Future Remains | Sydney Chamber Opera

Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Beginning with an unsettling and predatory story of infatuation and ending in wild violent abandon, this mash-up performance of Leoš Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared and Huw Belling’s response piece Fumeblind Oracle combine to explore classical themes of desire and revenge under strobing lights.

Diary of One Who Disappeared is a song cycle written between 1917 and 1920 depicting the overwhelming desire a young boy, played by grown man Andrew Goodwin, has for a traveller girl he glimpsed in the forest. Over the piece’s 22 parts, the two eventually meet and the boy decides to abandon his family to follow his traveller love. It’s a quaint narrative strung to the heights of drama in Janáček’s vision, though sung beautifully by Goodwin as he threw himself to the ground in despair at his desperate position.

In its Australian debut, Diary of One Who Disappeared has been paired with a response composed by Huw Belling of Sydney Chamber Opera and with libretto by Pierce Wilcox. In this post- or counter-narrative, the traveller girl Zefka (Jessica O’Donoghue) returns to the stage and asserts her autonomy as more than the boy’s manic pixie dream girl. From here she murders the boy, consults an oracle, and calls on the strength of Greek mythologies like Medea to make her whole.

Director and lighting designer Alexander Berlage made great use of technical design to underwrite the large classical themes and references in the libretto. When Zefka consults the oracle, lightening flashes, smoke streams in, and two unsettling eyeballs swish around the stage like untrustworthy butlers. Set and costume design by Jeremy Allen also plays into the high theatricality of the production, setting the action within a circle of confetti and dressing Goodwin and O’Donoghue like the last wedding guests to leave the party. It gives the illusion of the performance being both impromptu and meticulously staged.

While these design elements were bold and exciting, the way the narrative rose and broke repeatedly seemed to drain the tension from the story and deflated what Berlage clearly intended as powerful images. That is to say, the spectacular or overt design choices were punctured by too little substance on the ground, in the production’s story.

Wilcox’s libretto for Fumeblind Oracle draws on ancient classics like Sappho, Homer, and Greek mythology to illustrate Zefka’s reclamation of her story. But in these grandiose references and the brutal violence of the oracle tradition and Zefka’s transition to murderer, the production quickly loses touch with contemporary feminism or the material reality of womanhood or even nuanced readings of the inspiration texts. As a result, the message is hollow and overwrought, speaking to or for nobody in particular. It’s worth questioning why, in 2021, so many “feminist” or “reclamation” stories feature a woman undressed and covered in blood. Maybe there is something interesting, complex, and true to be found in the middle ground between silent virgin and villainous whore, between feminine and masculine, between silk and blood.

Future Remains ran at Carriageworks from January 6th – 10th as part of Sydney Festival

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