It was before noon on a hot and sunny Saturday that I, along with rest of the audience, filed into the Stygian darkness of Carriageworks Bay 17 for His Music Burns, Sydney Chamber Opera’s double bill of works by Kurtág and Benjamin. This challenging and abrasive program was hardly typical fare for a diurnal music event, and it must have been particularly onerous on the singers to be “in voice” so early in the day. Nonetheless, this two-part journey through some of the darker areas of the psyche was mesmerising throughout, and the performers rose magnificently to the occasion.

Mitchell Riley in ...pas à pas – nulle part... © Louis Dillon-Savage
Mitchell Riley in ...pas à pas – nulle part...
© Louis Dillon-Savage
From the opening taps on the wood blocks and other percussion, György Kurtág’s ...pas à pas – nulle part... was a totally riveting experience. Based on Beckett’s fragmentary poetry, this unfurled in a series of miniscule numbers, some lasting no more than a few seconds, with blackouts between each. The forces used were similarly parsimonious: only a string trio plus a single percussionist accompanied the baritone role, all under the ever-capable direction of Jack Symonds. As is typical of SCO productions, the instrumentalists were set behind the stage, with the fairly substantial battery of percussion instruments slightly off to the right. The stage was simplicity itself: forty chairs in five rows facing the audience, with only one occupied by Mitchell Riley. Given the raked seating in the auditorium, there was a sense of inverted experience, whereby we were looking out from the stage over a nearly empty house.

With his disorderly tuxedo and shoe-less feet, Riley was cast as a kind of bohemian, a visionary mad artist. In an essentially static set, he was the sole focus of interest, now flossing his teeth, now sinking down between the rows of seats or climbing onto the chair in a paroxysm, now conducting along to “Intermezzo IV (Pizzicato keringö)” as if in a dream. He made a fine go of the extended vocal techniques required, which included singing outside his normal range below the staff or in falsetto, and introduced considerable timbral variety to his delivery. His pitching was extremely accurate, no mean feat given the spikiness of Kurtág’s writing. There was even some humour, such as his antics at the reiterations of the word “gallop”. Altogether, Riley gave us an absorbing delivery of Beckett’s obscure but inspired lines. He was ably backed up by the virtuoso percussion-playing of Timothy Brigden, while the other instrumentalists generally had more supportive roles.

The opening of the second piece, George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill, was simply electrifying: without any preparation we were confronted by soprano Ellen Winhall and mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds downstage, lit from below like Rembrandt paintings, and declaiming in perfectly co-ordinated fourths and fifths the opening cry of the people. The purity of the intonation and the tightness of their ensemble almost hurt, it was so perfectly in place.

Emily Edmonds in Into the Little Hill © Louis Dillon-Savage
Emily Edmonds in Into the Little Hill
© Louis Dillon-Savage
After the pregnant sparseness of the Kurtág, Benjamin’s retelling of the Pied Piper legend sounded comparatively lush, partly as a result of the larger instrumental palette he employed. As with many other 20th-century versions of traditional fairy tales and legends (Richard Strauss’ Frau ohne Schatten comes to mind), the latent symbolism of events and characters is brought more to the fore. Winhall, who was attired in a two-tone cape, was the Piper, here only identified as a man without eyes and ears (shades of Pan’s Labyrinth?). She also played the minister’s innocent child, where her fresh voice was coloured to sound suitably artless. In all her roles she demonstrated ease and control in the upper register, and the dissonant climax when the baby was screaming was given appropriate heft. Edmonds, too, played multiple characters, featuring as both the minister and the minister’s wife. Like her soprano counterpart, she rarely employed a noticeable vibrato, but her tone sounded warm and appealing without this crutch. The instrumentalists played with confidence and conveyed the varied emotional levels of the tale.

The stage remained essentially the same as in the Kurtág, although there were more lighting changes here, and the two singers changed positions as their scenes unfolded. The sense of something having changed by the end was marked by the disruption of the hitherto orderly rows of chairs, and the final sight of Winhall (as the child) backing into a fiery cleft was indeed memorable. After the visual distractions of the previous evening’s Dido, here one felt that the natural order of things was restored, with Sarah Giles’ direction, Katren Wood’s design and Matt Cox’s lighting all enhancing the musical experience. In the Benjamin, the minister says at one point: “All music is incidental”. SCO has demonstrated once again that it ain’t necessarily so.