Exil by the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli was on the face of it a curious choice for Sydney Chamber Opera’s latest production: this 1994 work is a song cycle, not an opera. Jack Symonds, the music director, argued in his note that “a staged performance would allow its intense and rarified atmosphere to be presented in the reverential framework it deserves.” And so it proved: the 50-odd minute production was entirely gripping, with the staging providing a subtle enhancement of the poetico-musical experience.

© Giya Kancheli
© Giya Kancheli

Subtlety is perhaps not the first word that springs to mind when thinking about a typical SCO production. The company has a decided preference for dissonant, expressionist music dramas, whether Britten’s Owen Wingrave, Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse, or one of Symonds’ own opera scores. The stagings have, as a consequence, usually been appropriately in-your-face, a response to the dark emotional crises. Even when they put on another non-operatic work back in 2011, Bach’s cantata “Ich habe genug”, it was accompanied by a frankly bizarre mimed scenario involving human slavery and revenge. One usually emerges from an SCO event feeling somewhat disturbed as well as impressed by the energy and innovation.

Exil, by contrast, showed a welcome level of restraint. Director Adena Jacobs and set/costume designer Eugyeene Teh worked together to provide a subtle counterpoint to Kancheli’s songs. The entire action could be summarised in a sentence: the singer, who began on her knees facing the back wall, got up, turned to face the audience, and slowly wandered off. This does not come close to capturing the emotional effect, of course: because so little happened, each gesture acquired enormous significance. When we finally saw the singer’s face having stared at her bare back for 35 minutes, it felt confronting. This was still more the case when she walked out of the small pool in which she had been confined, now clad in an overcoat and trailing her drenched dress. The lighting, by Katie Sfetkidis, added immeasurably to the atmosphere: starting from complete blackness, it varied and grew brighter until the dramatic moment when the soprano was suddenly silhouetted.

The soprano Jane Sheldon deserves enormous plaudits. From the outset, her vocal delivery matched with the sparse staging. Vibrato, an ever-present feature for some singers, was here used sparingly. Not that this rendered the voice monochrome: she tapped into a particularly wide range of sonic colours, all the more noticeable thanks to her clear, unwavering tone. Her haggard, unfocused look when she finally faced around gave way to slightly more engagement in the final song. The texts, which juxtapose two biblical Psalms with poetry of Paul Celan and Hans Sahl, all in German and interspersed with a few Latin phrases, was clearly and movingly enunciated.

Symonds led his band of five with a characteristically sure hand. The score calls for a flautist (playing various flutes), violin (the player also guested on the bells), viola, cello, double bass, synthesiser (Symonds doing double duty) and tape. The playing was highly committed, not disturbed by occasional moments of less than perfect coordination. Much of the score was openly tonal, but at times there were intimations of a grittier reality: glassy sul ponticello string playing, or deliberate noise effects from flicking the flute’s keys or from slapping the strings with the bow. Particularly grating were the microtonal differences between the pre-recorded wind sounds and the live instrumentalists, as well as some deliberate quarter-tone passages on the strings.

As with some earlier SCO shows, Exil took place at Carriageworks, a post-industrial multi-venue space with a minimum in the way of props and scenery options. The occasional noise of a passing train could be heard, but for me these enhanced rather than detracted from the whole. With Celan’s post-holocaust poetry framing the experience, it was all too easy to imagine the fatal train rides to Auschwitz. The combination of this spare, taut poetry with the refined spirituality of Kancheli’s music and the stark visual setting, gave the performance an undeniable power and poignancy.