Five years and 13 productions after they made their Sydney debut, Sydney Chamber Opera are one of the best young companies not just in the city but in Australia, with their work featured this year's Sydney Festival and the Biennale of Sydney and touring to Melbourne's Arts Centre.
The secret to their success is enabling risk and unleashing visionary talent in the Gesamtkunstwerk environment of opera: when it works, the combination of visuals, soundtrack and narrative – in the imposing concrete bunkers of Carriageworks – approaches the sublime. It’s as overwhelming experience as you can get in the theatre.
Even when it doesn’t entirely work, it has been fascinating to watch – never boring, never unambitious.
Notes from Underground, adapted from Dostoevsky's existentialist novella, is a characteristically ravishing production from the company. Featuring a score by artistic director Jack Symonds and a libretto by Pierce Wilcox (who wrote the libretto for SCO's Helpmann-nominated Fly Away Peter), Notes debuted in 2011 at the National Art School's Cell Block Theatre.
Here it is remounted with a new director and design team and an adjusted score for an ensemble of 11, starring pianist Zubin Kanga and viola and viola d’amore player James Wannan. Three SCO favourites, baritone Simon Lobelson, tenor Brenton Spiteri and soprano Jane Sheldon, star.
Wilcox’s libretto is an elegant interweaving of the two normally discrete parts of Dostoevsky's novella: ‘Underground’ (a monologue by the Underground Man exploring his perspective on society) and ‘Apropos of the Wet Snow’ (in which Underground Man reflects on incidents 20 years earlier that led him to move Underground). It’s clever and effective to have the two streams of thought unfold simultaneously onstage, allowing certain moments to be conflated, others compared or contrasted.
To be fair, Notes is hard going given the obsessiveness of his hero’s thoughts, the overwrought polemic, and the hero’s rageful impotence. Here is yet another Hamlet – all talk, very little action.
On the other hand, the 1864 novella is dazzling in its attempt to breach a gap between individual experience and ideas of the time: the Enlightenment notions that ‘reason’ would save the world and that history was a story of progress, and the reactive ‘Romantic’ philosophy that rejected the oppressive conformity of the industrial age. Dostoevsky appears to be cynical about both ends of that spectrum of argument.
And here’s the thing: it’s funny. Wilcox is onto the satire of the original, and lines like “To live beyond 40 is banal!” (sung by Lobelson as the ashy-faced, dressing-gown-clad, vodka-swilling Underground Man) are secret pleasures, while the insufferable narcissism of Aboveground man (performed by Spiteri) raises actual laughs: “If only they knew my feelings and thoughts, how developed I am," he rants in one scene; and later, “Let the world perish, I will have my tea!” There’s also sly comedy in the awkward post-coital chat between an self-congratulatory Aboveground man and the serially underwhelmed Liza (played to perfection by Sheldon).
The design team (Nicholas Rayment on lighting, Boris Baggatini on video projections, and Genevieve Blanchett on set) have created a simple but forceful late-Soviet-era staging that is essentially minimalist (a large white expanse of stage backed by a translucent white curtain) but is suffused by ecstatic washes of pink, purple, aqua and midnight-blue. It’s also beautifully mad at the edges: in the foreground of the stage, the ‘present’, the hoarder’s paradise of Underground Man’s cramped dwellings threatens to encroach on the minimalism of the downstage ‘past’, where his younger Aboveground self stalks through misadventure after misadventure.
The blocking of the piece and the movement, devised by director Patrick Nolan (of physical theatre outfit Legs on the Wall) and choreographer Cloé Fournier, is beautifully planned out and executed, with tiny physical comedy flourishes (a cross-stage officious shuffle by Gautier Pavlovic-Hobba, playing the young man Trudolyubov, is a small joy). The relationship between Aboveground and Underground man, and the framing of their movement, is a thoughtful and striking complement to the psychological action.
If the show has flaws, they exist almost entirely in the source material, and depend on how you feel about youthful male existential crisis, and the representation of women on stage.
While it’s sort of a point of Dostoevsky's novella that woman in the piece is “a hooker with a heart of gold” (he is satirising tropes of Romantic literature around the heroic rescue and redemption of women in distress), and while Wilcox has given more of a voice to the sex worker Liza that she has in the novella, director Patrick Nolan puts four women on stage who are nameless, line-less and story-less sex workers; they are almost exclusively used for a single scene in which they bump and grind in slow red-lit motion for a group of men (who have names, characters, storylines).
Sidelining the women actively in the context of an already male-centric work seems like a weird choice. It sort of rubs one’s nose in the fact that typically we only hear the existential angst of men – Camus, Sartre, Dostoevsky's – as if women didn’t have these thoughts and experiences. It also makes you wonder what the show would look like with gender-swapped roles, as a comment on the imbalance.
But if your taste in theatre runs operatic, it’s worth pushing past the drawbacks for the strengths of this production.