New Australian opera celebrates revolutionary Russian poet in style.

Carriageworks, Sydney

July 28, 2014

The presentation of a new opera in Australia is an all too rare event and Michael Smetanin and Alison Croggon’s Mayakovsky, unveiled last night at Carriageworks, has been a good while in the baking. While the work may lack the populist edge of Mayakovsky’s own writing (Smetanin’s music for all its tonal variety and imagination makes relatively few concessions to accessibility from the aural perspective of the man on the street), it’s a rather brilliant construct, dramatically taut and graced with writing that understands the critical function of the libretto in opera. The text is poetically inclined (Croggon is first and foremost a poet), but it’s efficient and good at telling you what’s up with minimal fuss, and full of memorable verbal incident. If at times it’s hard to tell where Mayakovsky ends and Croggon begins, that is intended entirely as a compliment.

On the one hand a tribute to the poet who came to define the Russian Revolution, Mayakovsky is also an exploration of the artistic legacy of those turbulent times. Croggon’s savvy text manages to take in issues such as the artist’s place in society, censorship (to ban or not to ban), and the function of poetry in our own times (“poetry is dead”… “poetry will be wherever the heart rebels”). The opera is a relatively chronological journey though Mayakovsky’s life, starting with his early career as the clangourous poet of futurism, a movement initially embraced by the Bolsheviks (“we don’t understand a word but he’s a cut above the bourgeoisie,” sing three acolytes). We follow his subsequent decline in acceptability post-Lenin, his inevitable clash with Stalinist dogma, and end up with his tragically early suicide in 1930. Ironically Mayakovsky was denounced in his lifetime for his supposed formalist errors, only to have his reputation further degraded when he was declared the poet of the Revolution in later years by Stalin himself!

Smetainin’s fine score reflects the brutalist edge of Soviet futurism, revelling in motor rhythms and crashing electronica (at times the amplified electronics are simply too loud preventing you hearing the wood for the trees). But it’s also redolent of the jazz-age with echoes of the Stravinsky of Renard. It’s a flamboyant, imaginative palette (especially considering he only uses piano, two saxophones, horn, trumpet, trombone, electric guitar and percussion) and his method of sufficient fragmentary repetition ensures that enough of it stays with you. Highlights include the declaration of the Revolution by two female workers and later on the political espousal of Stalinism. If it has a fault it is its relentlessness – at an hour and half it could use some more moments of repose.

Kat Henry’s smart, stylish production for the impressively ambitious Sydney Chamber Opera sits perfectly in Carriageworks Bay 20, the five concrete pillars that comprise Hanna Sandgren’s simple set melding with the brutal walls of the building. Guy Harding’s basic but atmospheric lighting design is enhanced by a range of video projections. Locating the musicians behind the action, a tactic that has paid dividends in immediacy for this company previously, Jack Symonds leads a first-rate band of six plus electronics.

The cast are generally excellent, coping admirably with Smetanin’s musical demands. The three women are probably the best here, led by Jessica O’Donoghue’s sympathetic Lilya, into whose marriage Mayakovsky insinuated himself, reportedly shocking contemporary sensibilities. The trick in contemporary opera is to find the heart of the music while getting the notes right and she manages both well. Lotte Betts-Dean is a warm vocal presence and has a touching moment as her friend Elsa while Sarah Toth makes a fierce Zveryeva, spitting out her increasingly blinkered dogmas as the representative of a proletariat intellectually seduced by the party line.

Simon Lobelson plays Mayakovsky, his strong, warm baritone handling the demanding music well. He captures the sense of the poet’s arrogance, but he’s given too few opportunities to show us his charismatic side and as a result ends up a rather hectoring figure. He gets some of the best lines though – “you smell of cabbage and despair”. A brief burst of Mayakovsky reading his own work, though, is enough to show us what we are missing. The lyrical tenor of Brenton Spiteri is engaging as the Author, Mayakovsky’s self-serving alter ego, called out of the audience and taken to task in an early scene (just one of several clever devices that Croggan employs to echo the dramatic schools of the times). Mitchell Riley makes an enjoyable Lenin and a grim Stalin (“I am Stalin and I live in every gut”), deploying a range of moustaches for clarity of differentiation.

Another feather in the cap, then, of one of Australia’s most adventuous opera companies. At one point a voice declares: “here in the future poetry doesn’t matter”. If you’re looking for an advocate for the opposite point of view, Smetanin and Croggon’s Mayakovsky might just be it.

Mayakovsky is at Carriageworks until August 2.

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