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THEATRE: 07 MAY 2015

By GERALDINE WORTHINGTON

Fly Away Peter, adapted from the novel written by David Malouf | Musical score by Elliott Gyger | Directed by Imara Savage

Carriageworks & Sydney Chamber Opera | Carriageworks, Eveleigh, Sydney | Until 9 May

The First World War has provided many writers, composers and artists with emotive material for composition. In David Malouf’s original novel of Fly Away Peter, an anti-war message is clearly conveyed through narrative prose. In this adaptation the same message remains but in the most immediate context of opera.

The performance opens in a swampland on the property of Ashley Crowther (Brenton Spiteri) in Queensland. Jim Saddler (Mitchell Riley) is an enthusiastic bird watcher and leads an idyllic existence. But war calls and like the migratory birds, Jim and Ashley are compelled to travel to Europe. Here, as we all know now, they are exposed to the horror of life in the trenches — mud, filth and cramped spaces. It is a radical contrast to the sanctuary.

The initial atmosphere evoked by the music and libretto is one of calm serenity and joyful enthusiasm but in swift, episodic fashion it moves to solemnity and bleakness. As the opera progresses the death toll rises and Brenton Spiteri portrays the victims as they are slain.

We have on display an impressive ensemble. Mitchell Riley totally convinces as Jim, not only vocally but physically. It is a sprightly and youthful performance contrasted with his powerful baritone voice. Brenton Spiteri assumes a number of soldiers, 10 in all, with energy and vocal expertise, whilst Jessica Aszodi plays the part of a photographer in the early scenes and later acts as the chorus as she embodies the strength of the women left at home to cope.

The three performers are constantly on stage and Imara Savage directs the focus at all times to their inner journey, using clay to visually articulate the depth of their suffering as they become submerged in the depths of trench warfare.

A septet of musicians perform the score precisely and with the highest level of craft, led by their experienced composer, Jack Symonds, who competently keeps the group together as they accompany, express, and respond to the characters and the narrative.

Elizabeth Gadsby’s stage design is a simple pyramid structure allowing the actors to rotate around it and move up and down the levels. Buckets, many buckets, double as scenery and props and they are positioned and moved continually to suggest the repetition of existence in the trenches, whilst the clay they contain, is incrementally smothered over the bodies of the performers. Verity Hampson’s subtle lighting designing atmospherically assists the tone and mood of hallucination and delirium in the latter scenes.

There is no glorification or romanticising of war here. Instead there is a palpable feeling of loss. The musical score is powerful but contemporary and extremely challenging and matching the subject matter. It is a tough gig for all involved, including the audience, and some may struggle. However, the score and images are seared into my consciousness as I continue to reflect on the journey from sanctuary to the trenches.