Carriageworks, Sydney
November 16, 2015

There was a time when Italian maverick Fausto Romitelli (1963-2004) was thought of as one of the bad boys of the European contemporary music scene. Works like the Professor Bad Trip series, Blood on the Floor and Trash TV Trance rattled the cages of a fair few by laying siege to the boundaries between high art and popular culture. Shortly before his premature death from cancer, his 2003 video opera, An Index of Metals, was acclaimed as the culmination of his work to date, and if it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about with respect to its power to shock, in the right hands it can still pack quite a punch.

Conceived as a vocal monologue to be played out in front of a triptych of screens, Paolo Pachini and Leonardo Romoli’s video design was intended to be integral to any performance. Director Kip Williams for Sydney Chamber Opera has intriguingly decided to ditch their contribution, leaving it to play out on three TV monitors placed amongst the band at floor level (essentially invisible to much of the audience). Is its presence a contractual requirement? Who cares. Williams’ visual alternative is infinitely more compelling, lending a much needed dramatic narrative to a piece which otherwise is inclined to tread water for most of its length.

As it turns out, treading water is what An Index of Metals is all about. Inspired by pop art luminary Roy Lichtenstein’s famous Drowning Girl (you know the one: “I Don’t Care! I’d Rather Sink than call Brad for help…”), the poet Kenka Lèkovich came up with three poems exploring the thoughts of a woman on the verge. With lines like “She suddenly fell in a metal-miso hell” and “Murder by guitar, nickel you are” it’s borderline pretentious. It’s also frequently only semi-audible as, even amplified, the vocal line struggles to land cleanly over Romitelli’s aggressive orchestrations. As a result, sur-titles were essential – always frustrating in English language opera. However, Williams’ staging is as much led by the music as the text, and his sensitivity to texture and time, allied to his acute visual sense of the theatrical, ensures that we are sucked into the drama regardless.

Jane Sheldon is the girl in question, trapped inside Elizabeth Gadsby and Ross Graham’s blindingly illuminated cube of lights – you can feel the heat in the front row. Isolated in what might be a hospital facility, but is probably the cage of her own mind, Sheldon is a brave, compelling presence. Clutching a vase and a funereal bunch of blood red flowers, and with only a wooden chair to keep her company, she paints a gripping portrait of a woman about to go down for the third time. Within this prison of her own making, Williams presents a series of intense images. Accidents are repeated – the chair topples, the vase spills, a relationship collapses again and again. Eventually Brad appears and Sheldon strips him naked as if fulfilling a deep-seated wish to dissect her former tormentor. In a moment of theatrical brilliance, Brad then fractures into six naked men, as if seen in a shattered mirror of through a child’s kaleidoscope (interestingly one of the ideas Pachini and  Romoli play with in the original video designs). The moment when the six Brads hoist Sheldon aloft like pallbearers at a funeral is heart stopping. So too is Sheldon, stripped bare herself, pulling on the discarded clothes of the first Brad, like a lizard trying to get back into its sloughed skin.

Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl

Of course, it’s the music that is really meant to be this drowning woman’s inner monologue, and Romitelli’s score pulses and throbs like the workings of a fragmenting mind. One moment it sounds like the laments of sea birds, at others it feels like breathing, sometimes regular, sometimes panicky. The distorted electric guitars (Joe Manton and Cat Hope) make the greatest impact, especially when they crescendo, yet Jack Symonds disciplined band (in actual fact Sydney new music pioneers Ensemble Offspring who are key collaborators on the project) contains the cream of Australian contemporary music talent – Zubin Kanga on keyboards, Tristram Williams (trumpet), Lamorna Nightingale (flutes) etc etc. And Symonds’ deft ear for sonics ensures that Romitelli’s detailed orchestrations carry full weight, both in terms of decibels and emotional impact.

I won’t give away the denouement; suffice it to say that it’s another visual coup de theatre. Without Williams’ contribution, I would have said that An Index of Metals is hardly essential viewing – you might as well stay in and catch it on YouTube. However, through smart thinking and a healthy desire to think outside of Romitelli’s box, Sydney Chamber Opera and Ensemble Offspring have produced something that is more than the sum of its parts and well worth the experience.

An Index of Metals is at Sydney’s Carriageworks until Nov 19.

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