GHOST SONATA (OPERA AUSTRALIA)
Opera Australia brings Strindberg’s strange, purgatorial world to the Scenery Workshop.
Scenery Workshop, The Opera Centre, Sydney
Reviewed on September 11, 2019
by Angus McPherson on September 12, 2019
The small ensemble drawn from the Opera Australia Orchestra, under the baton of Warwick Stengårds, give a heroic account of Reimann’s roiling score, with its anxiously curling winds, shuddering – and often neurotically high-register – double bass, rumbling contrabassoon and brittle prepared piano, which also delivers dry snare-drum cracks to accompany The Colonel.
The Australian Saturday, September 14, 2019
Imagination soars in edgy, surreal drama
- By MURRAY BLACK
- Swedish dramatist August Strindberg’s bleak, unsparing play Ghost Sonata (1907) is not for the faint-hearted. It is centred on a naive young student entranced by an apartment building he has always idealised.
Outward appearances prove deceptive. What seems beautiful and splendid turns out to be repulsive and decaying. People of supposed integrity and good social standing are revealed as frauds and criminals. Lies, deception, betrayal and sickness are the basis of existence. We never know what is real or fake. It is a morbid, borderline-nihilistic vision of the world, thankfully leavened by mordant humour and a heightened sense of the absurd.
German composer Aribert Reimann’s 1984 operatic version is similarly daunting. There are few melodic threads to grasp on to. Instead, the music evolves through a sequence of shrill solo lines, grating string figures, dissonant woodwind clusters, snarling brass chords and evocative instrumental effects.
Under the watchful direction of conductor Warwick Stengards, the ensemble’s crystalline articulation and precision ensured the score was as edgy and nerve-jangling as its creator intended.
Director Greg Eldridge and his production team have created an imaginative, dramatically compelling realisation. A large plastic sheet suspended above the open sloping stage refracted light and reflected images, establishing a surreal and disconcerting atmosphere.
Using only minimal props, period costumes and moody lighting designs, Eldridge’s light-touch direction allowed each act to make an impact on its own terms while gradually escalating the tension and intensity into a powerful denouement.
From a singer’s perspective, the technical and interpretative challenges are immense. Reimann alternates passages of spoken dialogue with sprechstimme and more traditional operatic-style singing. Without exception, the cast skilfully conquered his demands.
Reimann’s music is especially strenuous for the three tenor roles. The artistry of Shanul Sharma (the Student), John Longmuir (the Colonel) and Virgilio Marino (Johansson) was regularly tested by jagged, irregular lines, rapid leaps and exposed top-register stretches. All three sang superbly.
The strongly coloured singing and expressive acting of Opera Australia stalwarts Richard Anderson (the Old Man) and Dominica Matthews (the Mummy) brilliantly captured their characters’ fluctuation between bourgeois certainty and existential despair.
Soprano Danita Weatherstone embodied the Young Woman’s appealing innocence and resigned melancholy, baritone Alexander Hargreaves was appropriately lugubrious as the servant Bengtsson and mezzosoprano Ruth Strutt cleverly varied her timbre and characterisations in the dual roles of the Dark Lady and the Cook.
Ghost Sonata , by Aribert Reimann. Opera Australia. Director: Greg Eldridge. Conductor: Warwick Stengards. Scenery Workshop, Opera Centre, Sydney, September 11. Tickets: $89. Bookings: (02) 9318 8200 or online. Duration: 1hr 30min, no interval. Until September 14. Then Malthouse, Melbourne, September 25 to 28.
Sydney Morning Herald
A depressing reflection on happiness
By Peter Macallum
September 13, 2019 — 4.11pm
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The Ghost Sonata
Opera Australia Scenery Workshop, September 11
Director Greg Eldridge and Designer Emma Kingsbury’s production of Aribert Reimann’s opera The Ghost Sonata (after the eponymous play by Strindberg), is dominated by a large cantilevered mirror, cleverly angled so action on the floor is reflected back to the audience as a back wall, with trapdoors opening as windows and writhing dancers apparently defying gravity.
Given Strindberg’s depressing view of the prospects for happiness in middle-class family life, it could be taken as one of those none-too-subtle gestures of modernism – “this story is about you sleepwalking through your comfortable life of denial and hypocrisy”. On the other hand it could just be taken as an ingenious way of creating striking visual compositions amid the workaday clutter of Opera Australia’s scenery workshop. In the latter capacity, it worked brilliantly, giving this singular and powerful work a distinctive savour.
The device of a large mirror creates striking visual compositions.CREDIT:PRUDENCE UPTON
The central character is a student, freshly arrived from a night of rescue and heroism in a building disaster, into a glamorous apartment where he is drawn into a world of wealth so compromised by deceit that meaningful communication has all but ceased.
As the student, tenor Shanul Sharma, delivers the angular atonal energy of Reimann’s vocal line with resplendent clarity, precision and beauty of sound even when the melodic shapes are so sharp-cornered to almost to seem self-parodies. Richard Anderson, as the Old Man who tries to entrap him in a web of complicity, sings with a voice of fierceness and power coloured with complexity, embodying the character’s ingratiating guile and dark fears.
His nemesis, Alexandra Graham as the silent milkmaid stalks him with demonic convulsiveness. Dominica Matthews as The Mummy, who has ostensibly gone mad but finds truth at the climactic moment, creates a wild variety of sounds, indomitable as an avenging angel and with a particular if hitherto unsuspected talent for bird imitations.
As the Colonel, John Longmuir’s part was shadowed by fractured parodies of militarism on the trumpet which he matches with solid vocal fortitude which fades to silence as the character crumbles. As the Young Woman, Danita Weatherstone has a radiant moment of efflorescence and gleaming vocal colour in her aria just before the close.
Ruth Strutt is fearsome as the strident cook who macerates and pummels away all goodness while Virgilio Marino and Alexander Hargraves sketch a pair of resentful servant roles with finely hued edge.
Conductor Warwick Stengards led Riemann’s superbly crafted, brittle discordant score with sensitive finesse, drawing out its layers of textural clashes as though cutting sheet metal, while the players in the chamber ensemble created haunting instrumental colours as though heard in a psychotic dream.
This is a work whose early twentieth century stereotypes of bourgeois dysfunctionality and modernist gloom could have become dated, but which is given enduring relevance and force in this production.
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 Hargreaves 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
Haunting expressionist drama: Reimann’s Ghost Sonata in Sydney
Von David Larkin, 13 September 2019
“Crimes and secrets and guilt bind us together,” sings one character midway through Aribert Reimann’s Ghost Sonata. Gradually, these dark mysteries are brought into the light, changing the fortunes of the young man who alone can see ghosts, the parrot-imitating madwoman, and the rest of the motley cast. Anticipating Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, the dinner party in Act 2 turns into a scene of psychological torture as the tables are turned on the Old Man who has terrorised them until then. To him and others, the revelations bring death; to others, fresh psychological wounds. Based on a 1907 play by Strindberg, this opera explores a world of false appearances and the consequences that follow when the deceptions come crashing down. Thanks to imaginative staging from director Greg Eldridge and stellar performances from singers and instrumentalists alike under conductor Warwick Stengårds, this was a thoroughly compelling evening.
Adam Dear (The Dead Man)
© Prudence Upton
By comparison with the production of Kats-Chernin’s Whiteley in the Opera House in July, this Opera Australia production was on a modest scale. It was mounted off-site in the company’s scenery workshop, where Brian Howard’s adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis also took place in 2018. OA has decided that harder edged modernist operas aren’t viable on the main stage, but have made a go of them anyway, for which they deserve commendation. The informal venue lent the production a pleasing grittiness, while the smaller space ensured the thrilling immediacy that comes from hearing operatic voices up close.
© Prudence Upton
Reimann’s Die Gespenstersonate is not a new work (it premiered in 1984), nor is it a particularly easy one, although at a shade under 90 minutes, it doesn’t over-extend the listener’s patience. Musicologist Wolfgang Burde has described the composer as stylistically influenced by Webern and especially the operas of Berg. From the former comes the pungency and concentration of the musical language; from the latter the psychological focus and dramatic imagination. Reimann’s palette here might be described as expressionist, with unusual textures and instrumental combinations serving to underscore the weird and rebarbative elements in the plot. When in the third act traditional passages of chords briefly surfaced, they were distorted by microtonal inflections.
Despite the stripped-down surroundings, the set design by Emma Kingsbury was highly ingenious. A broken piano on the left referenced the ‘sonata’ of the title, from whose interior one of the titular ghosts emerged (à la Barrie Kosky’s Meistersinger). A slanted mirror screen allowed trapdoors on the floor to be seen as if they were windows on a wall. The costumes located the work in the early 20th century, although the lack of elaborate props allowed the work to escape the particularities of its time and take on a more allegorical feel. An escape of a different sort was offered at the end, as the Young Man, alone among the cast, hauled up the rolling door and slipped into the interior of the Opera Centre.
Richard Anderson (The Old Man) and Shanul Sharma (The Student)
© Prudence Upton
Where some modernist composers give singers smoother lines than their instrumental counterparts in the pit, Reimann placed heavy demands on the memory and pitching on the cast. I can’t speak to the accuracy with which all of them negotiated the spiky atonal lines, but their dramatic commitment was undeniable. At least they got to sing and occasionally speak in English, which removed one barrier for the audience. Practically every word they uttered was comprehensible, a genuine rarity in opera performances, thanks to Reimann’s clever scoring and Stengårds’ sensitive direction.
Richard Anderson was forceful as the malevolent Old Man Jacob Hummel; as the Young Woman (and his secret daughter) Danita Weatherstone delivered a winsome aria in Act 3. Shanul Sharma’s high tenor voice negotiated with seeming ease the demands of the Young Man’s part, even when it went up to a stratospherically high E flat.
Anne-Louise Cole (The Fiancee) and Dominica Matthews (The Mummy)
© Prudence Upton
The ever-reliable Dominica Matthews was outstanding as the madwoman-turned-nemesis, extracting some comedy from her crazed parrot impressions. John Longmuir was fine as the bullied Colonel, and as the servants Johansson and Bengtsson, Virgilio Marino and Alexander Hargreaves impressed at least as much as their social betters. In the mute role of the ghostly Milkmaid Alexandra Graham writhed with epileptic abandon during the link between Acts 1 and 2.
A character asked at the end of Act 1, ‘What does it all mean?’ It’s hard to say, but it’s definitely meaningful. Definitely worth catching this opera during its short run and finding out for oneself.
Ghost Sonata is strikingly modern but its meaning is opaque
By Bridget Davies
September 26, 2019 — 1.12pm
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GHOST SONATA ★★★
Opera Australia, Malthouse Theatre, until September 28
Overheard during the curtain call of Opera Australia’s Ghost Sonata: “This is the second time I’ve seen it; I read up about it this time and enjoyed it much more tonight.”
It’s sage advice, as this is an opera that asks its audience to work a little harder than usual.
Anne-Louise Cole as The Fiancee and Dominica Matthews as The Mummy.CREDIT:PRUDENCE UPTON
Ghost Sonata‘s complex, modernist score and seemingly nonsensical story would surprise anyone expecting a night at the opera in the traditional sense. While there are certainly relatable themes amid the madness, extracting meaning requires looking beyond the literal. If you don’t, you’ll leave feeling a bit confused.
This is an opera that asks its audience to work a little harder than usual.
The score of German composer Aribert Reimann’s 1984 chamber opera is atonal, meaning it does not follow any of the musical conventions you’d hear in opera favourites such as Mozart or Puccini. There are no hummable melodies or lush harmonies here.
Richard Anderson as The Old Man and Shanul Sharma as The Student.CREDIT:PRUDENCE UPTON
It could so easily unravel, but conductor Warwick Stengards provides a firm, guiding grip on the vocalists and 12-piece instrumental ensemble. With its uncomfortable leaps and uneven rhythms, it’s extremely difficult to sing, but this cast handles the challenge with laudable skill.
Tenor Shanul Sharma is precise and impressive throughout, despite having some of the most demanding vocal lines. Mezzo Dominica Matthews steals the show with an arresting performance in act II, while also bringing humour to the altogether grim affair. Richard Anderson, John Longmuir and Danita Weatherstone all give admirable performances.
Designer Emma Kingsbury is to be commended for the intriguing and appropriately moody fitout, including a huge mirror suspended above the stage. It provides striking visuals that allude to the narrative thread of self-reflection.
While Ghost Sonata asks plenty of questions, some of the answers are lost in translation. You’ll be rewarded by heeding the aforementioned advice and doing some pre-show research.
Ghost Sonata, Opera Australia.
Ghost Sonata is rarely seen and dense in this production
Paul Selar, Herald Sun
September 26, 2019 4:25pm
The Coopers Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre
Until September 29
Based on August Strindberg’s 1907 play and set to music by Aribert Reimann, Ghost Sonata is the type of work that extends the perimeters of what opera might be expected to be. Reimann’s 1984 chamber opera is a challenging 90-minute soundscape to reside in but it has a highly intellectualised approach in Opera Australia’s new production.
Within its festering mood is a story that spotlights the secrets and lies one harbours, to the extreme of creating a persona perceived as someone untrue to self. And what might be better, to hide behind lies for as long as we can or accept our lies and wither away? There doesn’t seem a way out.
It’s uncertain who is alive or dead in this psychological matrix as the characters fatefully come together for ‘The Ghost Supper’ where all is revealed. When they do, the fractured nature of the plot and its distinctive piercing shards of music seem to coalesce and offer a way forward.
A large angled mirror above the stage reflects the action in a way that creates two realities and is lowered after truths are revealed in Emma Kingsbury’s clever design. Ample opportunity is given to ponder over the work’s surrealism as part of Greg Eldridge’s haunting direction and manic blend of seemingly random vocal lines.
There’s The Student who wants to know what is wanted of him, sung with an excellently sharpened and tensile tenor by Shanul Sharma. Powerful bass Richard Anderson is persuasive in rendering the brusque and scheming nature of The Old Man and John Longmuir slingshots an impressive wiry tenor as The Colonel who’s not the noble he pretends to be.
Mezzo Dominica Matthews is a spectral charmer as The Mummy, a squawking pitiful figure who thinks she’s a parrot, and Danita Weatherstone is radiant as The Young Woman. Other roles are firmly delivered while Warwick Stengårds shapes precision and impetus in the score.
In a work bereft of melody, you might be waiting for the penny to drop. Perhaps it won’t but in giving something of oneself, its secrets just might be revealed.