What was it about life in the Russian civil service in the 19th century that could engender such existential angst as Gogol pinned down in Diary of a Madman and Dostoevsky explored in Notes from Underground, such that Gary Morson (in The Boundaries of Genre) could declare that novella “probably the most important single source of the modern dystopia”? And why would you attempt to set such angst to music?

<i>Notes from Underground</i> © Zan Wimberley
Notes from Underground
© Zan Wimberley

A youthful Jack Symonds did just that six years ago when a virginal Sydney Chamber Opera announced its exciting arrival on the Sydney scene with Notes from Underground composed by him and scripted by prolific director/dramaturg, Pierce Wilcox. With accolades such as “From every point of view – artistic, musical, theatrical and logistical – this was an ambitious undertaking, impressively realised”, from the Sydney Morning Herald, the SCO has flourished, to the point that it could re-offer 'Notes from Underground' in an expanded version and a venue four times as large.

In many ways, its achievement lies in the brilliant notion of taking the two parts of Dostoevsky's work – the Aboveground Man's self-loathed life and the Underground Man's reflections upon it 20 years later – and running them concurrently, using two different singers. This allows the pair to commence proceedings with a unison “I am”, begin the separation with disharmony on a second “I am”, and end with an unsung, Beckettian “Am I?”. In between, Underground Man (Simon Lobelson) is free to join his younger self (Brenton Spiteri) in the 'real' world to underline lessons learnt during the time spent developing his existential manifesto for an imagined audience of 'gentlemen'.

<i>Notes from Underground</i> © Zan Wimberley
Notes from Underground
© Zan Wimberley

But this achievement doesn't quite overcome the fundamental problem of Dostoevsky's inherently irrational and unsympathetic characters. Spiteri's Aboveground Man does at least have an active life – vainly attempting to suck up to office colleagues, imagining a duel with an Officer who totally ignores him, and almost having a meaningful relationship with a prostitute. He also has the advantage of a tenor voice that rings out attractively above Symonds' positively coloratura orchestration. The UK/Australia-commuting Lobelson's baritone, on the other hand seems unsuited to the low monotones he's often asked to sing.

The two singers' similarities of height and looks, on the other hand – the one black-clad, the other greyed all over – add to Patrick Nolan's clever production's effectiveness in Genevieve Blanchett's simple design.

One woman, Liza, breaks through the male dominance – but is surprisingly dehumanised in Symonds' writing for her. A pity as Jane Sheldon can sing almost anything contemporary composers throw at her, and her journey from dull, wigged and sexed-up working girl to an innocent 'Real Liza' seeking escape through Aboveground Man, even offering him comfort, possibly love, deserves more.

<i>Notes from Underground</i> © Zan Wimberley
Notes from Underground
© Zan Wimberley

But, as with the orchestration generally, Sheldon's mundane words of enticement are accompanied by James Wannan's wildly colourful viola d'amore solo, dolled up and almost danced in high heels. Despite an unhelpful, post-coital “You will die” from Aboveground Man, there seems hope for her momentarily as she offers an intense retake on the Men's “I am”, then she and both Men open a potential window with “I want...”. But Aboveground Man can't handle her dreams of escape to a normal life, and crushes her – as Underground Man simultaneously recognises his younger self's failure. “Love is tyranny,” bays the uncivil servant, and justifies his rejection of “the Crystal Palaces” of utopian literary romance on the grounds that Liza will benefit from his “purifying insult”.

Musically, this scene, says Symonds in the program, is driven by “the iron-clad logic of the Underground Man's arguments” to take strict sonata form. “Tonally, compassionately yet dialectically it forces the Man and Liza apart”. I missed the compassion!

I also missed the fact that all of the orchestra members were performing strictly in character – the solo pianist an Orthodox bishop, the clarinettists a punk and a peasant – though this was hidden for half of the opera's 90 minutes by a gauze curtain. Clearly, one could spend many performances examining the intellectual and dramatic entrails of this dystopian operatic reprise.