Vitesse

The Australian Ballet, State Theatre, Melbourne, March 11.

VITESSE presents three certified hits from three of the biggest names in contemporary ballet and turns the dial up as the evening progresses. It starts with one of Jiří Kylián’s mysterious appeals to the heart, takes a charge through the cerebral and physical complexities of William Forsythe and finishes with Christopher Wheeldon being fast, flashy and entertaining.

Only the Wheeldon requires a cast of significant size– four leading couples and a corps of 18 – but Vitesse is nevertheless a meaty program, and one that allows a closer-than-usual look at dancers at the lower end of the rankings. On opening night Kylián’s emotionally charged Forgotten Land, for instance, had three corps de ballet members and two coryphées among its six couples. At the curtain Ella Havelka (from the corps) had a smile radiant enough to light the auditorium, and why not? She looked wonderful in Kylian’s passionate, swooping choreography, as did the full cast.

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Lana Jones and Rudy Hawkes in Forgotten Land. Photo: Kate Longley

The AB has an affinity for Kylián and on opening night Forgotten Land (1981), an abstract dance that evokes life’s joys and sorrows, was the most fully realised (it was staged by Roslyn Anderson, the Australian-born former AB and Netherlands Dance Theatre dancer who had a long association with Kylián as his assistant). The curtain rises on a vast tempest-tossed landscape (by John McFarlane) and the desolate sound of wind. Six couples are buffeted by the elements, bending, quivering, swaying and challenging but not giving in. There are intimations of struggle, defiance and hope in this paean to resilience and to the deep connection people have with their own country, no matter how treacherous. In the opening night cast of 12, new senior artist Brett Chynoweth made an indelible impression with the fierce clarity of his attack.

Once upon a time the audience used to jump out of its skin at the first blast of Thom Willems and Lesley Stuck’s tough-as-nails electronic score for Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Not so much now, even though Willems travels around supervising the sound. He was in Melbourne, and also visited New Zealand recently for Royal New Zealand Ballet’s performances. Have the Occupational Heath & Safety police been on the case? If so, they haven’t helped. (I do admit that in Auckland, where I saw RNZB, the opening did provide a gratifying kick.)

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Aoo Kondo and Kevin Jackson in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Photo: Jeff Busby

Putting In the Middle on the bill is one of those crazy-brave things companies can’t resist. It is rightly considered a landmark work, one that showed how ballet could be very, very bolshie and sexy while being ultra classical. With a twist. Despite being nearly 30 years old, In the Middle still has the ability to disturb one’s equilibrium (a marvellous solitary boo from the stalls on Melbourne’s opening night proved that) as six women and three men take ballet to the wilder outskirts of town with way off-centre balances, split-second changes of direction, sinuous torqueing of the upper body and extreme extensions.

Not everyone in the AB’s first cast entirely captured the work’s formidable contrasts between action and stillness and thrust and resistance, but principal Kevin Jackson looked like a god and alone was worth the price of admission. Daniel Gaudiello, sporting a shorter, sleeker haircut, and Jarryd Madden were also thrilling. Soloist Madden was apparently a latish replacement for principal Chengwu Guo, who had been listed – indeed, as of the time of this writing was still listed – as being in the first cast with Jackson and Gaudiello. Maddyn might not be quite the star Guo is but he acquitted himself brilliantly. The women were a touch less persuasive, and a touch less is all you need for one to feel In the Middle hasn’t been conquered.

Guo isn’t injured, by the way, because he danced dashingly in Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. But he can look sometimes look a little undisciplined, something that will never, ever do for In the Middle. I’d like to see him do it though, and perhaps the Sydney season will provide an opportunity.

DGV is a large-scale hymn to going places as it evokes speed, travel and the momentum of technology. It couldn’t be called profound but it’s smart as paint and smartly danced by the AB, although without the drop-dead glamour New York City Ballet brings to it, a quality helpful to a work that’s essentially all surface.

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Robyn Hendricks and Kevin Jackson in DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse. Photo: Jeff Busby

It’s a terrific surface though, with the large corps suggesting the waves of departing crowds, the actions of a train in motion and the heady rush of groups in transit. Four strong pas de deux anchor DGV and Guo was responsible for some fancy fireworks, tossing off super-fast turns in a welcome injection of the speed that gives this ballet its title.

Nicolette Fraillon and Orchestra Victoria accompanied the first and third works with music that couldn’t be in greater contrast: Benjamin Britten’s intense, melancholy Sinfonia da Requiem and Michael Nyman’s perpetual-motion MGV: (Musique a Grande Vitesse). 

Vitesse ends in Melbourne on March 21. Sydney, April 26-May 16.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 14.

Triptych

Sydney Dance Company with ACO2 and Katie Noonan. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, Sydney, September 29.

BENJAMIN Britten was in his 20s when he wrote the three works to which Rafael Bonachela responds so ardently in Triptych. Innocence, desire, joy, playfulness and sensuality all have their role in the music and the evocation of the bloom and juice of youth is captivating.

Bonachela has revived two dances from 2013 and newly created a third for an evening in which movement and music have a lively – and, it’s wonderful to say, live – conversation. Even better, the 16 string players from ACO2 are not confined to a pit but sit on a platform at the rear of the stage, generating warmth and visceral connection, advantages we humans still have over machines in an age where much – most – contemporary dance is performed to recorded music. Well, there is one drawback: sometimes the eye is drawn inexorably over the heads of dancers to a musician making a particularly arresting contribution. Thomas Gould, directing from the violin, has form with Britten and he has the group – the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s youth ensemble – playing superbly.

Janessa Dufty and Bernard Knauer In Simple Symphony. Photo: Peter Greig

Janessa Dufty and Bernard Knauer In Simple Symphony. Photo: Peter Greig

The dancers responded eagerly, as has Bonachela. In his hands Sydney Dance Company never looks less than elegant, sleek, powerful, sophisticated, glamorous and any other adjective you might think of in this neck of the woods. Those qualities make the company always highly watchable but the effect can be emotionally cool, a situation amplified, if you will forgive the little wordplay, when the music is coming from speakers. One understands why the reliance on recording – it’s the economy, stupid. So we must be very grateful for the times when finances allow a program such as Triptych.

Simple Symphony and Les Illuminations (performed together as Les Illuminations) were a big success when first seen at the Sydney Opera House two years ago. They were supposed to have been part of the Opera House’s Spring Dance festival, of which Bonachela was artistic director, but the Opera House pulled the plug on the four-year-old event “for financial reasons”. It seemed there wasn’t enough audience appetite for a dance festival of this kind in Sydney.

Les Illuminations survived to be seen for handful of performances in the Studio at the Opera House and was also performed in Brisbane last year, but that was for one night only. You couldn’t say Les illuminations has been over-exposed. Now, in company with Variation 10, also to music by Britten, the dances will be seen much more widely.

The four light-hearted movements of Simple Symphony (1933-34) propel a series of duos and a quarter that suggest the larks of lovers tumbling about on a summer’s afternoon. The mood is light, bright and optimistic. Janessa Dufty with Bernhard Knauer and Fiona Jopp with Todd Sutherland caught the sunny nature of the music and were sweetly uncomplicated in their relationships, twirling each other about with sparkling eyes, fleet feet and much give and take. Jopp supported Sutherland as he extended his leg high to the side while on demi-pointe, a gorgeous, generous unfolding of the body; Dufty used Knauer’s horizontal body as a steadying point for a cheerful cartwheel; every now and again a dancer would lightly touch their partner’s face. Just lovely.

Simple Symphony was followed immediately, as in 2013, with the darker intimations of the song cycle Les Illuminations (1939). Once again soprano Katie Noonan was the divinely silky, agile interpreter of texts by bad-boy French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud as two rather more dangerous couples took the field. Cass Mortimer Eipper and Charmene Yap with Juliette Barton and Richard Cilli were the opening-night protagonists, dressed in slinky black garments that had a touch of kink about them. Eroticism rather than flirtation is the game. Barton in particular was dramatic and dangerous but all four had quite an edge as they prowled and entwined. There’s was real frisson when they swapped partners, ending up with their own sex. The women were spiky and tough while the men were more tender, a salute to the orientation of poet and composer.

Juliette Barton and Richard Cilli in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Greig

Juliette Barton and Richard Cilli in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Greig

Bonachela’s new full-company piece, Variation 10, takes its cue from qualities Britten saw in his composition teacher Frank Bridge or felt for him, including charm, humour, vitality, sympathy and reverence. Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937) is an open-hearted tribute to the man who, as author and conductor Paul Kildea writes, taught Britten “how to live and think as an artist”. Bonachela takes a fairly literal approach. Knees are lifted comically high in Aria Italiana (humour) and Chant (reverence) is a mournful solo given gravitas on opening night by Cilli. Funeral March (sympathy) not surprisingly has a sombre feel but was energised with fierce physicality.

Jesse Scales and David Mack were outstanding in Funeral March, answering the throbbing beats from the plucked double bass with passionate intensity. But everywhere you looked there were dancers giving individual shading and detail to Bonachela’s high-octane choreography. Bonachela has a way with partnering that gives women equal strength and authority with men, a desirable state not always seen in dance and a great credit to him.

It’s a shame Toni Maticevski’s costumes for Variation 10 don’t flatter the men but you can’t have everything. His earlier work for Simple Symphony and Les illuminations is just right.

Triptych ends in Sydney on October 10. It will be seen in Germany at Theatre im Pfalzbau, Festpiele Ludwigshafen, on November 28 and 29, featuring the German State Philharmonic of Rhineland-Palatinate.

In Melbourne on October 25 Les Illuminations, featuring Taryn Fiebig, will be performed with Variation 10 and Project Rameau, accompanied by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for a program titled Illuminated. Illuminated will then be performed in Hong Kong on November 13 and 14.

Variation 10 will be performed with 2 One Another at Stadtheater Fürth, Germany, November 18-22.

2013: a retrospective

Here’s my take on the year’s high points. As many have noted before me, “best” is a useless word when applied to the cornucopia available in the arts. Here are the people and productions that most inspired me.

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia's Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia’s Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

“A SHORT show is a good show,” we all carol (me and my fellow critics) as we enter the auditorium for yet another 70- to 90-minute piece of theatre, but put a 10-hour marathon before us and we can’t get enough. So I have lists for big things, small things, individuals, a few words on musical theatre and a couple of miscellaneous thoughts.

It was a strong year, particularly in Sydney theatre, so it was hard to keep the lists tight. Please don’t take anything I say here as an indication of who has taken out honours in the Sydney Theatre Awards, of which I am but one judge on a panel of nine. Argument was fierce and the passions diverse, let me tell you! But here goes from me, in alphabetical order …

Big:

Angels in America, Parts One and Two, Belvoir, Sydney: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is the best play to have been written in English in my lifetime. Belvoir’s production was very fine.

Cinderella, The Australian Ballet, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. The amazing Surrealist-inspired set looked waaaay better in Melbourne than in Sydney, but this version of the beloved fairytale to the bittersweet music of Prokofiev as choreographed by the world’s leading classicist is a keeper. (Also wonderful to see Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream with the Bolshoi in Brisbane mid-year – amazing how that company managed to block out the hideous backstage dramas that still dog it.)

Life and Times, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Melbourne Festival: The ums, ahs and pauses of an ordinary life rendered first as a dippy musical, then as a drawing-room mystery. You had to be there (for 10 hours indeed). Sublime, transcendent.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam: Scintillating Stravinsky Firebird suite and glorious Tchaikovsky fifth symphony. Magic.

The Ring, Opera Australia, Melbourne: not a flawless production, but one that felt right for this place and this time. Director Neil Armfield’s strength is finding the humanity in situations where it may seem to be missing in action and he did it here. Under last-minute mini-maestro Pietari Inkinen (only 33!!) the Melbourne Ring Orchestra put in a blinder. Bravi.

The Threepenny Opera, Berliner Ensemble, Perth International Arts Festival: Not a huge company, but a Robert Wilson production simply cannot be put into any category other than outsized. Stupendously performed, gorgeous to the eye, a knockout band in the pit, witty, sardonic … you get the idea.

Small:

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney: A devastating production (Sam Strong directed) of John Romeril’s devastating play. I saw the last scene with tears pouring down my face. A rare occurrence.

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera: Apparently the most popular opera of 1649. Worked pretty damn well in 2013.

Independent theatre x 3: I have to mention this trio of splendid plays and productions thereof. I was thrilled to have been able to see Jez Butterworth’s brilliant Jerusalem in Sydney, and done so persuasively by the New Theatre. Workhorse Theatre Company’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat was hold-on-to-your-hats exhilarating, and is getting a re-run in 2014 at the new Eternity Playhouse. Hooray. And in Siren Theatre Company’s Penelope (by Enda Walsh), all sorts of trouble arises when Odysseus’s arrival back home is imminent. As with Workhorse, Siren did a superb job in the tiny confines of the theatre at TAP Gallery.

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera: This young, tiny outfit did Benjamin Britten proud in his centenary year. Really memorable music-making.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The Rite of Spring, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Brisbane and Melbourne festivals: In the Rite of Spring centenary year, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s setting in a harsh, cold village was, not surprisingly, dark and threatening. His ending, however, stressed the renewal and healing that is to come. The score was played in Stravinsky’s four-hand version (on one piano); earlier in the year, in Sacre – The Rite of Spring (Raimund Hoghe for the Sydney Festival), we heard the score also played ravishingly by four hands, but on two pianos. Sacre was a difficult dance work for many; I admired it greatly.

School Dance, Windmill Theatre (seen at Sydney Theatre Company in association with the Sydney Festival): loved, loved, loved.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Super Discount, Back to Back Theatre: Deeply provocative on all sorts of levels. Can’t wait for Ganesh versus the Third Reich to come to Sydney – finally – next year.

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company: Luke Mullins, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving were an immaculate quartet of players in one of the year’s most heart-piercing productions.

Individuals (performers):

David Hallberg (American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal): Luminous in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella for The Australian Ballet in Sydney. Prince of princes.

Peter Kowitz: Les in The Floating World (see above).

Ewen Leslie: A huge year on the Sydney stage as a desolate Brick in Belvoir’s contentious Australian-accented Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Player in Sydney Theatre Company’s terrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and most powerfully – and impressively – as Hamlet for Belvoir, stepping in at short notice when original Dane Toby Schmitz was called overseas for filming duty. A rare change to compare and contrast in one of the roles by which men are judged. Closely.

Catherine McClements, Phedre, Bell Shakespeare: A scarifying performance in a production that was, in my opinion, sorely underrated. Not by me though.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Amber McMahon: Harper in Angels in America for Belvoir, various roles in School Dance for Windmill, special in everything.

Sharon Millerchip, Bombshells, Ensemble Theatre: Dazzling in Joanna Murray-Smith’s ode to the many faces of womanhood.

Tim Minchin: Lucky old us to see him not once but twice on stage, as a show-stealing Judas in the arena Jesus Christ Superstar and Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Dead. Or is that Guildenstern? Don’t ask Claudius or Gertrude to help you out.

Luke Mullins: Prior Walter in Angels in America, the quiet centre of Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired, Lucky in Waiting for Godot. Fantastic in all of them. What a year!

Bojana Novakovic, The Blind Date Project, Sydney Festival: I adored this little improvised show. Wish I could have seen Novakovic with many more of her blind dates.

Myriam Ould-Braham, Paris Opera Ballet: Made her debut as Giselle in Sydney in February, making us here the envy of many a Paris balletomane. She was divine, as was fellow etoile Dorothee Gilbert. Both were partnered by the supremely elegant Mathieu Ganio. A joy to see the company here again.

Steve Rodgers: Rodgers has long been one of my favourite actors – so simpatico, even when taking on a difficult subject matter in Griffin’s Dreams in White. And especially in Gideon Obarzanek’s Dance Better at Parties for STC.

Individuals (behind the scenes):

Rafael Bonachela, artistic director, Sydney Dance Company: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. Bonachela sees everything and is bringing lots of strong artistic collaborations back for his astoundingly beautiful dancers.

Li Cunxin, artistic director, Queensland Ballet: He’s taken the company back to the classics and people have voted with their wallets. All shows have been sold out and all shows have been extended. I think Brisbane likes him.

Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia: Got the Ring up. Respect.

Musical theatre:

It was an exceptionally patchy year for musical theatre in Sydney, although Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was really, really entertaining and super-well cast, and the arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar was a blast. The new consortium of music-theatre people, Independent Music Theatre, holds out promise for better things next year, and the feisty little Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre continues to impress.

Miscellaneous:

Best new (only new) theatre in Sydney in 2013: Best is a word that certainly applies here. All hail Sydney City Council for getting the Eternity Playhouse happening. It is a truly beautiful 200-seat house, and an adornment to the city.

Best seat in the house: A11 at Belvoir. The lucky incumbent – male or female, it didn’t matter- got a kiss from Toby Schmitz or Ewen Leslie during Hamlet. Alas I was not one of them.

Clearest indication that critics don’t matter much: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which got the kind of reviews cast members’ mothers would write, did poor business in Sydney. Those of us who wrote about it adored it. We had very little effect.

Doesn’t stop us though.

iTMOi, Les Illuminations

Akram Khan Company, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 28. Les Illuminations, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Dance Company and Katie Noonan, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, August 28

AKRAM Khan is a choreographer with a hugely inquiring and generous mind. The list of his collaborators is long, stellar and diverse. He’s not a man content to do the same thing over and over with small variations. To celebrate the centenary of The Rite of Spring, Khan didn’t want to add yet another dance work to the extensive list of those who have used Stravinsky’s epoch-altering score. Instead he wanted to “enter Igor’s own thought process and follow its complex and disruptive path”. Thus  iTMOi, a particularly ugly and tricksy title that stands for “in the mind of Igor”.

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

But not only does that phrase give a slightly impertinent suggestion of intimacy with the composer, it is misleading in terms of what iTMOi achieves. The piece is broadly another version of The Rite of Spring with different music (three composers plus a tiny snippet of Stravinsky), twice as long and with an altered ending. Ritual and sacrifice are its themes but there is little of the disruption Khan hopes to evoke. He would have to be far more transgressive than he is here to come anywhere near emulating, let alone surpassing, the effect of the bomb Stravinsky threw on that May day in 1913.

There is nothing better in iTMOi than its beginning, in which a preacher figure shouts a text about Abraham and Isaac against a dramatic, roiling soundscape. Bells toll and drums beat while dancers shudder, groan, hiss, whisper and chant in a primal and thrilling display of ecstatic possession. The feel is that of a particularly intense meeting of religious fanatics. Dancers wheel about in stuttering, speedy circles; there are springy elevations from deep plies in second.

The piece then becomes a series of scenes, somewhat unfocused in structure, that alternate between unrestrained physicality and slow-moving tableaux. A woman in a huge white crinoline commands attention; a younger woman, also in white, is covered in ash; a man tries to challenge the unity of the group but fails; another man stands on his head; yet another, semi-naked, prowls the stage, sporting long thin horns. Meaning is elusive, although there is a general sense of pagan wildness. Igor’s mind was clearly a pretty vibey place.

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

The muscular stamping and circling motifs are reminders of the folk elements in Stravinsky’s score; the slower sections offer arresting imagery but feel over-indulgent and not always full of the resonances Khan appears to be seeking. The work is only 65 minutes in length but is stretched beyond its natural span and ideal shape. It also seems to end twice before it really does, which is rarely effective. I was surprised to see that a dramaturge is among those credited.

The 11 dancers are superb, it goes without saying, and an Akram Khan work is always worth a visit. This one looks spectacular and is performed with brilliance. It’s just not his most coherent.

iTMOi was preceded by a wonderful collaboration between Sydney Dance Company, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and singer Katie Noonan. Why such riches all on one evening? Because the two works are all that is left of the Sydney Opera House’s Spring Dance festival, canned earlier this year for cost reasons. SDC’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, curated last year’s event and was to have done the same this year. It is a huge loss for the city.

Fortunately Les Illuminations survived the cull. At only 45 minutes it is a lovely jewel that deserves more than the handful of performances it’s being given. For those whose knowledge of Benjamin Britten is confined almost entirely to his operas (that would be me), the two works chosen by Bonachela for this project surprise and delight, as does the dance inspired by them.

The first half is playful and sexy, set to the four-movement Simple Symphony (1933-1934). Dancing on a catwalk set in the centre of the Sydney Opera House’s Studio, Janessa Dufty, Andrew Crawford, Fiona Jopp and Bernard Knauer flirt, tease, sparkle and seduce. Despite the restricted space there is room for a few playful tosses, much intertwining of limbs and lovely partnering in which the women are as supportive as the men. The expressive eye contact and the women’s gorgeous smiles lights up the intimate space.

Janessa Dufty and Bernard Knauer in Simple Symphony. Photo: Peter Greig

Janessa Dufty and Bernard Knauer in Simple Symphony. Photo: Peter Greig

In the second half, Les Illuminations (1939), Noonan sings texts by Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet who was a byword for dissipation and excess. The costumes, by fashion designer Toni Maticevski, are black rather than the cream confections he created for Simple Symphony, and the atmosphere is much darker and erotically charged. The movement is edgier as dancers prowl and slither around one another or enter same-sex pas de deux. Juliette Barton looks coolly dangerous as she holds Charmene Yap in a tight grip; Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer Eipper are equally sensuous in their highly charged meeting.

Juliette Barton and Thomas Bradley in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Grieg

Juliette Barton and Thomas Bradley in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Grieg

Noonan had a slightly tentative start at Wednesday’s opening but quickly showed her silvery, agile soprano to be an excellent match for Britten’s songs. Seventeen string players from the SSO were conducted by Roland Peelman in an absolutely luscious performance.

Les Illuminations has its final performances on August 31. iTMOi finishes September 1.

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera

Carriageworks, Sydney, August 5

THE tyros at Sydney Chamber Opera nimbly and thrillingly tread where larger organisations fear to go, or at least traverse sparingly. Owen Wingrave is perfect SCO territory: it is 20th century repertoire, it’s an Australian stage premiere and it suits presentation by a small, tightly focused group of musicians. Another attraction, very much for audiences as well as SCO, is that Owen Wingrave is far from being over-familiar, yet in Benjamin Britten’s centenary year it has an undeniable claim on selection. Lots of ticks there.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The company, founded in 2010, has an astute understanding of what is right for it and what it can do well. Its gripping Australian premiere last year of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony, in celebration of Glass’s 75th birthday, is another case in point, and it is no wonder SCO asked In the Penal Colony’s gifted young director, Imara Savage, to return for Owen Wingrave.

Written in 1971 as a commission for television (those were the days), Owen Wingrave was Britten’s penultimate opera and is an extended cry for peace. Owen, a young man from a family with a deep-rooted military tradition, “heir to the Wingrave flag of glory”, turns his face against war. His apostasy shocks his friends and relations. His willingness to fight and almost certainly to die is the only thing expected of him. He is not to think, to question or to have ideas. When he does, the icy rectitude of his hidebound, unimaginative family cracks.

It’s harrowing material that comes with a twist, a supernatural element present in the Henry James story on which the opera is based. Librettist Myfanwy Piper’s introduction of this spectral material is less elegant than one might wish, but Savage, designer Katren Wood and movement director Johanna Puglisi quietly make it part of the fabric from the start, which is a real achievement.

The setting is a cheerless space enclosed by a three-sided wire fence, giving intimations of prisons or encampments real and imagined. I was taken by the way that within this, Savage uses only a small number of big, uncluttered images. A huge stag laid out on the dining table silently attests to a tradition of killing and entitlement, a suddenly unfurled portrait becomes a constant reminder of the weight of heritage and a blood-stained boy mutely represents a family tragedy. I do wish directors would find a way other than opening black umbrellas to indicate a trip to the cemetery, but it’s a small point.

The simplicity of means lets Britten’s highly coloured score do its passionate work. The small orchestra plays David Matthews’s well-regarded reduction and features a bracing concentration of brass, woodwinds and percussion alongside the strings. There’s an enormous sense of urgency as the music groans, clashes and cries out, then subsides into quite lovely introspection or unsettling premonition. The mix of influences, particularly from eastern music, can make for unexpected, even unruly, passages but conductor Jack Symonds and the 15 players make an extremely persuasive case for music that’s rarely heard in any big opera houses.

Morgan Pearse in Owen Wingrave

Morgan Pearse in Owen Wingrave

Against these riches the vocal lines are solid and unadorned, mostly serving the text well. There are no reservations about the cast, all admirably suited to their roles. Morgan Pearse is a revelation in the title role, engaging sympathy with a glowing, firm, rich baritone and nuanced acting. Owen’s fiancée Kate is an unlikeable woman, yet Emily Edmonds finds a way to make her understandable and does so with a beautifully produced mezzo that is penetrating without losing its smooth texture. Tenor Pascal Herington also makes a strong impression as Owen’s friend Lechmere and as the ballad-singing Narrator who tells how the Wingrave family came to be haunted. I also very much liked Georgia Bassingthwaighte’s sensible, caring Mrs Coyle, but there was no weak link anywhere.

Owen Wingrave finishes on Saturday.

This review first appeared in The Australian on August 7.