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.

When 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 it.

The 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.

Much 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.

The 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 the Seventies?

While 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.

If 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?

The 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.

Michael 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.

The 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.

Embodying 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”.

Lindy 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.

In 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.