Madeline Lee is a beautifully conceived, artfully staged, well performed but highly problematic opera.

The stark set -“ the fuselage of a crashed World War Two bomber in a sandy desert -“ is a strong simple image. The lighting is soft and helps creates a certain intimacy between the four-man crew, alone in a vast desert space, lost for the last 20 years waiting to be rescued. So as the curtain rose, I was hopeful that this was in fact what the publicity promised: a thoughtful, complex, homemade, contemporary opera.

The irritation soon set in when the singing began. Unfortunately for much of the night we were subjected to classic contemporary opera monotony -“ exactly the banal sort of please-shut-the-door singing that a comedy show would use to satirise contemporary opera.

Composer John Haddock reveals enough during the performance to show that he is an interesting and artful musician but overall I found the music thinly composed. The orchestration is light and, apart from some forceful clashing moments where the music rises to the occasion, I didn’t feel the music matched the emotional intensity of the story.

At the heart of the opera is a powerful narrative about four lost souls, waiting in the desert to be rescued by the Captain who told them to stay with the plane. It explores the messianic play of hope and memory.

When a major turns up with a team of investigators, we are presented with a set of opposing realities. Who is this man? Is he to be trusted? Is he the long-awaited Captain? Should the men reveal themselves to him?

The interaction between the major and his men and the lost crew gradually becomes even stranger, as memories are slowly revealed and replayed and the interdependent lives of these figures slowly come to the surface.

At the level of the story this is marvellous theatre -“ a nuanced but strong psychoanalytic detective story.

There is emotional movement in the music of the final scenes and I can sense a musical design that wants to move the audience slowly from a state of empathic boredom to a more chaotic sense of revelation but I just don’t think Haddock manages to pull it off. It’s a case of A for effort but a lot less for the final product.

You can see Madeline Lee at the Sydney Opera House on 16, 19 and 22 October (final), 7:30 nightly. Bookings 9318 8200.

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