Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey’s beloved 1988 novel about a pair of social misfits united by their compulsive gambling, has been transformed into an opera nearly as strange, slippery and exciting as the original. An obvious labour of love from composer Elliott Gyger and librettist Pierce Wilcox, the work is their second for Sydney Chamber Opera following their acclaimed adaptation of David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter. Commissioned and produced by SCO, Opera Queensland and Victorian Opera, it comes off the back of the world premiere of Opera Australia’s Whiteley, giving audiences the opportunity to reflect on what it is that makes a new work a success.

Oscar and LucindaJessica Aszodi and Brenton Spiteri in Sydney Chamber Opera’s Oscar and Lucinda. Photo © Zan Wimberley

Whiteley struggled to take off because it couldn’t find a way to make its subject matter into effective theatre, telling the audience too much and yet far too little about the artist. Documenting Brett Whiteley’s life with dogged persistence, it became the latest entry in the lists of tepid biographical operas that despite high performance values, never quite comes to life. Though not without key storytelling issues of its own, Oscar and Lucinda is by far the more interesting work. It takes risks with the source material, trusts in the intelligence of the audience, and fairly bristles with invention, both musically and staging-wise. That it doesn’t quite cohere into a satisfying narrative, establishing enough dramatic urgency to involve heart as well as mind, is its greatest weakness, something that it shares with Whiteley.

Wilcox’s libretto is lean, admirably so, but often at the expense of what makes Carey’s novel so involving and charming. The almost elemental attraction between Oscar and Lucinda, the strange and fitful blossoming of their romance, is not translated effectively here. This connection, as well as their individual hang ups and struggles, are at the heart of the story – without it, we little care for either character, or feel the tragedy of the conclusion as we should. Given particularly short shrift is Theophilus and Oscar’s tormented father-son relationship, surely one of the novel’s key dramatic engines. What’s more, the intentionally elliptical nature of the libretto must be alienating to audience members unfamiliar with Carey’s book.

Oscar and LucindaJane Sheldon, Brenton Spiteri and Jeremy Kleeman in Sydney Chamber Opera’s Oscar and Lucinda. Photo © Zan Wimberley

When Wilcox accesses a character’s inner life, or gives a dramatic situation the time to properly unfold – as he does with the confession scene on board the Leviathan, Miriam Chadwick’s seething arioso, and the massacre of the Indigenous, profound and awful – Oscar and Lucinda catches fire and becomes urgent, moving theatre.

The text is spare and declarative – Wilcox has a knack for selecting Carey’s most pithy lines – leaving much of the elaboration to Gyger, whose score has an intricacy and fastidiousness that demands repeat listening. While working with the precision of a miniaturist, the composer nevertheless uses his ensemble of 16 musicians with a symphonist’s scope. The score is one of perpetual variety, awash with pungent harmonies and displaying a command of colour that’s to be marvelled at. It’s all masterfully handled by conductor Jack Symonds, who keeps all the plates spinning without breaking a sweat.

Oscar and LucindaJeremy Kleeman and Simon Lobelson in Sydney Chamber Opera’s Oscar and Lucinda. Photo © Zan Wimberley

Gyger’s vocal writing is unstintingly demanding, both angular and rangey. Like the libretto, this can feel unrelenting at times, driven even, and you soon wish for more moments of lyricism and space between the notes. However, the hardworking cast rise to the challenge and more, with Brenton Spiteri and Jessica Aszodi excelling themselves in the title roles. Spiteri’s fresh, flexible lyric tenor perfectly captures Oscar’s naivety and boyish passion, while Aszodi’s unfussy but immaculately focused delivery befits Lucinda’s forthright character. They are immediately appealing performers, as are the rest of the cast who move between a number of roles and form a perfectly integrated chorus. Jane Sheldon, Simon Lobelson, Jeremy Kleeman and Mitchell Riley provide invaluable support throughout, all of them strong singer-actors. Sheldon is a standout as the opportunistic Miriam Chadwick, showing us a woman hardened and divested of scruples by continual misfortune, while Lobelson brings his unwavering vocal authority to the unyielding Theophilus and kind-hearted Percy Smith. Kleeman’s powerful bass manages to encompass both the rather wet Reverend Stratton and forbidding Mr Jeffris, while Riley displays his gift for comedy as Dennis Hasset and Oscar’s bosom friend, Wardley-Fish.

All have their moments to shine in Patrick Nolan’s inventive, fluid production, rich with memorable images and moments of subtle choreography. Beautifully lit by Damien Cooper, with set and costume design by Anna Tregloan, the staging reproduces in its own way Carey’s baroque use of language and innate reverence for the natural world. Nolan handles the more frenetic moments of activity with ease, the instances of split-stage storytelling done with clarity and facility. And for those wondering – the all-important glass cathedral is rendered so simply and effectively you can’t imagine it any other way.

Is Oscar and Lucinda a perfect opera? No. But it’s exciting, and interesting, and that’s often even better.

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Oscar and Lucinda is at Carriageworks until August 3