OPERA - AUSTRALIAN COMPOSITIONS - BATAVIA
|As a piece
of Great Victorian Chauvinism, Federation fell at the beginning of the
end for Melbourne’s dominance over Australian affairs. Staging the
major commemorative ceremonies gave our ancient capital the choice
between dreaming that it remains what it had been a century ago, or of
rising to its current opportunities. Staging the Federation Arts Festival was Melbourne’s occasion to show
each other what we have done and are doing.
Melburnians mock Sydney as “Tinsel Town” they prefer to forget that
that nickname was paired with the sobriquet “St Petersburg” for
their own city. Melbourne too had been a national capital but lost that
status in 1927 when the Commonwealth Parliament moved to Canberra. The
imputation of “St Petersburg” is that Melbourne’s future is behind
neglect with which Federation’s Founding Fathers mistreated Aborigines
made reconciliation essential for any forward-looking ceremony. Cross-overs
such as “Black and Tran” for Aboriginal and Asian are more fertile
than getting US minimalist Phillip Glass to drone on the didgeridoo. All
the public figures impersonated by Max Gillies in “Your Dreaming”
are Anglo. Reconciliation will not be complete until Aiden Ridgeway can
be a figure of fun on stage.
else in the program suggests that the century-long drain on
Melbourne’s confidence has sapped its belief in the value of settler
creativity everywhere in the Commonwealth. The commissioning of local
talents has been half-hearted.
main-stage theatrical offering is yet another Australianised account of
Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Why not a updating of Louis Esson’s 1912
The Time is Not Yet Ripe,
a Shavian satire on Federal politics, or Michael Body and Bob Ellis’s The
Legend of King O’Malley, which heralded Australian theatre into
Graeme Koehne is supplying passages for the Sydney Dance Company’s
unabashedly tinsel town Tivoli,
the orchestral concerts present only one new Australian composition, the
third symphony from Ross Edwards. The grand, grand, grand musical event
was Mahler’s Eighth Symphony which also opened Sydney’s Olympic
Festival, giving the occasion to demonstrate that the Melbourne Symphony
Orchestra under Markus Stenz can outdo their glittering rivals. Instead
of Sydney’s electronics, Melbourne relied on the natural sound and
sight-lines in its 1880 Exhibition Building, a wager which paid off for
the galaxy of principal singers, the robust adult choirs and the band,
but left the children to chirp on high.
the forces stipulated for Marshall Hall’s 1892 Australia
Symphony, (dedicated to the painter Arthur Streeton), Percy Grainger’s
The Warriors and Alfred
Hill’s choral symphony, Joy of
Life, had been doubled and played without an interval, how many
invited to the Centenary ceremony on May 9 would have known that they
were not sitting through the Mahler Eighth?
central musical commission was for two performances of the opera Batavia for which poet Peter Goldsworthy reworked the oft-told tale
of the 1629 wreck of a Dutch East Indies vessel off our north-west
coast, where a segment of the survivors violated each other and their
own values under the spur of the Millenarian apothecary, Jeronimus
Cornelisz. Finding the actual events more Hollywood than history,
Goldsworthy made a sedate start dockside before building the tension
around a bacchanal on crossing the equator. Designer Dan Porta brought
the interval curtain down on the terror of a cyclone at sea. The rest is
weakened by Goldsworthy’s typically Australian reluctance to have the
embodiments of good and of evil confront each other, as they did in
life. Opera is mythic, but it needs drama more than tableau.
Batavia’s premiere was a theatrical triumph for composer Richard Mills,
transposing his reputation from entertainer to serious contender without
disrupting the immediate appeal of his attachment to the symphonic
conventions of the past century. Batavia
is an Australian opera to enter repertoires here and in the antipodes
after funds are provided to absorb the lessons from this trial run.
Mills’s strength lies in his writing for voices, whether the sterling
choruses and intricate ensembles or the extended solos. The revision
should replace the broadcast noises, such as the final waves, with
choral scene-painting. Similarly, less reliance on bangs and blasts for
emotional highpoints will deflect accusations that the orchestral
writing is a sound track.
Lewis as the cult leader Cornelisz, however, needed all the echoing
amplification he got. The power of Batavia
will not be revealed until a replacement is found who has the vocal and
dramatic intensity that earned Lewis his reputation.
other seven principals provided so much to praise that it would be
unfair to single out Bruce Martin as the ship’s commander, Francis
Pelsaert, had not the opera given him the most to carry, musically and
philosophically. Martin maintained a Wagnerian majesty as he battled the
frailties of both conscience and flesh.
the creative team’s acceptance that the border between good and evil
lies in the human heart, John Bolton-Wood as the chaplain soared in the
first Act with the aria, “Morning Star”, a declaration of his
unshakable faith, and harrowed in Act III when the murder of his
children makes him declaim “There is no god”.
Hume’s direction was clear-cut and pointedly ethical for a work which
composer and librettist agreed was about good versus evil and the
redemptive power of forgiveness. Although the on-stage treatment was
more subtle than any of their program notes, the feminist-atheist
director should get them and the principals to form a reading group on
de Beauvoir’s The Ambiguity of
Ethics, where moral dilemmas are represented, not as choices between
good and evil, but among degrees of each – or with evil presenting
itself as good.
1901, and again in 1927, the Commonweath parliaments in Melbourne and
Canberra were opened by Dukes of York. A courageous monarchist would
have brought out the current incumbent and his good lady to uphold
tradition. It is not too late for our National Gallery to offer Lucien
Freud another $8m for a grope portrait of the Royals who have exposed
themselves in ways about which Max Gillies can but dream.