Metropolis: Syzygy Ensemble, Trapped in Darkness

Judith Dodson as Miss Donnithorne. Photo by Latoyah Forsyth.
Judith Dodsworth as Miss Donnithorne. Photo by Latoyah Forsyth.

Syzygy Ensemble
Trapped in Darkness (Peter Maxwell-Davies, Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot; Barry Conyngham, The Apology of Bony Anderson)
Metropolis New Music Festival
16 April

Syzygy Ensemble’s double bill at the Metropolis New Music Festival features two one-person chamber operas with sparse instrumentation and disturbing sprechgesang in the tradition of Pierrot Lunaire and Eight Songs for a Mad King. With Syzygy’s playful humour and energy you almost forget the themes of death, decay and madness passing over the stage, onto a platform, into the seat next to you and out the door.

The affective amnesia is not all Syzygy’s fault; the themes are tressed up in thoroughly-enjoyable atonal silliness and replete with moments of tonal relief. In Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot (a “maggot” being a kind of dance, thank you very much), Peter Maxwell-Davies questionably imagines the inner workings of a deranged spinster left at the altar and still in her wedding dress ten years later. The putrefying metre-tall cake in the middle of the stage (actually, the marzipan looked in pretty good nick but for the cobwebs) does not so much represent the protagonist’s sexual organs as stand in for them. The awe, the panic, the hatred Miss Donnithorne (Judith Dodsworth) feels towards her own body is expressed towards her cake-body in such evocative lines as “for the gatehouse of my cake, all one wound of roses, is the open crimson endless petal throat of a rat. That closes.” In case you didn’t get it the first time she also makes a “v”-gesture towards her groin and shrieks “cake, cake, cake.”

Some audience members may recognise Miss Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations in the character of Miss Donnithorne and ask “why did Maxwell-Davies transplant Miss Havisham to Sydney?” In fact, Miss Eliza Emily Donnithorne was a real Sydney-sider who, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, was allegedly left at the altar by her husband-to-be in 1856 and lived as a recluse beside her rotting wedding feast until her death in 1886. Matt Murphy has since dug around in some archives and found that there is no evidence to suggest that news of Miss Donnithorne reached Dickens in time for the writing of Great Expectations (1860–61), especially considering that Miss Donnithorne’s story doesn’t appear in the media until 1890 and there is no record of Miss Donnithorne’s intended marriage, struck out or not, in the banns of her church or the civil marriage register.

The salon at the Melbourne Recital Centre is an ideal venue for chamber opera. The clear acoustic communicates the minutest vocal articulation, while the intimate space allows performers to get right up in the faces of the audience. Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot could have further exploited this opportunity. Dodsworth expressed a “bored child” sort of absurdity rather than the character’s desperation and discomfort. Anything less raises the question of why such a character would be made to writhe around on stage. I suspect this is a question more for Maxwell-Davies than Dodsworth, as there is no doubt that humour is a central requirement of the score.

The Apology of Bony Anderson is a far more sympathetic, earnest piece by Barry Conyngham based on the life of convict Charles Anderson, who was chained to a rock on Goat Island in Sydney Harbour around 1835. Bony (Christopher Richardson) enters complete with raised scars from over 1200 lashes that he received before finally being transported to Norfolk Island under the relatively benevolent watch of prison reformer Alexander Maconochie. Feeding animals better cared-for than himself he retells the story of his transportation to Australia and brutal punishment in a strong, lucid voice full of stoic acceptance and pity.

Syzygy asked that the musicians be integrated into the performance. In response director John Paul Fischbach asked “how far the musicians were willing to go.” The ensemble was placed in a position of authority over the actors, whether as servant-carers in Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot or as soldiers in The Apology of Bony Anderson. The usual nods for musical cues were transformed into wary glances and shared disgust. More direct interaction led to Leigh Harrold’s priceless forbearance of Miss Donnithorne’s sexual advances, flautist Laila Engle’s coaxing Miss Donnithorne off of the ground with a fluttering flute solo and Jenny Khafagi’s scaring the advancing woman away with a spiky, flortando ostinato. Having seen such a performance in the salon, a room in which every twitch of a musician’s face is clearly visible to the audience, I cannot imagine a chamber opera any other way.

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