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22 August, 2006

Batavia - an intense, unremitting and negative opera experience

Batavia, an opera tragedy by Richard Mills and Peter Goldsworthy.

Sat 19th Aug 2006, Sydney Opera House.

This macabre story reminds us of all the worst possible things that can go wrong when travelling: transport disasters are nothing new. The opera's opening sees 300 souls leave their native Holland on the good ship Batavia which is wrecked in a storm months later, well off course on an island just north of modern-day Perth, Western Australia. The ensuing drama is something between the Achille Lauro and 'Lost' except that it is based on the historical record from 1628. We set out in the hold of a ship (with 'ribs' reminiscent of the Nuremberg Ring of Stephen Lawless) replete with lined up travelling trunks. The first night on board hosts an unlikely nautical banquet - with stemmed crystal glasses (rather unlikely attributes of 17th century shipping) which become a "window onto the soul". In addition, there is no aural indication that we are on the high seas until we hear hugely amplified crashing waves towards the end of the act with the storm and shipwreck.

Without reading the program notes (which I rarely do) it is hard to work out why the captain keeps singing "I must not fail" when it is clear that he has already failed in his most fundamental duties of going in the right direction and of keeping his ship afloat. It is equally unclear why he is temporarily enfeebled, mind or body, when mutineers take over the survivors' camp. The unities are not observed, nor are the digressions always clear.

A Google search finds the repeated gilded initials 'OC' with interlocking V refer to the "Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie" retourschip (Dutch East India Company ship).

The libretto contains much pleasant poetry, yet this does not seem so much to advance the drama, but to reprise randomly retailed pieces of home-spun wisdom. Some is jagged English which is hard to sing such as a high terminal baritonal "bursts". The opera ends with a needless example of bland moralising, although it is a pleasing major key lullaby sung by Barry Ryan to his two sons who, like us, have witnessed the worst of times.

The story involves numerous bloody on-stage throat cuttings, two drownings, several child killings and a conspicuous down-stage pack rape. In addition there are personal threats, conspiracy, mutiny and numerous other crimes. A note had been sent to patrons warning of the spectacle and offering alternative operas, a service I should have taken up. The extreme 'in your face' violence was gratuitous and unjustified in my view.

One may try to glean what it is the essence of grand opera. Most fundamentally, it needs to contain beauty, vocal and visual. There need not be much, and it can be accompanied by a lot of contrasting ugliness and even depravity and death - yet it was hard to find any Batavian beauty on the night.

But there was some musical beauty in a string quartet perched in the audience 'loges' playing charming chamber music at intervals, apparently taking us back to Holland. For myself, it served largely as a reminder of Mr Mills' ample abilities in recognising tasteful, concordant, integrated concerted music, little of which emerged from the pit. I was told informed that the chamber suit was by Dowling and not Mills. The ego must have been large indeed which decided to place trumpets and trombones in various positions around the auditorium. At one point, they had to play whilst walking up the aisle, and to no particular purpose. Unlike most successful operas, not a single recognisable, discrete melody emerged during the entire long evening to my hearing.

The production involved a lot of hard work and contained some beautiful tableaux. The ship wreck ending Act I was splendid in the theatre, deck planks rising and falling with glistening shafts of light penetrating above and below the encroaching water. The opera's orchestrally silent start and finish seemed, like much of the work, to be attempts to be 'completely different' while only really providing a whole lot 'more of the same'. The influence of Britten could be heard throughout the piece, especially in the recitatives. They remind me of randomly generated cadences on variable note lengths, in this case lacking either poetic meter or alternatively, a speech pattern. Others may enjoy that sort of thing; not I.

As for the individual singers, our captain, Bruce Martin was majestic. Apart from a few minor throaty moments, he kept up the vocal and dramatic tension right to the final kangaroo 'court' scene in which some petitioned clemency eventually softened an otherwise harsh and unremitting story. Amelia Farrugia, Anke Hoppner and Michael Lewis were given vocal scores they should all have declined, so demanding were they in my view. Lewis' role may just have been professionally rewarding, unlike the women who I doubt took home more pleasure than pain from their roles. Lewis' demanding exit aria was sung as he went off to his sentence of amputated hands with subsequent hanging represented graphically in cyclorama silhouette, as if the audience needed a bit more violence. Barry Ryan had some touching tenor singing and was more than equal to the demands. The 4 children singers were placed at an unsatisfactory disadvantage in such a noisy, boisterous opera. This perhaps emphasised their vulnerability but was hardly grand opera as they frequently sounded feeble and flat.

It was most unfortunate that the company did the second performance on Monday, with only one day's break for these heroic vocal roles.

I have rarely had a less satisfying night in the theatre but from the applause, I may have been in the minority.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

See Batavia 1629: A seventeenth century shipwreck on

New season brochure this week indicates new productions for Sydney Opera House of Streetcar, Rusalka, Barber of Seville, Hoffmann and restagings of Nozze di Figaro, Traviata, Sweeney Todd, Alcina, Trovatore, Seraglio, Trittico, Gondoliers, and Tannhauser. Price for standard 9-opera mid-week subscription in second reserve A$1179 (~US$99 per opera). Artists' names at random: Coleman-Wright, Barker, Tahu-Rhodes, Kenny, Coad, Carbo, Whitehouse, La Spina, Durkin, Connelli, Fatykhova, Bloom, O'Neill, Cullen, Ransom, Summers; Armstrong, Hickox, Darlington, Licata, Bonynge.

Local review of Batavia (text only):