Sunday, August 27, 2006

World: the opera Batavia

Had a surprisingly pleasant experience at the Sydney Opera House on Friday.

Batavia is a recent Australian opera, based on the history of the ship of the same name, whose inhabitants were shipwrecked then marooned, and were steered into barbarism by a psychopath.

I expected the opera to be a reflection of obtuse 20th century musical sensibilities, but it turned out to be fairly normal, easy to absorb music, albeit without any notable ariatic experiences.

The history was actually transformed for the sake of dramatic narrative, and the violence was restricted to one act, running for about a quarter of the programme. There was also a strand of forgiveness added to the set of themes, which of course wouldn't emerge from a historical account.
It remains, however, that the main surviving account of this tragic story is the diary of the merchant commander of the ship, Pelsaert. As a consequence, his character (melded with that of the captain) emerged unscathed in the performance.

The composer is Richard Mills, who apparently also conducted. The librettist, Peter Goldsworthy, actually had a letter published in the Herald that day, in which he was rather caustic (in a light fashion) of the caustic review given by the Herald's reviewer, Peter McCallum. The debate in itself is interesting reading; Goldsworthy suggesting McCallum couldn't separate the content from the music in assessing the opera.

In fact, there were apparently a number of walkouts in this short season, which is rather surprising since the violence (and rape) is rather stylised, and there are unprecedented warnings posted about the graphic nature of the content.

The pre-performance talk was interesting, but more striking was its location, at the back of the Opera House, the only internal location - barring passages - with a vista out onto the harbour, which was of course very pleasant. (I previously wrote about an alternative design for the Opera House, which fortunately didn't make it.)

There's one more performance of Batavia, on Thursday, 31st August. If you're of an inclination, I recommend it.

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