High praise for SCO’s 2016 productions so far

by Annarosa Berman

Sydney Chamber Opera continues to receive high praise for its work. In January the company was lauded for its Sydney Festival staging of Pascal Dusapin’s works, Passion, a 21st-century take on Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, and O Mensch!, a staged song cycle based on texts by Nietzsche. And at the 20th Biennale of Sydney in March, SCO’s reimagining, with artist Justene Williams, of Mikhail Matyushin‘s futurist opera, Victory Over the Sun, met with rapturous critical response.

Passion received praise for a wide variety of reasons. Real Time’s Keith Gallasch praised the production as “an engrossing introduction to a significant work from a composer little known here”, and Limelight’s Clive Paget applauded the courage of offering challenging music “in these risk averse times”.

To Paget, European director Pierre Audi’s “austere” production was in keeping with Dusapin’s restrained score. Both critics praised the instrumental ensemble under Jack Symonds. To Paget, Symonds’ “clear, astute direction” ensured that the composer’s “densely argued developing orchestration” was heard to full and best effect. The six-member vocal ensemble  (Jane Sheldon, Ellen Hooper, Anna Fraser, Andrew Goodwin, Mitchell Riley and Simon Lobelson) was “extremely impressive” in adding an atmospheric layer to the instruments and underpinning key moments in the story.

Stage Noise’s Diana Simmonds praised Passion for providing audiences with “the shock of the new and the stretching of the ears and minds”. She felt that the production was “a wonderful next step” for SCO.

But Passion critics reserved their highest praise for the principal singers. In the words of Limelight’s Clive Paget, Belgian coloratura soprano Elise Caluwaerts’ “warm and attractive” voice was at home in the taxing tessitura, and her baroque musical background sustained Dusapin’s Monteverdi-inspired recitative. Dutch baritone Wiard Witholt used his “firm voice and striking stage presence” to great effect.

SCO’s second offering at the Sydney Festival, Dusapin’s song cycle O Mensch!, based on texts by Nietzsche, received equally high praise.

To Sydney Morning Herald critic Peter McCallum, the piece exemplified the company’s ethos, that is, its “capacity to produce profound work with minimal resources by focussing on artistic essentials”.  He praised director Sarah Giles’ skilful exploration of “the geometry of a lonely figure in an existential cube of light”. Baritone Mitchell Riley’s voice had “commanding resonance” when needed but could also create “wisps of whimsical falsetto, dark whispers and many shades between”.

David Larkin from Bachtrack pointed out thatO Mensch!, like previous SCO productions, “made a mockery of those who would claim modernist music cannot speak to audiences”. He singled out Katie Sfetkidis’s lighting design, which modulated colour and brightness with great subtlety to accentuate Mitchell Riley’s journey, and paid tribute to Riley’s “extraordinary” emotional range. Riley has just been accepted into the prestigious Jacques Lecoq school in Paris to further push himself in the realm of pure movement, and SCO is immensely proud of him!

Jack Symonds was impressive at the piano, and created “a vital palette of carefully gradated tone colours”. Larkin praised the “almost flawless level of coordination between the performers”, who have been working together since the very first days of Sydney Chamber Opera.

In Victory Over the Sun, a reworking of Russian composer Mikhail Matyushin’s 1913 futurist opera, SCO and performance and installation artist Justene Williams collaborated to create a contemporary production of a work which librettist Pierce Wilcox has laughingly described as “a strange project even by our standards”. The production sold out and received excellent reviews.

Jason Catlett in Time Out praised it as “beautiful, exotic and thought-provoking….one of – if not the – best things at the Biennale of Sydney”. Wilcox’s impressive libretto was filled with “well-chosen anachronisms and neologisms” and composer Huw Belling produced “an inspired and intriguing” score via an imaginative archaeological investigation of Matyushin’s original.

The production, which included a “spectacular” video by Justene Williams, managed to convey “not just some of the original author’s concept of the future, but also many reflections of other forward-looking fantasies over the ensuing century” and resulted in “a glorious procession of artistic imagination across a century of thought”.

Real Time’s Keith Gallasch wrote that from the original text, designs and a fragment of the score, visual artist Justene Williams and Sydney Chamber Opera had fashioned a largely new work “brimming over with invention, anarchic fervour and a sense of artistic, if not political, transformation.” He praised the scale and sweep of  the production. “This contemporary Victory Over the Sun sings, dances and moves to an engrossingly propulsive keyboard-led score from a tight ensemble seated in a circle at one end of the traverse staging, an integral visual component of the work.”  Huw Belling’s new score for the work was challenging yet engaging, sustaining the impulse of the original, Mitchell Riley’s “huge vocal swoops” were utterly impressive, and Kazimir Malevich’s original costume designs were realised by Justene Williams “with a wonderful mix of fidelity and invention”.

If high praise for artistic achievement is what an opera company needs to survive, Sydney Chamber Opera is more than surviving; it’s thriving.

Image courtesy Biennale of Sydney, Document Photography

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