City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
January 14, 2016

Few contemporary operas have received as many stagings as Pascal Duspin’s Passion. Since its premiere at Aix in 2008 (a visually sumptuous production by Giuseppe Frigeni, which Dusapin claimed at the time that he disliked), the 60-year-old French composer’s seventh opera has been seen in several different productions across Europe. His work meanwhile has barely been touched in Australia so Sydney Festival should be praised for helping Sydney Chamber Opera’s welcome Down Under premiere to receive two performances at City Recital Hall.

Pierre Audi’s spare yet thoughtful production (in fact the work’s second showing) was reportedly much more to the composer’s taste, and although Sascha Waltz’s choreographically voluptuous third staging demonstated how much ‘movement’ the work could handle, one suspects that the French-Lebanese director’s far more austere vision is more in keeping with Dusapin’s often restrained score. The libretto, by Dusapin and dramaturg Rita de Letteriis, explores universal themes of love, loss, isolation and experience and draws on the Orpheus legend with a bit of Dante and Beatrice thrown in (references to the poet’s dark wood and gazing at the stars). Written for a man (Lui) and a woman (Lei) with a vocal ensemble (The Others), the fragmentary libretto considers a relationship between two people as an attempt – which in this case ultimately proves futile – to bridge an unbridgeable sexual and intellectual divide.

In Dusapin’s story the two characters sing at each other more often than to each other, fundamentally out of kilter, each considering themselves blessed but seldom considering the other’s place in the relationship, despite an audible empathy that is there to be embraced. When the woman leaves (possibly dying by her own hand – she seems to leave a note), the man follows but is unable to bring her back. While she comes to increasingly regard him as her nemesis, a baleful force that has held her back – her serpent even – she goes on to gain knowledge by her descent and rise like a bird, a state that is ultimately denied to her partner with his fatally earth-bound sensibility. The focus on the aquisition of wisdom by the feminine Eurydice is one of the opera’s more intriguing elements at the expense of seing much of the masculine Orpheus as creative artist.

The score shimmers with heat one moment, and groans from the subterranean depths the next. Deploying an orchestra of 17, it includes harp, harpsichord, synthesiser and oud as well as a modest addition of electronics. In Dusapin’s sound world, mictrotonal elements jostle with tonalities that embrace the conventional as well as the unexpected and players are often required to explore extended techniques. Some instruments, like the solo harpsichord (an excellent Zubin Kanga) verge on the fully tonal, others, like the compelling electronics eshew harmony to provide big washes of colour. The players, drawn from Sydney’s finest, are faultless under Jack Symonds clear, astute direction ensuring that the composer’s densely argued developing orchestration is heard to full and best effect. Similarly, the hand-picked six member vocal ensemble (Jane Sheldon, Ellen Hooper, Anna Frasr, Andrew Goodwin, Mitchell Riley and Simon Lobelson) are extremely impressive adding an atmosperic layer to the instruments and underpinning key moments in the story. If the 90-minute work seems to outstay its welcome a little, that has more to do with the repetitive and slow-moving libretto than the fertility of the composer’s musical invention.

Audi’s staging (he prefers to call it a mise-en-space), is set in a stark, black world where the two protagonists prowl amidst what looks like giant shards of broken glass or the teeth of some enormous guard dog, wicked and dangerous. Movement is limited, the couple barely touch, reflecting their dysfunctional state, yet a sense of domestic violence is palpable at times. Revived for Sydney by Miranda Lakerveld, like the libretto the stage action can be an ellusive affair leaving the viewing clutching at metaphorical visual straws. For my taste, a little more to look at would have helped the occasional dramatic longueur, however the assured physical performances of the two singers made up for many of the drops in the dramatic momentum.

Such a warm, attractive voice as Belgian coloratura soprano Elise Caluwaerts isn’t always the norm in tricky contemporary music, and while may not have to tackle too many roulades, she copes assuredly with the taxing tessitura. Her baroque musical background holds her in good stead for Dusapin’s Monteverdi-inspired way wit recitative and her stunning looks make her a deserving prize to be clung on to by her possessive partner. Dutch baritone Wiard Witholt first collaborated with Dusapin on his most recent opera Penthesilea and here he’s entirely inside the composer’s idiom, using his firm voice and striking stage presence to great effect whether threatening, cajoling or ultimately losing the path out of Dusapin’s psychological forest.

Such opportunities to catch challenging musical fare are to be applauded in these risk averse times. Outgoing Festival Director Lieven Bertels has said that of all the companies he has seen in Australia, Sydney Chamber Opera is the one he would most like to export abroad. This latest outing is another feather in their cap and hopefully should raise their international marketability.

Passion is at City Recital Hall for one more performance tonight at 8pm and Sydney Chamber Opera presents Dusapin’s O Mensch! at Carriageworks from Jan 22-24.

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