.

There are impressively robust readings from Mayakovky’s poems by Alexei Menglet. Beyond that, the performers have their limitations — dramatically. To qualify, it’s mostly in terms of the physical, which may be down to Henry’s lack of kinetic fortitude. Fortunately, these aren’t replicated, to any extent, vocally — even despite unreliable wireless mikes.

Simon Lobelson is well-cast as Mayakovsky: what he lacks in physical bulk is easily compensated by the presence of his commanding, luxuriant baritone. (One wonders why we don’t hear much more of him.) Jessica O’Donoghue’s Lilya gives a strong sense of headstrong personality, befitting the role. Mitchell Riley is repeatedly charged with some extraordinarily demanding, sudden, nail-biting departures into falsetto and back, which he handles with aplomb. Lobelson, too, shows deft facility with such. Sarah Toth, Lotte Betts-Dean and Brenton Spiteri are meltingly mellifluous.

Mayakovsky is flawed, inconsistent and inventive, with flashes of sheer brilliance; it is sometimes soberingly poetical and sublimely beautiful. For SCO, it’s another brave adventure, in which Carriageworks has officially partnered. More, please.

[box]Mayakovsky is at Carriageworks until August 2.[/box]

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