Of the many musical offerings commemorating World War I, Sydney Chamber Opera’s Fly Away Peter would have to rate amongst the most compelling. Originally conceived as a companion piece to Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale, Elliott Gyger’s seventy-five minute work uses the same septet of instruments. Librettist Pierce Wilcox has captured the essence of David Malouf’s classic novella to present a more abstract, interior version of the lives of the three main characters in eight scenes.
It is a work of concentrated intensity. Even as the main character, Jim Saddler, watches the birds with landowner Ashley Crowther and photographer Imogen Harcourt, there is obsessive quality to his spotting and its attendant roll call of bird names. The idyllic location inspires them to establish a sanctuary, which acts as a counterpoint to the horrors of the trenches throughout the opera. The faint drums of war soon intrude and names of birds are replaced by the names of men, alive and then wounded or dead. The cries of birds, rendered so evocatively by violinist James Wannan, are replaced by the percussive chaos of the battlefield as Jim and Ashley too migrate north.
From the most ethereal moments to the most cataclysmic this was a gripping account of the human condition. As Gyger and Elliott explain in their program note, this is a metaphysical vision where the dichotomy of air and earth are reflected in pitch relationships and recurrent phrases and harmonies are associated with particular characters and verbal images. The final scene, depicting Jim’s moment of transcendence as his soul takes flight, was a touching contrast to the earth bound lot of those left behind.
In the intimacy of the Fairfax Theatre arena, an atmospheric lighting plot by Verity Hampson and Elisabeth Gadsby’s simple set design of four tiered platforms and costumes of basic casual dress provided an effective context for the action. Without being overly distracting, surtitles on both sides of the stage helped the audience to follow details of the text. Although all three singers had excellent diction, this was a valuable inclusion for those who were unfamiliar with Malouf’s work or had been unable to read the program that was issued only as patrons entered the theatre.
A clay-covered Brenton Spiteri has been the arresting image used in much of the publicity material for this opera and is a fair representation of Imara Savage’s imaginative direction. An increasing number of dark blue buckets (the only props used) were distributed around the stage, sometimes organized in ranks, reflecting the lives and deaths of soldiers. Several buckets contained clay, which the three singers wiped onto their bodies, referencing the mud of the trenches and the clay from which man is made and must return. Movement Director Lucas Jervies collaborated in devising dramatic contrasts as moments of serene stillness and slow motion were interwoven with frenetic activity. The interaction between Ashleigh and the dying Jim was made even more poignant as Imogen washed the clay from her hands in slow, purifying strokes.
Added to the physical challenges of the opera were exceptional vocal and musical demands. All three singers were more than equal to the task. Mitchell Riley, tall and slender and possessing an air of vulnerability was well suited to the character of Jim Saddler. He sang strongly, occasionally colouring his pleasing baritone with moments of falsetto. A singer renowned for her expertise in contemporary music, Jessica Aszodi was a luminous Imogen. Her demeanour and pure, warm soprano glowed in both solo and ensemble pieces. As Ashley Crowther and various soldiers, Breton Spiteri was simply astonishing. With his burnished tone and all manner of vocal gymnastics at his command, he showed himself to be a tenor of extraordinary musicality and daring. His performance was a virtuosic tour de force.
Most of the performers had already participated in the Sydney season of Fly Away Peter, which may account to some extent for the polished quality of this opening night. In any event, Jack Symonds conducted a highly accomplished ensemble to create a powerful soundscape of a world at once despairing and hopeful. It is a production well worth going out of your way to experience.
The image shows Brenton Spiteri made up for his role in Fly Away Peter.