Few pleasures are as sweet as having one’s prejudices confirmed in public. Yet, the premiere of Myra Henderson’s opera, Lindy, by Opera Australia, demonstrated that such self-indulgence need not succeed in the theatre. The produciton suffers more from the desire to prove Lindy Chamberlain innocent than from delays in staging.

Its disarray as drama exemplifies more than the centuries-old dispute over whether the words or the music should determine the shape of an opera. First, the uncertainties about musical language mean that composers for the stage are tempted to a pastiche of Romantic-era tunes and atonal sound effects. The predominance of film and television, as the source of income and ideas, strengthens the tendency to create soundtracks. Either way, a composer is not likely to lead the way.

Secondly, the principle on which librettists have been chosen in Australia is misconceived. The task has fallen to poets rather than dramatists, in this case to Judith Rodriquez. The wordsmiths can be hired once the plot is decided. The results have tended towards tableau. Personality development has been as rare as denouements. Three questions arise in creating a storyline.  

Should a work of art recount the news? Rendering the eight years of the Azaria affair down to 100 minutes of stage time required a hack, not a verse-maker. Even so experienced and adventurous a dramatist as Louis Nowra had difficulty in crafting Black and White, the new film based on a comparable run of trials and inquiries.

Should an opera confine itself to exploring the emotions so that its stars sing instead of dying? Lindy is in no danger on that point. Just before the end of Lindy, we are merely told that the Chamberlains have been changed forever. Because their love is never established musically, its fraying can not be revealed.

How much social context is required? Here, packs of journalists, experts and Territorians yelp for blood, actual and metaphorical. As chilling as these scenes are, the culture that generated them is not uncovered. When its representatives are in the dock, they are never allowed to put their case. The woman textile expert is a sexist caricature, as grotesque as that of the front-page Lindy.

The opera opens on the edge of the Dreamtime, with a dingo’s head scrawled on the curtain. Lindy, the wife of a Seven Day Adventist pastor, is converted into the voice of a New Age spirituality, pleading not to disturb the dingo spirit.

If the theatrical modes are muddled, the orchestral score is mixture of treatments.

Henderson kept away from the Muzak of the Outback, with its didgeridoos and clap sticks. Lindy’s cross examination comes close to being dramatic but its cut-and-thrust is clogged by the operatic device of repeated syllables and phrases. Brass underlines the announcement of “Guilty”, as at movies. The howling choruses from the media pack rely on vaudeville traditions and suggest that the whole might have been coherent as a black comedy.

Richard Gill led the orchestra with deftness and consideration for the performers. For the undeveloped part of Michael Chamberlain, David Hobson provided an acceptable secondo. Nine other singers filled two or three minor parts each, combining to form a potent chorus. While Malcolm Donnelly was judicious in his stiffness, Jennifer Bermingham was as vibrant as ever in her cameos.

As Lindy, Joanna Cole demonstrated stamina in staying along the top of her range. Her initial song is gentle. The rest verges on the emotionally strident. To uphold her character’s version of events, she has to joust for control of that aural domain with the piercing tenor of Barry Ryan. 

By the final scene, the tension shifts to a contest between Ryan and Elizabeth Campbell as the defence lawyer. The surety of her mezzo established a presence equally appropriate for the representation of Lindy as earth-mother.

Stuart Maunder’s staging made the most of scarce resources to eschew a false naturalism. For instance, the demolition of the Chamberlains’ car visualises the destruction of the family through the hunt for clues. Lindy might carry greater conviction if performed as a cantata with more of the projected images that Maunder used to fill in gaps in the background information. Anyway, the innocence of the dingo has ceased to be contentious.