Commemorations of World War I are everywhere in Australia this year because of the centenary anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. On Saturday evening it was the turn of Sydney Chamber Opera to offer a brand new work based on this nation-defining conflict. Fly Away Peter, an opera for seven instrumentalists and three singers by Elliot Gyger (composer) and Pierce Wilcox (librettist) provides an intense, symbol-rich reflection on the War. Outstanding performances from players and singers under the typically assured direction of Jack Symonds made this a memorable event.

The source novel by David Malouf employs a range of settings including an Australian bird sanctuary and the European theatre of war, but the production design by Imara Savage and her team was restricted to a single geometrical set, a series of stepped risers covered in whitewash. This absence of any visual differentiation between the scenes was just one sign that the production took its cue from the poetic aspects of Malouf’s work, and chose to embrace a symbolic rather than a realist aesthetic. The opening was similarly anti-dramatic: the singers each had monologues that musically overlapped before any interaction between the characters was suggested.

While at the beginning the three singers represented specific characters (the idealist birdwatcher Jim, the generous landowner Ashley, and the appreciative photographer Imogen), as matters unfolded two of the singers took on different personae: the tenor playing Ashley acted as a range of different soldiers in the central scenes, while the mezzo-soprano offered a narrative commentary on the horrors of the conflict. At one point, the latter broke into German, not to suggest an adversarial presence but as a reminder that all sides suffered. A later oblique reminder of happier relations between Britain and Germany was the quotation of the poetic verse beginning “O for the wings, for the wings of dove”, originally set by Mendelssohn, a German composer wildly popular in Victorian Britain. Gyger’s music at this point was very different in idiom to that of his 19th century forebear, although the new setting also conveyed a poignant lyricism.

The only props used on the minimalist set were buckets containing clay. Throughout the libretto, ‘earth’ was referenced repeatedly, bringing to mind the infamous mud-filled trenches of the Western front. The singers bedaubed themselves in this clay (“Men change to the colour of the earth”), and towards the end Jim was thickly coated by the other two characters. In this sequence, the initial vigour of their actions and subsequent slowing into caresses reflected the contour in the accompanying music as it turned away from violence. Counterpointing this earth imagery was the whole symbolic world of the birds who can escape the earth. At one point the mezzo acted as trapped kestrel, her hapless fluttering silhouetted against a foggy backdrop.

Gyger’s score had great sonic variety, the more remarkable given the restrained palette with which he was working (the forces were the same as in Stravinsky’s Histoire d’un soldat, which poet and composer credited as their departure point). The use of bowed vibraphone gave the opening scene an unearthly lustre, backing the violin figuration. Typical martial sounds were used during the battle scenes, including snare drum and very rapid repeated trumpet notes (as the text referred to “Machine gun One minute Four hundred shots”). Not everything in the score was so obviously attention-grabbing: there were parts, particularly late on, where deliberately subdued textures and sustained chords seemed dramatically apposite.

The three singers each excelled in demanding roles, although compared with some of the previous productions by the company, the vocal writing in this opera seemed to be kinder and less abrasive. Mitch Reilly, playing the hero Jim, gave the sort of strongly committed performance that has characterised his many appearances for SCO. His transformation from wide-eyed innocence through suffering to a kind of stoicism was well captured. The tenor, Brenton Spiteri, had an easy, unfussy tone which made him a pleasure to listen to. Perhaps his characterisations of the different soldiers might have been more sharply differentiated from each other, but then again, the first-time viewer’s uncertainty as to who was who at this point was in keeping with the surreal nature of these scenes. The rich-voiced Jessica Aszodi had some thrilling notes, and excellent diction. Carriageworks was the perfect venue for this experimental fare: as per usual, the instrumentalists were behind the stage, so that the audience was extremely close to the performing space, which lent the whole experience a matchless sense of immediacy