Antarctica: Sydney Festival 2023

Rebecca Varidel
6th Jan 2023

Imagine you are lost in a poem, sailing uncharted waters, abandoned in ethereal fogs.

Can you picture it? Feel it? Loose yourself in time and place?

Woven through the beckoning libretto and eerie original music, the new opera Antarctica takes us on a bold and brilliant journey of philosophy and spirituality, opening doors from the innocence of childhood that lead to the adult sins of pride and unrelenting ambition.

Carriageworks Stage 17. Stark and simple greets the audience on arrival. One audience member proclaims the initial light to have the radiance of an ice sheet. The stage seems cold with two unframed windows against the backdrop of a stage to ceiling screen. Later the windows are flooded with clouds and colour, and technology bombards us with dates and messages. Yet the incredible stage design and lighting remains uncomplicated, although supercharged with power. It's time for the audience to look within when the lights are turned on us.

Antarctica as a music quest is not new, but this prodigious spectral story takes us to new waters. Complex questioning and transcendent mythology are presented in this new musical tale that seems somehow old if not familiar. Technology reminds us it is 2023.

Similarly, there is a conjunction in new and old in the music, performed by our acclaimed Sydney Chamber Opera with an all Australian cast and creatives with international guests the innovative new music Asko|Schönberg ensemble from Amsterdam.

Composer Mary Finsterer fuses the traditional and futuristic in both choice of instruments and the early music inspired score. Strings feature significantly including the harp as the hero of the myth, but these are offset with brass, woodwind and keys, by colossal percussion, and even real sound recordings from Antarctica. Overlays in vocals create depth and intrigue in the traditional operatic sense, however with a new 21st century voice.

The strength of the story however is in the words. Tom Wright presents an English libretto that is simultaneously both wistful and soul-searching, and even at times commanding. English surtitles reinforce the message either side of the stage. Yet the written words that take our attention are scrolling on the big screen.

Performances are outstanding, musically and in movement/stance, doing more than justice to these expansive foundations of excellence that they have been given. These members of the Sydney Chamber Opera can surely sing - with clarity and a full range of emotions.

Simon Lobelson as The Captain and Michael Petruccelli as The Cartographer provide a forceful presence that duck and weave convincingly through the undulations as the story unfolds. Soprano Anna Fraser The Natural Philosopher and sweet Theologian Jessica O’Donoghue are extraordinary in the telling, gluing us to the past and the unravelling journey and evoking pathos. The central figure of The Daughter is shown in three ways, Jane Sheldon as the singer/actor and Hayden Holmes as the child/actor are visible and unflinching, Eve Kreutz behind the scenes is a spoken voice. As is the narrator/interviewer Tom Wright. Individually they are potent. But as in the expression by philosopher Aristotle, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What a magnificent performance!

The cast, musicians, and creatives, of Antarctica are a force to be reckoned with.

Antarctica. Haunting. Probing. Captivating.

Until 8 January 2023 at Carriageworks.