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Opera Australia: Ghost Sonata

by Peter Hurley

Opera Australia presents a deep and thought provoking work in Ghost Sonata. Based on the play of the same name written by August Strindberg in 1907, this setting by Aribert Reimann was first heard in 1984. The theme itself is evident: that our deceptions have effects on us throughout our lives; we are crippled by what they force us to become. In Ghost Sonata, Strindberg asserts that we are made as ghosts by the positions to which our lies force us – unable to live the lives we ought to be able to have. What is interesting then is just how the story illuminates the idea through the various behaviors of the characters. And the manner in which the operatic setting amplifies and projects it.

The stage setting is stunningly disorienting. The floor of the stage is set as a wall of a building, with windows that open and close and with characters appearing inside them. One window is also at various stages a well – supplying water. There is a massive reflective screen covering the whole stage at an angle to the stage making the floor/wall a vertical illusion. At other times, action is placed behind the screen and backlit, whereupon it became translucent. Other claustrophobia inducing spaces open up as appropriate to the drama at other times. This amazing stage setting is a surprisingly faithful interpretation of the effects called for in the play. With such a set so perfectly supporting the drama, the achievements of designer Emma Kingsbury and lighting designer John Rayment are truly remarkable here.

A student, having committed a heroic act nearby is drawn into a dysfunctional family because of his attraction to the daughter. Each member of the family and their associates is twisted by the consequences of past acts and deceptions. The work is rich with symbolic representation. Having read the synopsis twice in order to feel prepared, my first impulse on returning home was to do a little research on the original play. An internet search turned up two excellent essays, and I was rewarded with much enriched enjoyment of the piece, not in the least spoiled by being in retrospect. One difficulty with symbols is that meaning changes over time. For example, the hyacinths whose perfume the young woman is obsessed with were in Strindberg’s time widely associated with death. Thus we see that her addiction may as well be with narcotics – for all that she loves them, we see them making her ill.

Particular mention must be made of tenor Shanul Sharma. The role of the student is extraordinarily demanding, and he was flawless throughout, depicting the considerable emotional range throughout the vocal demands. All of the performers shone, both vocally and in the drama of their various insanities and denials – Richard Anderson as the old man showing indirect rage at himself, Domenica Matthews whose character has the widest range of odd behavior to cover, Ruth Strutt, John Longmuir, Danita Weatherstone, Virgilio Marino, Alexander Hargreaves, Alexandra Graham, Anna-Louise Cole, and Adam Dear. The chamber orchestra drawn from the Opera Australia Orchestra led by conductor Warwick Stengårds gave a performance always in control, and in perfect balance with the singers.

Reimann’s score is deeply expressionist. At times, a character would make an utterance, there would be a moment where we would wonder how it was taken by the recipient, then there would be the musical gesture that confirmed – “oh yes, felt that in the stomach”. The score itself was full of fascinating effects. At times, I wished I were closer to the orchestra – I wanted to see how these sounds were being created with the orchestral instruments.

This was an excellent setting providing the balance of scale and intimacy that enabled the work to speak. The opening night audience was clearly appreciative of this courageous programming of a work that demand engagement of the mind. Thank you, Opera Australia.


Peter Hurley reviewed Opera Australia’s performance of “Ghost Sonata” given at The Coopers Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre on September 25, 2019.

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