Composed by Evan Lawson
Libretto by Samuel Yeo
Rosina Auditorium, Abbotsford Convent
By Alexander O’Sullivan
Joseph Kerman, who has been writing on opera since the 1950s, predicted a few years ago that the medium’s future would not lie in traditional houses, with their costly choruses, stage machinery, orchestras and roster of international stars. Rather, it would lie in smaller groups, like the Forest Collective, performing ‘chamber operas’ in the model of Britten’s Albert Herring or The Turn of the Screw.
Evan Lawson (composer) and Samuel Yeo’s (librettist) Calypso is composed on an even smaller scale than these models. This forty-minute opera explores a brief episode from the Odyssey, describing how Odysseus becomes shipwrecked on an island and is detained by Calypso (sung by Lotte Betts-Dean on December 5). His memory of Penelope compels him to leave, leaving Calypso heartbroken. Despite the short length of the work, I was struck by how little happens. Oedipus Rex and Elektra (to cite widely differing operatic approaches to Greek myths) have relatively little action, but are unified by a progressive buildup of tension that leads to a violent denouement. Calypso on the other hand merely reaches out her hand to the departing Odysseus—hardly a climatic moment for the audience (and unrealised in the staging of the performance I attended).
Lawson and Yeo have constructed a psychodrama where Calypso is torn between conflicting emotions, symbolised by her servant Uriel and the goddesses Athena and Artemis. Artemis, forcefully sung by Rosemary Ball, represents the will of the Gods, or as Yeo points out in his programme note, the desire for mythological characters to play out their lives according to fate. Athena, whose more sympathetic music was radiantly realised by Janet Todd, urges Calypso to ignore the will of the gods and enjoy Odysseus’s company. Uriel, sung by Michael Lampard, represents the real world, to which Calypso must return from her fantasies.
Lawson’s music is, bar to bar, beautiful. Making the most of his small ensemble, he was able to achieve a variety of surprising effects, displaying a keen knowledge of the limitations of his ensemble. The young soloists and instrumentalists seemed fairly comfortable with his lines, and navigated several tricky moments well. I found the Rosina Auditorium, with its ballroom acoustic, far too loud for the forces assembled, and yearned for a proscenium and an orchestra pit – luxuries clearly beyond the capabilities of the company.
It is clear that Yeo and Lawson’s creative conception exceeded their means. It may be the stench of Wagner that has descended over Melbourne that explains my puzzlement over the piece’s brevity. I thought the ideas, both musical and poetic, cried out for a longer and more detailed treatment than they received here. The music also called out for a larger ensemble, or at least some doublings on the strings, given their sustained lines. Smaller works are more difficult to realise than larger ones. Consider the forty minutes of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, a score that displays a complete unity of conception, where every part, from note to phrase to scene, logically develops a coherent argument. In Calypso I was presented with parts, sometimes intriguing, often skilful and always beautiful, that failed however to present a clear vision of the plight of the heroine.
Perhaps I was expecting more sex. Despite Lawson mentioning Britten’s Peter Grimes and Death in Venice as inspirations, I thought A Midsummer Night’s Dream a more obvious inspiration, for example in the combination of harp and harpsichord. Calypso‘s music sometimes resembled that of the latter work, but without the erotic excitement in Britten’s world of the fairies. I simply didn’t believe that Calypso wanted to bonk Odysseus. Instead, the static staging and somewhat awkward gestures of the singers imparted a severely chaste atmosphere to the proceedings.
Yeo’s libretto sometimes errs on the side of pretension (“as fragile as the candle made of glass” – a Game of Thrones reference?), but in general offers short images well-suited to musical setting. Lawson has the right idea about text-setting, but I was sometimes reminded of a quote from the Dream: “his speech was like a tangled chain; nothing impaired, but all disordered.” This criticism could apply to much opera in English: having deciphered the singers’ diction, the audience is then faced with an abstract poetic text, a further obfuscating layer to be untangled, before they can even consider its relations with the music.
Performing opera on any scale is an extraordinarily expensive undertaking and new works often create issues that retard the rehearsal process immensely. Also, given the current economic and institutional climate in opera, producing new works must always result in a compromise (witness the recent trials of the Met’s commissioning programme). The Forest Collective has put together an accurate and enjoyable realisation of a new score, and is to be congratulated. Perhaps next time there will need to be more realistic expectations about what can be done with such small resources.
Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.