Contemporary operas are rare enough; new Australian ones even rarer.
The librettist, novelist Peter Goldsworthy, always believed that the story of the Batavia shipwrecked off the Western Australian coast and the breakdown of all order amongst its Dutch survivors would make a good film.
He and composer Richard Mills go one step further, however, and find in opera the right vehicle for the high moral themes and tragic sweep of this true story.
This Sydney premiere of Batavia was preceded by warnings from Opera Australia about the rape and violence on display, and already the SMH critic has called it sermonising and the vilest theatre he’s seen.
The opera begins in Amsterdam where in 1628 this flagship of the East India Company is setting sail for Java. Dan Potra’s set effectively wraps this little band of Calvinist capitalists in the huge skeleton of a ship’s hold.
Soon tensions below build as the captain’s second, Cornelisz, spouts his anti-social belief in the world of senses.
He becomes sexually obsessed with a virtuous woman on board, just as a mighty storm throws them all onto the land -“ our land -“ at the very edge of the known world.
What they have left behind is musically expressed by brass players and a small baroque ensemble which, separated from the main orchestra, is lodged with us in the auditorium.
This 17th century musical quotation is just one of the many elements competing in Mills’s florid and often discordant score. Occasionally we pine for musical peace and reflection as, no doubt, those poor travellers on the Batavia did.
But Mills’s cacophony of sounds is compelling and perfectly tuned to the sparse real drama of Lindy Hume’s direction.
The second act shows the survivors shipwrecked on the island and suffering the nightmare of Cornelisz’s murderous regime, which is riveting music and theatre.
Those who doubt the need to be so shocked are surely answered at the end as the survivors are rescued and the voice of humanity rises, inexplicably, necessarily and beautifully, to forgive the world’s evil.
We may not understand the murderous temper of Cornelisz but Michael Lewis gives him power, and bass baritone Bruce Martin is excellent as the perplexed Captain Pelasaert. Anke Hoppner, Elizabeth Campbell and Barry Ryan also give fine voice to other real characters.
Goldsworthy’s libretto is rich with poetic meaning and Mills, who also conducts, delivers us an epic musical and emotional journey into fear and darkness.
Batavia is at the Sydney Opera House until 31 August.