Saturday, September 21, 2013

From a Black Sky

David Rogers-Smith (David), Don Bemrose (Tony), Judith Dodsworth (Sophie), Rachael Duncan (Amelia)

From a Black Sky composed by Sandra France, with libretto by Helen Nourse.  The Street Theatre Made in Canberra program in Street One, September 20-22, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 20

I’m not averse to a fictional story about a predatory lesbian who succeeds in making the husband of the woman she loves in effect commit suicide, by staying ostensibly to save his burning house.  It was rather odd that Sophie, the pred les (played by Judith Dodsworth), had a husband Tony (Don Bemrose), who apparently remained completely unaware of his wife’s shenanigans with Amelia (Rachael Duncan) and saw his mate David (David Rogers-Smith) as a shining hero for being man enough to stay – despite the fact that it was obvious that they should all have gone and left their houses to the fates.

I’m not averse either to modern art-form opera music and song, composed by Sandra France, especially when performed so well by this 11-piece ensemble conducted by David Kram.

But I do find it difficult, remembering my family’s fears and last-minute efforts to prepare the house on Saturday 18 January 2003, to work out why this fictional story was connected to that particular real firestorm, using recordings from radio broadcasts which people, now ten years later, will surely remember, and which makes this show specific to Canberra.

Yes, this story is a tragedy of misconceived relationships, and maybe things like this were happening on that eventful day, but to use that firestorm merely as a background setting is to set aside the depth of feeling attached to the unforeseen destruction of 500 homes and the deaths of four people in horrific circumstances.  I remember these feelings as we were on alert to stay or go for a full two weeks after the 18th.  If there is any day in my life when I remember where I was and what I was doing, it is that day.

That all said, let’s consider the opera and the performances as a theatrical production. 

Opera means a lot of singing, but only David Rogers-Smith had the voice and the diction to carry his words over the orchestra.  The words of the other three main characters and of the chorus were rarely understandable.  I had thought perhaps my ancient ears were at fault, but unsolicited comments from other and much younger audience members confirmed my experience.  The acoustics of Street One might not be the best, and the placement of the orchestra in the centre of the stage with singers mostly behind or off to the side, probably didn’t help.

But the storyline of this new work needed the diction to be clear.  I relied on the program notes to get me through.  Subtitles or supertitles might be acceptable for foreign language operas, but surely not for one sung in ordinary plain suburban English.

The beginning and ending, using young children, was an embarrassment.  I don’t mean the children were, but the idea of a happy sort-of 19th Century opera marketplace scene to open the show just doesn’t match the Canberra shopping centres we know and love.  And the ending, so the program states, is about how “Children, teenagers, community, Tony, Sophie and Amelia all look at what their futures will hold and the memories and regrets they will forever carry”.  I saw what looked and felt like a reprise of the happy, but now just a little bit more sort-of, opening scene.  What firestorm ... what death of David?

In fact the only scene in the production which had real theatrical effect was the final solo appearance by David and his demise in the fire, with clever lighting and use of the backstage roller door.  This was genuinely dramatic, allowing us to feel at last some empathy with a thoroughly negative character who seemed to have little drive to face up to difficulties, such as having been recently retrenched.

The two women’s powerful singing did make something of their final scene together, climaxing with Amelia’s spoken “You disgust me!”  Yet shortly after, we are expected accept Tony, Sophie and Amelia seemingly reconciled.  After a play apparently presenting reality, even down to a rather clumsy sex-scene by the women in Act One, ending this way was just not possible.

I think you should not miss the music, nor the voices per se, but don’t go for the drama experience.

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