Friday, January 15, 2016

Dusapin's Passion at Sydney Festival intoxicates but challenges

Sydney Festival and Sydney Chamber Opera's collaboration in bringing the Australian premiere of Passion is both instructive in introducing French composer Pascal Dusapin's intoxicating music to local audiences and courageous in programming such a contemplative and dynamic yet challenging work.

Dusapin's passionate interest in Monteverdi's composition has resulted in a mesmerising 90-minute work, more music-poetry than chamber opera, inspired by the Greek myth of Orpheus, having its premiere at the 2008 Festival d’Aix-en-Provence.

Elise Caluwaerts as Lei and Wiard Witholt as Lui
Orpheus journeys into the underworld to bring back his dead wife Eurydice but, knowing how it will end, she is unwilling to make the ascent. Mise-en-espace/director Pierre Audi has created a spare, trepidatious setting consisting of a stage strewn with angular glass shards, an evocative symbolic world of fragility and danger and aided by Nicholas Rayment's lighting design which touches the music with great sensitivity. Under revival director Miranda Lakerveld, the production was first seen at the 2009 Holland Festival.

Audi's picture perfectly pairs with a sense of anxiety, urgency and doubt that pervades the work as Dusapin's music sweeps the air with broad strokes and time-altering qualities. Within it, tension and harmony are completely at one across its 10 parts. Remarkably, it is a music that seems to breathe in and out in long musical breaths with deliciously haunting, highly expressive and overarching strength.

A short rehearsal period belies the polished artistry that emanated from the stage. Musically, artistic director of Sydney Chamber Opera Jack Symonds exposed Dusapin's music with detailed, relaxed and expansive beauty and his 16 local musicians consistently held the music high in prominence. Long and laconic orchestral passages grease the score in which even the dulcet metallic plink of a music clock is shaped from a percussion-less music.

Wiard Witholt as Lui and Elise Caluwaerts as Lei
Soloists Elise Caluwaerts and Wiard Witholt make a deep impression in their Australian debut in enacting the doomed journey with role-immersive power as simply Lei (She) and Lui (Him). The vocal line is complex, varied and highly textured which Caluwaerts and Witholt imbue with intensity and pathos. Together the young duo unfailingly take audience attention by turning out a formidable, unlaboured and engaging performance despite the challenges that arise from Dusapin's and Rita de Letteriis's poetically weighty and cloudy English-surtitled Italian libretto. No amount of reference to the Sun bore much light on the two mythical lovers' journey, leaving a disconnection between word-vocal-music and a feeling of intellectual over-indulgence that spoiled an otherwise compelling performance.

Caluwaerts's lithely form as Lei is matched with a pliant, glowing and plush soprano that swells from a solid lower register to reach a dizzying, glassy knife-edge force. Witholt exudes an equally strong stage presence with an imposing stature and a robust baritone armoured in protective warmth and resonance.

Six vocalists, three female (Jane Sheldon, Ellen Hooper and Anna Fraser) and three male (Andrew Goodwin, Mitchell Riley, Simon Lobelson) sit in line, mid-stage behind the field of fractured glass in front of the orchestra. Referred to as The Others, they contribute a fascinating soundscape that builds depth and atmosphere by imitating various sounds of nature. But the point at which trying to figure out meaning in the poetry became exhausting and it disappointingly affected the pleasure of simply basking in the journey.

Production photographs: Jamie Williams


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