“Life is a punishment. A hell. For some a purgatory, for none a paradise,” August Strindberg wrote. “We are compelled to commit evil and to torment our fellow mortals.” In Opera Australia’s new production of Aribert Reimann’s 1984 chamber opera The Ghost Sonata, based on the Swedish playwright’s 1907 play of the same name, director Greg Eldridge captures this mood of purgatorial decay even before the first astringent notes of Reimann’s score bristle out of a reduced Opera Australia Orchestra.
Richard Anderson, Dominica Matthews and John Longmuir in Opera Australia’s Ghost Sonata. Photo © Prudence Upton
Sheets shroud furniture, a legless piano rests coffin-like upstage, while a mirrored back wall reflects the floor to the audience, conjuring the dilapidated façade of a once-stately house, in beautifully dreamlike design by Emma Kingsbury that sees Strindberg’s fountain become a round stormwater drain doubling, in the mirror, as a porthole window. Feeding off the Opera Centre’s Scenery Workshop venue – and lit effectively by John Rayment – the set heightens the opera’s claustrophobia, reflecting and revealing in clever ways across the three acts.
Reimann’s Die Gespenstersonate, which hews very closely to Strindberg’s play, hasn’t received the same attention as his 1978 Lear – written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – or his more recent Medea of 2010, and opportunities to see it staged are incredibly rare. Between Eldridge’s lucid direction, Kingsbury’s evocative design, and fine performances from the cast, singing in English, the Opera Australia team make a compelling argument for mounting the work, which tells the story of a family (“the home of all social evils,” as Strindberg once described it) in which everyone has something to hide, truth and power lurch wildly, and members torture each other out of weary habit. They also may or may not be dead.
Shanul Sharma, Danita Weatherstone and Virgillio Marino in Opera Australia’s Ghost Sonata. Photo © Prudence Upton
Newcomer Shanul Sharma, who made his Opera Australia debut in Wozzeck, brings a clean, springy tenor to Reimann’s angular lines for The Student, who is invited into the house by The Old Man (Richard Anderson), who hopes, for opaque reasons, to marry him to The Young Woman (Danita Weatherstone). Sharma wields his instrument with laser-like precision and exemplary diction, in a vocally demanding role, while Anderson – bringing a gruff but stentorian bass to The Old Man – delivers his text with such clarity that between the two of them there’s no need for the awkwardly placed surtitles. Weatherstone brings a shining soprano to The Young Woman, joining Sharma in the refulgent opening of the third act where Reimann’s music takes on an ethereal quality – before corruption leaches in again – clinging to the beauty of her hyacinths and joyfully scaling the music’s leaps.
Mezzo Dominica Matthews is delightful and terrifying as The Mummy, making the most of the piece’s moments of absurd humour, while John Longmuir gives his tenor a shrill edge as her husband, The Colonel. Virgilio Marino and Alexander Hargreaves maintain an off-centre dignity as smirking servants Johannson and Bengtsson, while Ruth Strutt is menacing as The Cook, who sucks all the nourishment from the food she serves. Reimann’s strange world is further filled out by Anna-Louise Cole as The Fiancée, Adam Dear as The Dead Consul and The Baron, and Alexandra Graham, who ramps up the opera’s nightmarish qualities with some Exorcist-style moves as The Milkmaid.
John Longmuir, Ruth Strutt, Shanul Sharma and Danita Weatherstone in Opera Australia’s Ghost Sonata. Photo © Prudence Upton
The small ensemble drawn from the Opera Australia Orchestra, under the baton of Warwick Stengårds, give a heroic account of Reimann’s roiling score, with its anxiously curling winds, shuddering – and often neurotically high-register – double bass, rumbling contrabassoon and brittle prepared piano, which also delivers dry snare-drum cracks to accompany The Colonel.
Strindberg’s play The Ghost Sonata was influential on modernist drama in the 20th century, so it pairs remarkably well with the avant-garde aesthetic of Reimann’s 1980s score. The piece feels slightly static at times – though Reimann’s music manages to bring spiky interest to the awkward ‘Ghost Supper’ without rushing through the sense of tedious hatred – but the flashes of light in the final act give the piece a convincing, if unsettling, arc.
Ghost Sonata is the second contemporary chamber production staged by Opera Australia in the Scenery Workshop, following Brian Howard’s Metamorphosis last year, and – alongside the always exciting work of Sydney Chamber Opera – it has already become a rich addition to Sydney’s new music scene.
Opera Australia’s Ghost Sonata is at the Opera Centre in Sydney until September 14, before moving to the Coopers Malthouse in Melbourne, September 25 – 28