Opera Australia: Ghost Sonata review

Opera Australia again revels in the creative freedom of presenting a modern opera in a smaller venue, following up 2018 success Metamorphosis by presenting Aribert Reimann’s 1984 chamber opera Ghost Sonata at The Coopers Malthouse.

A close adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1907 play, what the opera lacks (deliberately) in melody it makes up for in dramatic tension, the music heightening the chilly atmosphere of the macabre text. With excellent direction and imaginative, well-realised design, the production also benefits from the expertly polished performances of top-class singers and musicians.

Having worked through the night rescuing survivors from a collapsed house, a young man known as The Student arrives at a nearby home where all is not as it seems. Seated in a wheelchair, The Old Man introduces The Student to other inhabitants, including The Colonel, his crazed wife The Mummy and their beautiful daughter The Young Woman. Secrets unfold and lies are unfurled, building to a dramatic climax that reveals The Student’s fate.

The key aspect in the production’s success is the carefully considered direction from Greg Eldridge, who makes a highly auspicious directing debut at Opera Australia with Ghost Sonata. Focusing on the gradual introduction of characters in Strindberg’s text, Eldridge maintains interest with each fascinating new character, building to the full spectrum for the Ghost Supper. A hallmark of Eldridge’s direction is the attention to characters when not in the spotlight; every singer upholds their character through authentic stage business, and connections and tensions between characters are abundantly clear.

Eldridge’s vision for the work is supported by an extraordinary design from Emma Kingsbury. The first of the three parts plays out with the façade of the house on the floor, reflected by a giant angled mirror. To appear at windows, singers need to gamely lie under the stage. The faint shimmer of imperfection on the mirrored surface gives a truly ghostly appearance to the action.

The mirror cantilevers up to establish the home’s interior, a large rear window serving as something of an otherworldly portal. Kingsbury’s costumes contribute to the overall grayscale aesthetic, in which only flashes of colour, such as The Milkmaid’s red dress, are seen. The Student and The Young Woman appear with natural faces, while the ghostly residents are denoted with stylised white faces. Haunted house clichés are avoided, with the only overt sign of wickedness coming in The Fiancée’s black eyepatch.

The work of lighting designer John Rayment is intrinsically connected to Kingsbury’s work, enhancing the sense of mystery and supernatural suspense.

With the chamber orchestra positioned on stage right, the false stage floor and mirror bring the action very close to the audience, adding to the intense experience of opera in a smaller venue. Bringing the challenging work to vivid life, maestro Warwick Stengårds conducts a sterling contingent of musicians from the Opera Australia Orchestra (note: with no program available, it seems unfair that these musicians are not named on the cast sheet). Reimann’s music is simultaneously melancholy and stirring, juxtaposing a sense of longing in the strings with brisk woodwind and percussive beats.

Musical preparation is first rate, with uniformly expressive, resilient vocals holding their own musicality alongside the atmospheric musical accompaniment. Such was the crisp clarity of the English diction that it took me many minutes to even notice that there was a screen displaying the text to the left of the audience view of the stage.

From a well-matched set of singers, the work of Richard Anderson and Shanul Sharma stands out in the larger roles of The Old Man and The Student, respectively.

Often seen in supporting roles on the mainstage, bass Richard Anderson seizes the chance to play the lead, giving a powerhouse performance, both in terms of vocal quality and intensity of acting and stage presence. Anderson’s power sweeps the work along, driving the story to The Old Man’s deserved comeuppance.

Attendees at Ghost Sonata will not be surprised that Sharma has already played the title role in Werther. Successfully reflecting The Student’s horror at what he encounters with finely nuanced subtlety (where a lesser actor would readily give in to the temptation of overacting), Sharma’s sings the high tenor role with piercing accuracy and resounding clarity. Future engagements from Sharma are keenly anticipated.

Versatile tenor John Longmuir plays against type as the retired Colonel, readily breaking out from featured roles in Italianate operas to give a focused yet natural performance that reveals his talent for modern work. Quality casting continues with mezzo-soprano Dominica Matthews giving a finely calibrated performance as The Mummy.

Danita Weatherstone gives lovely support as The Young Woman. Ruth Strutt embodies the vitriol of her insidious character The Cook. Alexandra Graham is deceptively winsome as The Milkmaid.

An opera for the adventurous, Ghost Sonata is seen at its very best in this welcome production.

Ghost Sonata plays at Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse, Melbourne until 28 September 2019.

Photos: Prudence Upton

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