A Powerful Contribution to the Centenary: Sydney Chamber Opera’s Fly Away Peter

Patrick Morrow went to the opera and didn’t need lorgnettes

In a year saturated with reflections on a century of Australia’s involvement in global conflict, Sydney Chamber Opera’s adaptation of David Malouf’s novella, Fly Away Peter, is as thoughtful and beautiful an offering on the matter as we are likely to see. Like the original, this operatic restaging aims to contrast the delicate beauty of the internality of the human mind with the thick, mortal, earthen reality of war.

This production realises the base half of the dichotomy beautifully; the set is heavy and structural (Elizabeth Gadsby’s design is just stunning—especially when it interacts with the lighting work of Verity Hampson); the lowest sections of the orchestra triumph; and the extensive use of clay is (at times excessive, but, by and large) haunting. The sense of war as an ancient machine, fuelled by blood, and ten thousand years old is terrible, lucid and impressive.

This horrible place is made more severe by Elliott Gyger’s score. His atonal, dissonant melodies offer no catharsis and shrink characters, whose countermelodies are dwarfed by the noise of the abstract battlefield.

Not all of the evocation of war is so abstract. There are spectacular, literal sounds of conflict, too. The double-bassist’s bomber overhead is uncanny (Jaan Pallandi plays the whole part very well), while trombonist Matthew Harrison’s klaxon beggars belief. The effect is an awful soundscape. It is unrelentingly awful.

Special mention must go to Alison Pratt who masters as many instruments as she does moods on percussion. She nails an exhausting part and, be it with whistle, timpani, xylophone or snare, her impact on the soundscape is very welcome, every time.

The impressiveness of the earthy parts of this show is undermined by a lack of contrast. For all the centrality of Jim Saddler’s fascination with birdwatching, the lightness, sweetness, and airiness of his passion never makes a satisfying counterpoint to the digging and the muck. For all that the performers try to imply hopes that fly beyond their place in space and time, the gestures ultimately only feel like gestures.

The show does get the ethereal right occasionally. While emulating birdsong is a challenge, the orchestra is up to the task. And Jessica Aszodi’s sung kestrel is a brilliant addition to a chilling vignette.

All the performers’ voices are technically spot on. Unfortunately, the trained rigour with which Saddler (Mitchell Reilly) attacks every sung syllable comes at the expense of anything like character. Brenton Spiteri, though, brings a beautiful, warm characterisation to all of his roles, and each of their voices. His movement is equally elegant. He is a joy to watch. Aszodi’s upper register is at times sublime, at times chilling and always incredible.

Partly because the score was built around many solos, every instrument really shone at least once. It’s a pity that many of the performance highlights were so individual, because in the few instances where the three actors sing in unison, the effect is mind blowing.

Indeed, the show is full of the devastatingly beautiful. The pail graveyard is heartbreaking and (though the lighting changes become rapid and schizophrenic) the slower silhouettes and tableaux that frame mounting hills and going over trenches are flawing. Pierce Wilcox ensures that the language is up to the task of enabling these images. His libretto is exceptional.

I didn’t enjoy the traditional, operatic compulsion to sing every line of the libretto, especially in a new work from a company that prides itself on making contemporary theatre. So much of the early dialogue bucks against it. The simplicity of Malouf’s text in the first portions of the show is marred by its tedious delivery across many bars. The contrived musicality of lines, clearly to be spoken, becomes a problem again when names are listed, and scenes want to feel colloquial. Having every line sung detracts from the special highs of the melodies, and robbed the show of a chance to ground itself in an important way.

But the criticisms pale in the face of the Sydney Chamber Opera manifesto. There are few companies willing to take the risk that is currently on offer at Carriageworks.  Production after production in Australia this year has promised and will promise to boldly grapple with the landmark events that birthed a nation.  Fly Away Peter takes up the challenge in earnest and makes a powerful contribution to the national cultural landscape, without raising a gun.

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