OA: Metamorphosis

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Published: 1st November, 2018
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Alienation is the theme of Metamorphosis – Opera Australia’s production achieves this on every level. Brian Howard’s musical composition and its performance, the drama, staging, direction all become one in serving the bleakness of Kafka’s famous text. To provide a brief summary:

Gregor Samso awakens after an uneasy sleep to discover he’s been transformed into a giant insect. Having worked hard for an unappreciative employer to provide for his sister, mother and father, he is now suddenly unable to continue to do so. This is the most immediate concern – and little else seems to matter to anybody here. He has to adapt to his new condition, which precludes being able to maintain his previous responsibilities. As this goes on, he tries to use his time productively – studying, learning the violin – all unsuccessfully.

As he has ceased to be a viable ‘economic unit’ Gregor becomes a liability for whom even his family over time lose tolerance and patience. The secondary layer of society, represented by his employer and a boarder, regard him with nothing but horror from their first encounter. Things go from bad to worse, and eventually Gregor becomes ill. When eventually an exterminator arrives to do the inevitable, the family go through a moment of freeze frame pantomime mourning, only to recover instantly, prompting a titter of gallows humour from parts of the audience, as his family brightly chatter about their new prospects.

Metamorphosis has had a number of performances since its premiere in 1983. Time has not mellowed this work – musically or dramatically. In fact, the political and social framework around it has made the piece painfully apposite. At a time when a Murdoch media journalist can estimate her readership’s view of asylum seekers as ‘cockroaches’, we realise how far our politicians have succeeded in the dehumanising of the ‘other’.

This work takes the bleakest possible view of humanity. It has recently been observed that, in order to be effective, satire has to awaken our sense of outrage. If we have no better self to appeal to, then there can be no response of ‘aren’t we better than this?’ Kafka goes a step beyond, and shows human nature itself to be incapable of transcending its short-sighted inhumanity toward each other. Kafka’s position is that we aren’t better than this. Atlas indeed shrugged. Rand would approve.

At the outset it must be said that it is hard to imagine a more polished performance of this opera than this production. Every detail was carefully attended to, every arch shaped just so, and the highest levels of musicality achieved even when the direction requires surmounting some stunning physical challenges. Simon Lobelson as Gregor is amazingly able to sing with full vitality and range of expression, while at times performing the insect at a level we might expect of professional circus skills – climbing the walls, swinging upside down from a light fitting, rolling on the floor while flailing limbs in the air – his performance here is astonishing.

Julie Lea Goodwin is touching as his devoted sister, Christopher Hillier brings the father’s changeability to life, and Taryn Fiebig as the mother shows a wonderful expressive range. Adrian Tamburini is appropriately dark and threatening in his two authoritarian roles here and Benjamin Rasheed is suitably self-absorbed as the lodger. All parts were sung leaving nothing at all to want for clarity, tonal control and balance. Exemplary work all round.

The Merlyn Theatre at the Malthouse was the ideal venue for this piece –the size, the balance between intimacy and scale – all sat as if the piece were designed for it. The set is a vast assembly of steel scaffolding and cages taking up almost the entire depth width and height of the stage. It is illuminated in cold grey industrial LED lighting. Partially hidden within are pockets of disconnected shabby domestic scenes, defined by old furniture in claustrophobia inducing scenes within scenes, illuminated by yellowing light.

This is not ‘beautiful’ music – and in the service of this text, nor should it be. There is not a glimmer of melody anywhere, except in the most perfunctory sense. The music is dry recitative throughout – pure declamation. Opera Australia has promoted the work as ‘accessible’ This is true – every word can be clearly understood, each syllable is set against one note, the melodic shapes amplifying the natural speech inflections. Howard’s score underpins the drama with a complex array of atmospheric devices, spread sparingly and unrelentingly across the timeframe. The music is atonal, meterless expressionist commentary, occasionally participating in bitchy mockery of emotional moments in the story. I did hear a major triad at one point. It was quickly dispatched. Advanced and extended instrumental techniques are used, placing additional demands on the musicians, all of which were met at a very high level.

The orchestra of 12 members includes a saxophone and an electric guitar in addition to the more usual strings wind and percussion. Led by conductor Paul Fitzsimon, the balance and fine levels of ebb and flow were beautifully judged and controlled throughout.

Metamorphosis is a challenging night in the theatre. I can see why the decision was taken to not allow an interval. The structure of building tension throughout, allowing only occasional partial releases along the way made this necessary. Some people did find it all too much early in the piece, and left. The perfomers of Opera Australia’s production, Brian Howard’s score, Stephen Berkoff’s libretto, Tama Matheson’s direction, Mark Thompson’s set and costume design and John Rayment’s lighting all of a piece here; a piece utterly successful in amplifying Kafka’s text to the stage.

I left the theatre exhausted. Good theatre should give us much to think about. It was good to see this challenging work both so well presented and so well supported.

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Peter Hurley attended Brian Howard’s “Metamorphosis” at the Merlyn Theatre, Cooper’s Malthouse, October 25, 2018