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Review: The Burrow Michael Smetanin

  • Richard Toop
  • Source: The Sydney Review April 1994

TWENTY YEARS AGO, in a now legendary piece of rock-hype, Jon Landau wrote 'I saw rock & roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen'. In the general run of things, I doubt whether composer
Michael Smetanin would be overly enchanted by comparisons with The Boss, but a few minutes
into the Sydney premiere of The Burrow (Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, 9 March) I involuntarily
found myself thinking along the same lines as Landau, though this time the point at
issue was not, obviously, rock &. roll, but the usually desperately unappetising genre
of contemporary chamber opera. I wouldn't say that Smetanin has entered and conquered the Promised Land at a single stroke, but for the first time in a long while, it occured to me that in
future, new operas could be something to look forward to.

The Burrow (to a libretto by Alison Croggan) takes it title from one of Kafka'slast stories
(Der Bau)-actually not a story so much as the description of a painstakingly constmcted underground
labyrinth, hidden from the outside world, whose unspecifìed builder-inhabitant. (one
imagines a giant badger) prowls through his domain, lord of all he surveys, but in
constant fear of invasion by countless unspecified enemies. No great imagination
is required to see this as a classic allegory of artistic isolation and paranoia-in the
first instance, Kafka's own.

If you've ever dipped into Kafka's published diaries, you'll know that it's often disconcertingly
hard to tell where personal experience leaves off, and fiction begins. Taking her cue from that, Croggan conflates the author and his creation. Although the main love of Kafka's last years, Milena Jesenka, figures in the opera, she does so only emblematically as a caged Virgin Mary. There is no physical contact between them (the radical disjunction between love and the sporadic, transitory sexual encounters that populate the novels is spelt out elsewhere) and moments that could be taken for love duets are in fact, more like instant exchanges of letters.

Though it starts with a child Kafka and ends with a death scene, The Burrow ís not narrative opera;
nor, in the obvious biographical sense, is it about Kafka. Rather, it's about being Kafka: an imaginary exploration of Kafka's's mind, in which ghosts are momentarily made flesh (or made into golems). And once his spectacles have ben removed, soon after the start, Lyndon Terracini's splendidly feral stage presence has next to nothing to do with the physically fragile author, but everything to do with his story's savage, haunted protagonist.

Among other things, The Burrow blows away the superstition that, even at the end of the 2Oth-century opera has to be a purely acoustic medium. Both instruments and voices are amplified, and the instruments sound fabulous, though I think one could aim for a clearer acoustic picture at climaxes.  The way the voices are amplified would be problematic in more realistic theatre since the sound isn't panned between speakers to follow the actors' movements, but in what is, effectively, a series of tableaux vivants in the manner of Stravinsky's les Noces
The music is archetypal Smetanin: gritty, hard-hitting, but full of subtleties just below the surface-
it's by no means as 'direct' a score as it seems to be at first. And while, by rock standards, it operates at a muted whisper throughout, in terms of contemporary'chamber opera' (l suppose it has to be assigned to that fairly ghastly category though it deserves better), much of it is fairly loud. A fellow reviewer who clearly didn't enjoy his night in the theatre felt that the work 'seems to 'lack heart',and that it was time for Smetanin to search harder for his own finer softer feelings. Well, well. Leaving aside the rather Victorian pincushion view of 'the heart' that seems implicit here (I tend to think of the heart more in terms of a vital organ throbbing away amidst a labyrinth of blood and guts, in which case Smetanin's music would have no shortage of it), this - taken in conjunction with the 'finer feelings'stuff, seems to translate as'why doesn't he write some nice, quiet music?'
About Kafka? That strikes me as equivalent to asking for a Mills &. Boon treatment of the Life of Savanarola. And personally, what with last year's Gorecki craze, and the current omnipresence of Michael Nyman's awful score for The Piano (minimalism meets Barry Manilow), I would have though we were currently in danger of asphyxiation from 'nice soft music': of plunging headlong into pink blancmange, like the lone male survivor at the end of La Grande Bouffe.

It seems to me that the only people with reason to be alarmed by The Burrow'saggression are those who have a vested interest in keeping'modern opera' in one or another of its current piss-weak ghettoes-as a regression to Victorian salon music, or as anaemic sub-modernism, with the voices incessantly leaping all over the place, and no-one knowing or caring whether the notes are right or not. This work is a sharp reminder that you don't have to write like Lloyd-Webber to produce memorable vocal lines.

Performance standards were very high. Inevitably, the night belonged to the vocally and physically
electrifying Terracini, who must have been a mass of bruises by the end, but he was strongly
supported by Jane Edwards (Milena) and especially by Tyrone Landau (no relation to the Jon above) as the Ghost. The Perth Nova Ensemble, excellently directed by Roland Peelman, maintained a constant incisive intensity, with guest artist Laura Chislett contributing a brilliant, intricate flute solo in the classic tradition-though not the style! - of the bel canto mad scene.

Michael Kantor's production, though it played fast and loose with the libretto's stage instructions,
meshed impeccably with the tone of the music. What it does in an extraordinary way is to bring the

technical trappings of Zauberoper in harness with a sort of Brechtian anatomy lesson whose specimens are still alive (in Kafkaesque terms' the obvious model is the Penal Colony, but here, no machine is needed). A partly tiled network of sand mounds represents the burrow; the musicians are placed in a cage-like construction (a grisly kitchen/larder,perhaps from which a railway line reminiscent of Tarkovsky's Stalker emerges.Having seen the production from different parts of the hall on different nights, I have the impression that it was conceived primarily in terms of eye-level contact - roughly the first 12 rows of seats; further back the impact was much diminished.

Let's beware exaggeration. The sudden neo-Andriessen stylistic swerve of the music at Milena's first entry jars, Kafka's father is puzzingly undercharacterised (surely, he should be more like the monstrous Thief in the Peter Greeaway movie), and for my taste, the very end mirrors the opening in too simplistic a way - there needs to be an additional dimension.  But all in all, if this is the way contemporary opera is going to go, then it may indeed have a future after all.


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