Proclaimed by Stalin to be “the best and most talented poet of our Soviet epoch” shortly after his death, Vladimir Mayakovsky remains an object of fascination. As a man, he was, to coin a phrase, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” and his highly irregular love life and suicide at the age of 36 add to the myths surrounding him. An ardent revolutionary who became disillusioned with the actualities of life in Russia after Lenin, he revealed in a late poem that he had forced his muse away from its natural inclinations: “But I /subdued / myself / setting my heel / on the throat / of my own song”. Starting with Stalin’s whitewashing, his legacy has been highly politicised. In Alison Croggon’s libretto, this matter of representation is foregrounded, with Mayakovsky shown frequently in conflict with a figure identified as the Author, who attempts to shape his story. Spoiler alert: before his final suicide in this production, Mayakovsky shoots the author.

Sydney Chamber Opera's <i>Mayakovsky</i> © Zan Wimberley
Sydney Chamber Opera's Mayakovsky
© Zan Wimberley

This opera was a multi-media artwork to an extent not previously attempted by Sydney Chamber Opera. Over the 85-minute run time it made use of live and recorded sound, projected video images and electronic voice amplification and distortion. Mayakovsky’s poetry was declaimed in Russian and English voice-overs, and an historic recording of the poet’s own voice was heard at one juncture.

One weakness of the production was the fact that not only the surtitles but also the important video projections were beamed onto the left wall, which rendered them only partially visible for some in the audience. During the Overture, an abstract light show shimmered, with occasional appearances of an Orwellian face proclaiming gnomic lines such as “direction, infinity; speed, one unit”, and later on “the time machine is not fully functional. The future is disappearing”. The rest of the set by Hanna Sandgren was suitably abstract, mainly consisting of a series of thin blocks running diagonally forward from upstage left. In Act I, they were end on, like open louvres on a set of blinds, but for the more reflective Act II they twisted to a more closed position. An abstract chandelier of stalactites hung between two of the blocks.

Sydney Chamber Opera's <i>Mayakovsky</i> © Zan Wimberley
Sydney Chamber Opera's Mayakovsky
© Zan Wimberley

The composer, Michael Smetanin, a former student of Louis Andriessen, based his music on a spectral analysis of the poet’s voice (as was explained during one voice-over). He has created a score that was absorbing if not always easy to listen to: the decibel levels during the electronic portions were uncomfortably high at times. For instance, the Overture (which was completed in 2010) began in abrasive fashion with electronic hammer blows and made much use of distortion. Smetanin is known for his penchant for loud volumes: a performance of his award-winning but controversial symphonic work, Black Snow (1987), was once nearly cancelled due to protests from the orchestral musicians.

However, there was much else besides sheer volume: some parts used minimalist procedures, and there were gamelan-esque sounds and aquarium/space noises on the recorded material. Other sections involving the live musicians made use of microtones, and there were several appealing piano-and-sax textures. Yet what impressed me most was the care with which the voice parts had been shaped: although the idiom was mostly post-tonal, the singers had a preponderance of linear motion and small leaps, a far cry from the jagged lines that other composers indulge in. The proclamation “The time of the proletarian is yet to come” was wittily set in the tuneful style that would be demanded of artists by state-decreed socialist realism a few years after Mayakovsky’s death. Both the poet and Stalin occasionally sang falsetto, but not often enough for this effect to pall.

Kudos are due especially to Simon Lobelson, who glowered convincingly in the title role; vocally, too, he was a powerful presence. The character of his inamorata, Lilya, was well caught Jessica O’Donoghue, who seemed to be secure vocally, although the electronic amplification seemed more in evidence when she sang than in the case of the others. Lotte Betts-Dean (Elsa) had a delightful tone colour, but Sarah Toth (Zveryeva) was the more dramatic presence, and is possessed of a fine voice besides. SCO stalwart Mitchell Riley played both Lenin and Stalin, and was characteristically accurate in pitching his lines, which were frequently less lyrical than those given to the chief protagonists. Although not possessed of the biggest voice, Brenton Spiteri did well as the Author.

As ever, Jack Symonds was an energetic and capable leader of the small group of live musicians, mostly conducting left-handed while playing a non-trivial keyboard part with his right. The band (consisting of saxes, brass, percussion and guitars) responded in lively fashion, although I was left to wonder whether the discords heard late in the piece were really notated microtones or merely out-of-tune instruments.