Singing in Tongues marks the 35th anniversary of the Melbourne-based ELISION ensemble in characteristically provocative and satisfying style with this compendium of two challenging compact operas and a song cycle by Perth-born, long-time collaborator, Liza Lim.

Liza Lim

The self-styled “transcultural” Lim’s signature eclecticism is to the fore here, fusing Greek tragedy, chivalric romance and the Mahabharata in scores that embrace – at times positively exult in – atonal exuberance even while managing to remain solidly rooted in character and often emotionally combustible music.

It’s not, it has to be said, immediately accessible (even agreeable) to the ear; a quandary not aided by the absence of any libretto or texts. But repeated listening alerts one to Lim’s craftsman-like sculpting of texture and detail, her exactly esoteric instrumental and vocal demands, and, not least the impressive concentration and commitment of ELISION under the guidance of conductors Sandro Gorli, Simon Hewett, Jean Deroyer and Manuel Nawri.

Described as a “memory piece in seven parts”, The Oresteia is a potent amalgam of Aeschylus, Tony Harrison’s iconic English translation, and poetry by Sappho, heard here in its long deleted 1994 recording (originally on Dischi Ricordi). Composed when Lim was just 24, it’s a remarkably mature and assured work with characters “distilled to pure energy” and a score of equally fissile charge.

Its percussive, plosive surface shields a boiling interior fired by ancient rituals and enmity, and accented with electric guitar, a Turkish bağlama and, to my ears, a hint of electronics. Vocal lines are equally esoteric, spanning the gamut from primal grunting to a stratospheric keening where it acquires something of Peking Opera’s exotica.

2008’s The Navigator – drawn from Greek myth, the Mahabharata, Tristan and the writings of Walter Benjamin – is no less concentrated in its interrogation of “ecstatic and erotic transformation”, mediated here by a rough-hewn muscularity pulsing between the abstract and the sensual. A baroque triple harp, the mating calls of dying cicadas and a distorted electric guitar (turned up, naturally, to ‘11’) add to music that often courts unmusical noise and vocal demands that include both moments of manic beauty and disturbingly guttural vocal sounds.

The three-part song-cycle Mother Tongue (recorded live in Sydney Conservatorium’s Verbrugghen Hall in 2006) reunites Lim with The Navigator librettist Patricia Sykes to pitch soprano Piia Komsi against a 15-strong ensemble. An exercise in high-voltage dynamic contrasts, Lim’s music, driven by its own, albeit not always immediately apparent, logic, has a tremendous emotional and intellectual integrity that is superbly served here by Komsi and ELISION.

The 10-minute scene extracted from Yuè Lìng Jié (Moon Spirit Feasting), Lim’s opera of 2000 based on the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival and ancient legends from her heritage, requires Deborah Kayser’s Moon Goddess to sing multiple personalities against a score that moves from dreamlike fantasy to a distorted barrage of clanging percussion, shrieking strings, bells, whistles and much else besides.

Performances throughout can’t be faulted for their often acrobatic conviction to Lim’s challenging sound world, perhaps better described as hallucinatory music theatre rather than opera. More adventurous listeners will find much to reward their curiosity. 

Available on Apple Music

Composer: Liza Lim
Works: Opera and Vocal works
Performers: Soloists, ELISION, Sandro Gorli, Simon Hewett, Jean Deroyer, Manuel Nawri
Label: Huddersfield Contemporary Records HCR25CD

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