“Crimes and secrets and guilt bind us together,” sings one character midway through Aribert Reimann’s Ghost Sonata. Gradually, these dark mysteries are brought into the light, changing the fortunes of the young man who alone can see ghosts, the parrot-imitating madwoman, and the rest of the motley cast. Anticipating Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, the dinner party in Act 2 turns into a scene of psychological torture as the tables are turned on the Old Man who has terrorised them until then. To him and others, the revelations bring death; to others, fresh psychological wounds. Based on a 1907 play by Strindberg, this opera explores a world of false appearances and the consequences that follow when the deceptions come crashing down. Thanks to imaginative staging from director Greg Eldridge and stellar performances from singers and instrumentalists alike under conductor Warwick Stengårds, this was a thoroughly compelling evening.

Adam Dear (The Dead Man) © Prudence Upton
Adam Dear (The Dead Man)
© Prudence Upton

By comparison with the production of Kats-Chernin’s Whiteley in the Opera House in July, this Opera Australia production was on a modest scale. It was mounted off-site in the company’s scenery workshop, where Brian Howard’s adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis also took place in 2018. OA has decided that harder edged modernist operas aren’t viable on the main stage, but have made a go of them anyway, for which they deserve commendation. The informal venue lent the production a pleasing grittiness, while the smaller space ensured the thrilling immediacy that comes from hearing operatic voices up close.

<i>Ghost Sonata</i> © Prudence Upton
Ghost Sonata
© Prudence Upton

Reimann’s Die Gespenstersonate is not a new work (it premiered in 1984), nor is it a particularly easy one, although at a shade under 90 minutes, it doesn’t over-extend the listener’s patience. Musicologist Wolfgang Burde has described the composer as stylistically influenced by Webern and especially the operas of Berg. From the former comes the pungency and concentration of the musical language; from the latter the psychological focus and dramatic imagination. Reimann’s palette here might be described as expressionist, with unusual textures and instrumental combinations serving to underscore the weird and rebarbative elements in the plot. When in the third act traditional passages of chords briefly surfaced, they were distorted by microtonal inflections.

Despite the stripped-down surroundings, the set design by Emma Kingsbury was highly ingenious. A broken piano on the left referenced the ‘sonata’ of the title, from whose interior one of the titular ghosts emerged (à la Barrie Kosky’s Meistersinger). A slanted mirror screen allowed trapdoors on the floor to be seen as if they were windows on a wall. The costumes located the work in the early 20th century, although the lack of elaborate props allowed the work to escape the particularities of its time and take on a more allegorical feel. An escape of a different sort was offered at the end, as the Young Man, alone among the cast, hauled up the rolling door and slipped into the interior of the Opera Centre.

Richard Anderson (The Old Man) and Shanul Sharma (The Student) © Prudence Upton
Richard Anderson (The Old Man) and Shanul Sharma (The Student)
© Prudence Upton

Where some modernist composers give singers smoother lines than their instrumental counterparts in the pit, Reimann placed heavy demands on the memory and pitching on the cast. I can’t speak to the accuracy with which all of them negotiated the spiky atonal lines, but their dramatic commitment was undeniable. At least they got to sing and occasionally speak in English, which removed one barrier for the audience. Practically every word they uttered was comprehensible, a genuine rarity in opera performances, thanks to Reimann’s clever scoring and Stengårds' sensitive direction.

Richard Anderson was forceful as the malevolent Old Man Jacob Hummel; as the Young Woman (and his secret daughter) Danita Weatherstone delivered a winsome aria in Act 3. Shanul Sharma’s high tenor voice negotiated with seeming ease the demands of the Young Man’s part, even when it went up to a stratospherically high E flat.

Anne-Louise Cole (The Fiancee) and Dominica Matthews (The Mummy) © Prudence Upton
Anne-Louise Cole (The Fiancee) and Dominica Matthews (The Mummy)
© Prudence Upton

The ever-reliable Dominica Matthews was outstanding as the madwoman-turned-nemesis, extracting some comedy from her crazed parrot impressions. John Longmuir was fine as the bullied Colonel, and as the servants Johansson and Bengtsson, Virgilio Marino and Alexander Hargreaves impressed at least as much as their social betters. In the mute role of the ghostly Milkmaid Alexandra Graham writhed with epileptic abandon during the link between Acts 1 and 2.

A character asked at the end of Act 1, ‘What does it all mean?’ It's hard to say, but it's definitely meaningful. Definitely worth catching this opera during its short run and finding out for oneself.

*****