“This is music which believes in the work of music; in its power to speak of the unspeakable.” An apt quote from Neil Bartlett and Paul Constable who staged Benjamin Britten’s ‘Five Canticles’ at the 2013 Brighton Festival.

Awakening Shadow
© Zan Wimberley

Unfortunately, the Çanticles, which span 27 years of Britten’s composing career, weren’t intended for theatrical performance or even meant to be sung together – with logistical problems such as sustaining roles for tenor and piano, but only occasional appearances by horn and harp. So, using the model supplied by Britten himself in Canticle IIIStill Falls the Rain – British-based Australian composer Luke Styles has composed interludes that employ a full quartet of singers, plus horn, harp and a violin, appropriating texts that reflect upon Britten’s fore or aft. Whether the resulting Awakening Shadow adds up to a chamber opera, as claimed, may be open to doubt.

Indeed, the work’s world premiere at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival raised only two stars in its Guardian review. But Sydney must have had a more convincing staging by director Imara Savage for Sydney Chamber Opera. For the arc of the Canticles, from the erotic thrust of Francis Quarles 17th-century passion for Him – purportedly God, but repurposed by Britten to his new partner in 1947, Peter Pears – to TS Eliot’s strange, unpublished poem The Death of St Narcissus, where the non-binary emerges as amazingly contemporary, was maintained throughout.

Awakening Shadow
© Zan Wimberley

As for its relationship with Styles, while his six interludes progress from wordlessness to Romantic texts that reflect the emerging humanism in Britten’s late work, it can be argued that Britten took the opposite route. And in the Narcissus performance, reliable tenor Brenton Spiteri – black bearded but wearing an elegant mauve dress – was clearly a man relishing his femininity. The harp accompaniment by Rowan Phemister – Britten’s recent heart operation in 1974 meant he could no long accompany Pears on the piano – added a further touch of feminisation.

Earlier, Canticle II’s biblical agony as Abraham has his faith tested in sacrificing his son, Isaac; Canticle III’s bleak commentary on death and destruction in the Second World War, courtesy of Edith Sitwell’s powerful text; and Canticle IV’s beautifully balanced trio in the cantankerous Journey of the Magi by TS Eliot all gripped emotively.

They were accompanied by startling multiple images of a naked male dancer, Luca Armstrong, stilled by photogrammetry courtesy of Mike Daly. At times distracting, and certainly not “dark-smirched with pain” as Sitwell describes, they proved an appropriate metaphor for Britten’s chosen texts, bursting dramatically into flames as Isaac is replaced as the sacrifice (by, weirdly, a headless pig). Narcissus, no longer male, was transformed into lush bowers of flowers, requiring the talents of Floral Artist, Dr Lisa Cooper.

Awakening Shadow
© Zan Wimberley

Musically, the hard-working pianist and Musical Director Jack Symonds was a flawless leader of the instrumental quartet, raising the stakes significantly as Abraham is poised to strike his son. Meanwhile, Carla Blackwood crafted some of the most delicate horn sounds imaginable. Jane Sheldon’s soprano as Isaac and one of the glittering Magi quietly survived some odd directorial decisions such as that pig and her arms being in constant rotation as Isaac. Spiteri’s Magus, meanwhile, sweetly clutched the Babe who was the object of their “satisfactory” quest.

Symonds admitted that his long-held desire to stage the Canticles had always been limited by logistical problems. Styles provided the essential lever. While this contribution was musically unremarkable, I’m wholly grateful that it provided the impetus for a rare and satisfying performance of Britten’s works.

****1