The casualties in the arts during the COVID-19 crisis have been horrific. After cancellation upon cancellation of the year’s performance calendar, it is gratifying, however, to see Melbourne-based Gertrude Opera’s 2020 Yarra Valley Opera Festival survive the devastation wreaked by the pandemic. While much bigger companies around the country are grappling with our new state of living, Gertrude Opera’s CEO/Artistic Director Linda Thompson has worked around restrictions and invested in a 10-day online program of events. For its audience, rather than hoping disruptions won’t interfere with getting to a theatre, one hopes technical glitches won’t cause similar distress. None so far!

A high-calibre Gala at Home opened the festival on Friday evening and on Saturday evening, Pulitzer Prize winning American composer David Lang’s love fail made its Australian premiere, a work inspired by the oft retold tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde.

The scene A different Man from David Lang’s chamber opera love fail with actors Gates Leonard as Isolde and John Landis as Tristan. Photograph supplied

It’s not the first time Gertrude Opera has premiered Lang’s work. In the company’s inaugural 2015 festival, located in the central Victorian region of Nagambie Lakes, the difficulty of crossing a field (2002) introduced many to Lang’s atmospheric and hauntingly sung composition set in segregated slave-era Alabama. It was directed by American Luke Leonard, founding Director of New York-based theatre company Monk Parrots. Once again, Leonard brings his sophisticated and thought-provoking style to love fail in a visually powerful and musically pulsating collaboration between the two companies.

Lang’s work is divided into 12 parts, each a kind of meditation on various interpretations of Tristan and Isolde’s story. Executed by four female voices and augmented with minimal percussion, Lang employs the centuries-old tradition of a cappella in something of a non-narrative chamber opera. With voices alone creating the music to engage, text shares the podium in opening a window to the complexities of love and the ripples it creates. Drawing on stories by Gottfried von Strassburg, Richard Wagner, Sir Thomas Malory, Marie de France and contemporary American writer Lydia Davis, among others, Lang creates a varied portrait of love’s moods ranging from heart-wrenching to momentarily amusing.

Both as director and designer, Leonard has cleverly distilled a sense of the abstract and surreal, coupled with stunning imagery and wordless acting within the context of a symbolically appropriate remote and fertile rural property and its surrounds. And to this end, Leonard’s handling of love fail turns an a cappella chamber opera into a poignant short film. Almost 50 minutes in duration, the cinematic craftsmanship is high, the light and textures gleam, and the editing is fine-tuned to Lang’s superb use of intervals and silence. Perhaps not as Lang would have imagined it, this is art that responds to the times we are living in and Leonard’s style shows a beguiling affinity to Lang’s compositional landscape.

In Lang’s first part, he was and she was, Leonard introduces his five actors; Josh Landis as a handsome and introspective Tristan, Gates Leonard as a mysterious, goddess-like Isolde, Charlotte Simcock as Tristan’s forlorn and weary spouse Lizzie, and Amelia and Oscar Landis as the children. Only the children behave with animated freedom, their innocence tested by a love triangle that plays out between their father, mother and the ‘other’ woman.

Symbolism and reference are incorporated artistically; the crossbow of a warrior, the stick Tristan leaves behind for Isolde to find according to Marie de France’s version, pills dropped into glasses of wine as the potion for Tristan and Isolde to drink. A montage of fire burns across a field where the three stand in a triangle in the tenth part, I live in pain. In A different man, an erect zucchini and two melons arranged on the kitchen table between an un-communicative Tristan and his spouse speak tellingly of sexual frustration and lack of desire. It’s a scene later played out in forbidden subjects, a particularly thorny but witty description of cycling through subjects avoided and the possibility of their gradual revival. Love without sorrows is not an earthly given.

The singers – soprano Amelia Jones, mezzo-sopranos Heather Fletcher and Belinda Paterson, and contralto Alexandra Amerides – are exceptional in their ability to soar and stretch divinely through the many overlapping layers of Lang’s score. That they remain unseen rather defies what one might want of opera in performance but it opens a door to a new experiences and Leonard takes you deftly along with it.

The one thing missing was the use of subtitles, which would have assisted enormously in alleviating the extra concentration required to grasp all the text when it is so inextricably at one with the music. In a post-performance Zoom chat, Thompson was right to say subtitles were preferred – only budgetary constraints prevented their adoption it appears. As it is, the work is potent and streamlined and, for all its heritage, breathes with a fantastic contemporary exploration of and reflection on love.

The Yarra Valley Opera Festival runs online until 25 October

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