Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sydney Chamber Opera's masterfully honoured contemporary work of Malouf's Fly Away Peter

Two little dickie birds sitting on a wall, 
One named Peter, one named Paul. 
Fly away, Peter! Fly away, Paul! 
Come back, Peter! Come back, Paul!

Brenton Spiteri as Ashley Crowther
This simple nursery rhyme is the first association I make with the title of Australian author David Malouf's 1982 novel, Fly Away Peter. Despite there being no protagonist in the novel called Peter, its central character, Jim Saddler, has a deep understanding of bird life and 'flies' on a journey beyond the safety of the 'wall' to the Western Front during World War One. What once felt meaningless as a rhyme becomes a source to ponder and in Malouf's story, the ponderations are bountiful as Jim's once self-contained life takes flight.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Fly Away Peter creates a perfect companion to Malouf's novel, paralleling the contrasts of idyllic distance and distant insidious warring with touching contemporary opera-theatre.

Across its eight scenes and 75 minutes, the young Jim Saddler's ornithological knowledge and observations in the tranquility of an Australian estuary setting are abruptly rocked by newfound observations of horrific warfare that become layered with blasts of emotional ardour. Where once Jim's perspective soared above the earth with the flight of birds, his life in the trenches of war inhabits an earth that becomes the resting place of corpses. As his journey unfolds, Jim becomes cognisant of the enduring condition of dealing with identity, of war and the transience of his own life.

The work premiered at Sydney's Carriageworks Theatre in May and despite its relevance in the ANZAC centennial year, the work never feels locked to the specifics of war. Instead, a captivating cerebral depiction is attained which director Imara Savage and the creative team have masterfully honoured.

Pierce Wilcox's engaging and thoughtfully condensed libretto is assisted with a poetically sculptured vocal line. Within its directness, the listing of dozens of eloquently rolled bird names colour the picture, then, in war, are affectingly replaced by the names of soldier mates.

With neither climactic sweep nor pompous dramatic demarcations, Elliott Gyger's music washes the story with a restless heartbeat within ebbs and flows of time, more a music that seeps into, rather than strike, the listener. Dappled with the squawks, chirps and chit-chat of bird-life recreated in music, a remarkable energetic soundscape is constructed by the seven musicians tended expertly by conductor Jack Symonds.

A gentle respect between music, voice and emotion play out, its three roles beautifully filled by artists at one with their character. The fluctuating intensities of the more poetic vocal lines appropriately belong to the introspective Jim Saddler, touchingly portrayed with freshness and polish by Mitchell Riley. Brenton Spiteri stretches his role not only as the privileged but kind landowner Ashley Crowther, but as several soldiers on the battlefield. Spiteri's charismatic warmth and vocal agility adds priceless weight and his maturing excellence is clearly evident. As the nature photographer Imogen Harcourt, Jessica Aszodi sings with exciting vocal brightness and feeling, and when not exposed to the foreground of war, moves about the stage with focused sensitivity. All three characters are united by a passionate bond which transcends class and sex while forging the most admirable attributes of humanity to which movement director Lucas Jervies gives full attention to with poignancy.

Jessica Aszodi as Imogen Harcourt
The amphitheatre-styled Arts Centre Melbourne Fairfax Studio's performance space highlighted the staging rewardingly. Nothing more than an asymmetrical stepped podium is employed by Elizabeth Gadsby's set design, yet nothing feels lost in its metaphorical associations of a riverbank, a summit or even as a stone grave top. Gadsby's costume designs continue the simplistic visual stream with everyday casual wear and Verity Hampson's lighting design deftly snaps each of the eight scenes with varied shafts of golden light in a low intensity lit field.

Dozens of blue buckets are gradually carried out as the only props. At first, their random placement on the stage might symbolise the soldiers on the battlefield. Through time, they are manoeuvred steadily into measured rows to represent first the lines of planted crops as life continues around battle, then both powerfully and unmistakably, the headstones of the fallen. Some contain clay that the cast of three smear themselves with, in a nod to the disappearance of the present and one's eventual return to dust. The overall staging achieves remarkable sense of grandness which connects the audience with hand-reaching ease.

As part of the Melbourne Festival and only with three performances, the work sits comfortably alone. But Gyger and Wilcox's initial intention for it to form a companion piece to Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale of 1918 lends even further possibility for the work to resonate in the future for a more fully programmed evening.

Less importantly, as youngsters, my brother Peter and I, Paul, were the 'two little dickie birds' of the family. I wasn't exactly comfortable with being a 'dickie', but now I can at least see being 'dicke' with a completely fresh perspective.

Production photographs: Susannah Wimberley

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