Fly Away Peter – Sydney Chamber Opera
An original and captivating new opera based on one of Australia's most beloved WWI novels.
Sydney’s only maker of small scale, non-bombastic opera, Sydney Chamber Opera, is kicking off its Carriageworks residency with a compact adaptation of David Malouf’s 1999 novella Fly Away Peter, with music by Elliott Gyger and libretto by the company’s artistic associate, Pierce Wilcox. Imara Savage directs the action on Elizabeth Gadsby’s impressive set of four white tiers, which transforms the large space at Carriageworks into the two worlds of Australian bush and the World War I battlefields of Europe.
Fly Away Peter follows the story of Jim Saddler, a young man from country Queensland with a deep affinity for the bush and a love of birds. He finds a kindred spirit in fellow bird-watcher Imogen, an older photographer who lives nearby. As the world ‘tilts towards Europe’, Jim is swept along in the naive enthusiasm for war.
Mitchell Riley’s performance as Jim is compelling and really takes off when he steps out of reality and into a hellish phantasmagoria predicting an endless continuation of industrialised war, consuming not only young men but eventually also the old and women and children. He is well supported by Brenton Spiteri playing Jim’s friend Ashley Crowther and fellow soldiers, and Jessica Aszodi as Imogen.
A central motif in Malouf’s novella is that of digging in earth; a farmer plants seed during wartime, graves are dug, and an endless field of fallen soldiers digs into the earth in the afterlife. Gadsby meets this design challenge by using white clay in numerous navy blue buckets, which the cast of three dig into and cover themselves with. It’s an effective device.
Verity Hampson’s lighting design seems to get lost in the large space, and while she makes some interesting demarcations on the stark white set, they don’t seem to signify much in particular.
The opera is impressively concise, but the transitions from pre-war Australian idyll to the horrors of the Western Front and back to Imogen in Australia are not given the time they warrant and at times Savage’s direction seems rushed. In particular, Imogen’s moment of reflection watching a surfer in the waves is the novella’s final moment of hope that life will continue despite war, and yet this scene in the opera arrives unheralded musically or theatrically. It appears as a small comment following the previous scene.
Despite this, the opera is original and captivating. Opera can be a real pain — dramatic, lengthy and loud — but thankfully the Australian Chamber Opera continues to produce snappy, sophisticated works.
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