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sydney festival : antarctica : a great start to the festival

Antarctica, the visually stunning land, is often depicted as icy, bleak and clouded in intrigue and danger.  ANTARCTICA, the opera being performed at the Sydney Festival  at Carriageworks, reflects these aspects. Having had part of its gestation at a scientific forum in 2019 in Tasmania, the work successfully combines instrumental and vocal music, sound, lighting and electronic moving image art. 

In a world where nature dominates, rolling mists and fog, light and darkness, and ice are just as important players as the humans we observe through small windows on the back wall or screen. Confined by their painted boxes, almost like paintings of Brueghel and Vermeer, the singers appear almost concert-style. The singers are part of the Sydney Chamber Opera and are appearing with the Dutch ensemble, Asko|Schönberg.

The story begins with a female survivor from a past time who survived a journey to Antarctica and we return to the girl, the captain’s daughter, in the final scenes. Exploring dream and memory the pace is often languid. It’s a tale of a cartographer, a natural scientist and a theologian who sail to the continent. The ship is steered, at times reluctantly, by the Captain. In the libretto, Tom Wright probes their motivations and histories of their curiosity, daring to open doors to hidden worlds to scientific discovery. Their vessel also endures nature’s vicissitudes. It is the drama of inner human journeys which capture the audience, though at times this was laboured.

All voices were clear and strong, with the higher ranges (Jessica O’Donoghue and Anna Fraser) enhancing ethereal quality, whilst the Captain’s (Simon Lobelson) lower tones reminded people of the burdens carried by command in this unforgiving land.

The music by Mary Finsterer magically transports all involved through an unfamiliar place – yet one with reflection. As Finsterer says:

“At the frontiers of the imagination is a land of nothingness

To go is to find emptiness

A land without a land

A mirror-land.”

The music played by Asko|Schönberg sustained and progressed the stories. The particularly skilful use of the harp, piano and percussion brought us directly to a time-based icy frontier. The score is a fusion of a range of music, including early music, with electronically manipulated sounds from Antarctica.

The set design, lighting, video and electro-acoustics were truly impressive. The outstanding set had two frames for viewing the humans against a wall which varied from stark white to black. Whilst the wall initially had a digital clock taking us back to a time close to 200 years ago, it later mesmerised and continually engaged viewers with moving art of phrase fragments, words and data.

 The show generated a lot of discussion among the audience, with many praising the music. Several commented that it felt overly long, with a running time of 1hr 45mins. But then a slow journey such as this may feel that way for passengers. 

A visually interesting and musically beautiful start to the Sydney Festival. After the 5-8 January at Carriageworks,  Asko|Schönberg will perform with the Offspring Ensemble at Sydney Opera House on 9 January, 2023.



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