Sydney Chamber Opera seems to have sprung up rather suddenly and from nowhere. For this, we ought to be grateful, since it’s doing things that are brave and distinctive.

A case in point is its latest production, Owen Wingrave, written by “the most important British composer of the 20th century”, Benjamin Britten (with librettist Myfanwy Piper) and based on a Henry James short story, as a reaction to, or against, the Vietnam war. It was to be the second last opera Britten would write, his 85th opus and an important expression of his lifelong pacifism. It hasn’t exactly been overexposed since its debut on BBC-TV (which commissioned it) in 1970, making this production that much more significant and of even greater interest.

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Britten takes a leaf out of Schoenberg’s book, as well as James’, inasmuch as adhering to 12-tone serialism, a rather austere discipline largely invented by the Austrian.

SCO busies itself with two or three productions of contemporary opera annually. Contemporary? Yes. Twentieth and twenty-first century. Better yet, its mission embraces commissioned, homegrown work, as well as Australian premieres of work from overseas. Bach can sit comfortably next to Janacek; Glass cheek-by-jowl with Peter Maxwell Davies or SCO music director Jack Symonds.

Cutting-edge may be a cliche, but here it genuinely applies. Artistic director Louis Garrick encapsulates SCO’s mission crisply: “To take off the straitjacket of the traditional opera canon.”

For OW, SCO has engaged designer Katren Wood, who’s eschewed sixties iconography in deference to a more timeless, desiccated military aesthetic. The orchestra sits at the back of the cavernous Bay 20, Carriageworks, space. Directly in front is a large rectangle, defined by a high cyclone fence on all sides. It could be Guantanamo Bay. A Nazi POW camp. Or your local prison. The feeling is one of confinement and punishment. A haze of smoke suggests further menace and hints at the spectre at the centre of the story.

Director Imara Savage exercises a taut hand, though Wood’s laudable instinct to keep the work’s themes current is somewhat compromised by the libretto, which depicts a very old school British patriarchy almost psychotically obsessed by mythical male virtues such as courage and duty. Our heroes mentor, friend and relatives all speak, act and react in a way more contemporaneous with James’ time; it’s somewhat puzzling why Piper and Britten didn’t seek to move the social context forward.

But that’s as may be. The action opens with Spencer Coyle (Simon Lobelson) providing strategic military training to Lechmere (Pascal Herrington) and the doubting Wingrave (Morgan Pearse). It is here, right at the beginning, that Owen confesses his distaste for war, in so doing repudiating his heritage, since the Wingrave family has long since prided itself on heroism in many and various theatres of conflict, generation after generation. Wingrave’s friend and colleague, Lechmere is dumbfounded by the admission, while Coyle is much more sympathetic than we might expect, or readily believe, though he does caution Wingrave that his aunt will have to be informed.

As one might imagine, his aunt and extended family is none too accepting. After all, there’s an image and reputation at stake. It’s a matter of honour and patriotism. Sacrifice is noble. Particularly if it’s for Great Britain. Notwithstanding characters that are rather simplistically drawn by Piper, a dialectic of values is clearly established: conservatism versus liberalism; “cowardice” versus “courage”. There’s also the powerful drama of “one man against the world”: aside from moral support from the deeper-thinking Coyle, Wingrave is otherwise hung out to dry, by family, friends and even, or especially, his intended.

I’m not sure the all-male acting ensemble added much, in practice, but I did like the idea. It might’ve been better for movement director Johanna Puglisi to focus her choreographic notions on the cast, which appeared a little too wooden and static, at times. The boys’ chorus, however, did prove an eery accompaniment, given the backstory of family shame, the proverbial skeletons in the closet, that come back to haunt the haughty Wingraves.

In the end, three things stand out. Savage and cohorts’ superbly imaginative vision and tight execution. The brilliant rendition of the score by the small, but equally scintillating orchestra, directed by the redoubtable Symonds. And the ensemble of singers, as fine as one might find anywhere. Yes, anywhere. Lobelson isn’t a true bass-baritone, but compensates for gravitas with a finely judged and beautifully modulated delivery; though more power might’ve been desirable. Herrington’s tenor is silken throughout its range, while General Sir Philip Wingrave (Owen’s grandfather and reigning patriarch), played by Paul Ferris equivalent relied more on expressiveness and character, befitting the role. Georgia Bassingthwaighte (Mrs Coyle) shows get soprano light is hidden under something of a bushel in the Opera Australia chorus, deserving more chances to shine. Rowena Cowley (Mrs Julian) practices what she preaches as a senior lecturer in voice and opera, but I felt her voice flagged a little, here and there. Kornelia Perchy, as Owen’s aunt, Miss Wingrave, demonstrated how and why she has so readily distinguished herself as a principal artist in the Hungarian State Opera, as well as in competitions such as the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World.

But, in ascending order, it’s Morgan Pearse, as Owen, and Emily Edmonds, as Kate Julian, his beloved, who really stand out. Pearse’s is a baritone to be reckoned with; textbook characteristics abound. Mellow, yet, somehow, possessing almost bell-like clarity; open, flexible and forceful. But, while we’re concerned with allusions to  spectres, Edmonds might be likened to a soprano poltergeist: hers is an instrument of, apparently, boundless potency, which goes beyond competence and control, to consummately enrapture.

SCO is a diamond in a world of largely unimproved cultural carbon.

The details: Owen Wingrave played Carriageworks’ Bay 20 on August 3-10.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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