Collar open, clutching a bouquet of roses and kicking through a carpet of bright confetti that rustles like dead leaves, Janik – the protagonist of Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared – sings his obsessive lament in the nauseous aftermath of a party in this new staging of the song cycle by director Alexander Berlage.
Jessica O’Donoghue and Andrew Goodwin in Sydney Chamber Opera’s Diary of One Who Disappeared as part of Sydney Opera House’s digital season. Photo © Craig Wall
The cycle of 22 short songs – written between 1917 and 1919, inspired by a mid-60s Janáček’s own obsession with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman nearly four decades younger than himself – tells the story of a village boy who falls in love with a Gypsy girl, Zefka, leaving his family to be with her after she becomes pregnant. Spot-lit, trapped, in a circle of confetti bounded by darkness, Berlage’s production for Sydney Chamber Opera at Carriageworks gives us a Janik – exquisitely sung by tenor Andrew Goodwin – flailing in an ambiguous world where it’s unclear whether or not Zefka even exists at all outside his imagination.
The production premiered online as part of the Sydney Opera House’s digital season last year, but this is its live debut at the Sydney Festival, in a double bill alongside a new work by composer Huw Belling and librettist Pierce Wilcox. While the digital performance, with its probing close-ups, gives the work a sense of intimacy, the live version in the cavernous space of Bay 20 highlights the sense of isolation and loneliness that infuses the piece.
As Janik, Goodwin brings a tightly wound intensity to his performance, his beautifully clear tenor wielded with clarity and aching lyricism, and eventually madness. He’s joined briefly on stage by Jessica O’Donoghue as Zefka (who also gave us, pre-recorded, the offstage chorus), in an imperious performance that stands alone in the digital production but here foreshadows the second part of the double bill. Jack Symonds’ piano is an articulate partner to the singers, the firm hoofbeats of his oxen bringing to life the pastoral scene only hinted at in Berlage’s ‘party’ staging.
For all the beauty and fascination of Janáček’s music, his Janik focuses the blame for his anguish on Zefka herself in increasingly violent and racist terms: “If only she would turn to stone,” he sings, later expressing that he would prefer to have a finger cut off than embrace a Gypsy family. It’s a toxic obsession, the likes of which can be found in abundance in opera plots (I’m looking at you, Don José) and online Incel communities.
When O’Donoghue returns to the stage at the conclusion of song cycle, it’s not to take a bow but to confront the prostrate, confetti-strewn Janik in Belling and Wilcox’s Fumeblind Oracle, a new song cycle that attempts to address these problems with the work head on. The program describes the piece as a ‘contemporary commentary’, and it begins as a furious, sarcastic and ultimately violent right of reply for Zefka – whose first act is to discard that name – before spiralling out into a broader exploration of depictions of womanhood and the role of the ‘muse’.
Jessica O’Donoghue in Sydney Chamber Opera’s Future Remains. Photo © Lisa Tomasetti
Both the music – a wild, rhythmic conflagration of nasal melodica and electronics by Benjamin Carey – and the text, riff on Diary, but they range wider, with deconstructed dance forms accompanying the protagonist’s reassessment of figures like Artemis, Elektra, Iphigenia and Medea, the work taking its name from the oracle of Delphi. Actors Amy Hack and Chemon Theys – wearing headdresses that transform their heads into a single eye – wreath the stage in smoke, and assemble artefacts on plinths (set and costumes are by Jeremy Allen) that line the circle of confetti on the floor as the piece veers into more abstract territory.
While Fumeblind Oracle has a looser swagger compared with the tightly focussed Janáček – it covers a lot more ground in terms of ideas – O’Donoghue’s powerhouse performance drives it forward with wry humour and relentless fury, the singer deftly juggling vocal virtuosity and searing energy. In the rear-view mirror, Janik’s keening is simply the jumping off point for her own blistering performance.
Belling and Wilcox aren’t the first to tackle the more outdated (and downright misogynistic) elements of Janáček’s song cycle. Director Ivo van Hove, for instance, added extra songs for Zefka, composed by Annelies Van Parys and drawing on poetry by Romani women, in his own staging of the work. Here, however, Belling and Wilcox focus more on gender than race, and philosophically there is a different intent – Fumeblind Oracle is a commentary on, rather than a reworking of, the original. There is also a tacit admission in this new work that it doesn’t confront opera’s other major area of gender inequality, that of employing women composers and librettists – our hero’s text suggests at one point that she’s very much aware that she, like Zefka, is the creation of a man.
Future Remains offers one possible solution to the challenge of staging works whose politics grate with contemporary values, but within which there are still elements we might seek to save, striking an interesting balance between the loving preservation of Janáček’s music on the one hand – in an intelligent staging and beautifully wrought performance – and a bold new work that tears it to shreds on the other.
Future Remains is at Carriageworks as part of the Sydney Festival until 26 January