Benjamin’s Pied Piper fable and Kurtag’s nihilistic fragments dazzle eye, ear and brain.

Sydney Chamber Opera, Carriageworks, Sydney

January 17, 2014

This is Sydney Chamber Opera’s first year as part of the Sydney Festival and this eclectic double bill proves that they are entirely deserving of their place at the top table. What’s more, a clever pair of Australian premieres from living composers gives us much food for thought and all in under the space of one hour.

György Kurtag combines the sparse economy of Webern with the colour and occasional eccentricity of his fellow Hungarian György Ligeti. His 1993-1998 work, …pas à pas-nulle part… (or … step by step, nowhere…) is a setting for string trio, percussion and solo voice of fragmentary thoughts scrawled down by Samuel Beckett on scraps of paper in the 1970s. The dot dot dots are key to the meaning here as what Kurtag is drawn to are flashes of things glimpsed out of context – snippets with neither beginning nor ending. The tantalising point of it all is that, just like our own selves, we don't know where these thoughts have come from and even less, where they are going.

The music is almost a chamber concerto for percussion and string trio and a large part of the musical success here is down to Timothy Brigden’s dexterous mastery of a vast battery of things that you hit, scrape and rattle. The silent spaces between fragments are as important as the sounds and only occasionally do the pauses seem overlong as the frantic percussionist races for his next instrument. There’s musical humour too, as in a brief homage to Ligetis’ Le Grand Macabre or a crazy pizzicato waltz.

In Sarah Giles intelligent, illuminating production, baritone Mitchell Riley is an everyman figure. Trapped in an auditorium of seats that mirror the audience's own situation, Riley is a man clutching at verbal straws, unsure of how he got here, waiting for something (quite possibly Godot), and constantly looking for something certain amidst the flotsam of Beckett’s sea of thought. Giles' imaginative, wry and ultimately moving way with this lonely figure is a joy to behold.

For half an hour we watch this lost, puzzled soul in disheveled evening dress with hair awry. One moment he’s nonchalantly discovered flossing his teeth, the next he’s frightened of his own shadow. Riley's voice is spot on. He copes with Kurtag’s tricky musical lines with great aplomb and is able to encompass the extended vocal techniques required to pull it all off to perfection. Encouraged by Giles to physicalize the music and cope with switches from French to English, the performance is as charming as it is vocally accomplished.

If some might find the Kurtag theatrically elusive, the second half of the double bill is a masterclass in dramatic economy and cohesion. The English composer George Benjamin had a huge hit last year at the Royal Opera House with his full scale opera Written On Skin, set to a masterful libretto by the playwright Martin Crimp. Listening to Into The Little Hill one is struck by how clearly the earlier work is a tryout for its larger cousin. Crimp’s technique of using two singers to play a range of characters as well as to narrate the dramatic events is highly effective, allowing an almost clinical clarity of storytelling to rub shoulders with passionate emotional outbursts.

Into The Little Hill is a contemporary retelling of the legend of the Pied Piper where rats are clearly equated to humans – in this case strangers or immigrants. The Minister employs a sinister man with no eyes, no nose and no ears to aid his re-election by ridding the town of these ‘rodents’ but while his wife pretends to know nothing about the identity of the vermin in question, her daughter’s exclamation of “those ones are wearing clothes and that one has a suitcase” makes it clear what is being ignored here. In a chilling contemporary reference (especially with respect to our own Operation Sovereign Borders), when the ‘piper’ returns for his fee he is told that the money has been spent on “barbed wire and education”. The results are predictably disastrous for the community and the future of their young people.

Benjamin is one of modern music’s great colourists while organising his orchestral forces with intellectual rigour. The small band includes a few exotics – a pair of basset horns, a contrabass clarinet and a cimbalom – perhaps reflecting the influence of his teacher, Olivier Messiaen. Benjamin’s other great skill is his ability to set and dramatise the text – just listen to the tension he is able to build in the exchanges between ‘The Man’ and ‘The Minister’.

The two singers are soprano Ellen Winhall and mezzo Emily Edmonds. Winhall plays the strange 'man' and copes admirably with its stratospheric vocal challenges. Matt Cox’s highly effective lighting adds to her feeling of otherworldliness conveyed in Katren Wood’s simple but effective costuming. Edmonds, in full-toned, creamy voice, is able to capture perfectly the contrasts between the duplicitous politician and his wife while singing the pants off of Crimp’s brilliant language with real engagement.

Both scores are complex beasts requiring players of the highest quality and they both receive their just desserts at the hands of Jack Symonds and his crack players.

A long review then for two short works, but once again Sydney Chamber Opera have come up with an evening of ‘thinking man’s opera’ and we are the richer for it. This young company, who have rarely put a foot wrong, are certainly on a roll right now – I look forward to their next production. Oh, and both of George Benjamin's operas are available in definitive performances on Nimbus – do seek them out!

His Music Burns runs at Carriageworks until January 19.

Subscribe to Limelight