W.A.Opera Company and Chorus (in association with Opera Australia)
His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Visually spectacular, bristling with violence, seething with sexual undercurrents of the ugliest sort, Batavia, on these counts, is a largely successful essay in verismo opera. The purists, of course, may object to a story line that does not follow the historical record precisely. But, in the operatic canon, there are innumerable precedents for this bending of the truth in the interests of dramatic impact.
Certainly, the production, from these points of view, is offered in such engrossing terms that it might well prompt those coming new to this story to seek out more about one of the most horrific maritime occurrences of the mid-17th century.
And for those who, such as myself, grew up in South Africa, the Batavia tale would have resonated strongly; all schoolchildren there would routinely and rigorously be taught how intrepid Dutch mariners led by Jan van Riebeeck, established a fruit and vegetable garden (in what would eventually become Cape Town) as a stop-off point for taking on water and fresh food by Dutch vessels rounding the Cape of Good Hope on their way to the Indies to collect cargos of spices. Certainly, the VOC emblem, initials for the Dutch East India Company which financed these voyages of discovery and commerce, was everywhere apparent onstage.
The story line of Batavia is, very briefly, this: on its way to the Indies, Batavia is shipwrecked off the west coast of Australia. Most on board survive. The authority of the ship’s captain, disabled by illness, is usurped by a clique who resort to sexual violence and murder while a small group of survivors sets out in a tiny boat to seek help which eventually arrives – but too late to save the lives of murdered innocents. The ringleaders are tried and there is terrible judicial retribution.
It’s a story of horror that cries out for operatic treatment. And for much of the time – and notwithstanding a libretto that at times sounds curiously stilted – there’s little to tone down this violent tale of shipwreck, death, survival and revenge. There is, in fact, such emphasis on horror that the presentation at times appears more an essay in grand guignol than grand opera. This was so much the case that one turned, as if to a refuge, to brief episodes of tenderness, most of these to the strains of a small baroque ensemble – moments that registered all the more strongly for their brevity. These were in stark contrast to scenes involving the deliberate drowning of a crew member and the cold blooded murder of two children, not to mention wanton rape of defenceless women.
How gratifying it must have been for the musicians of the W.A.Symphony Orchestra to play, for once, in the expanded pit of His Majesty’s instead of, as has more usually been the case, having to squeeze into its cramped confines like sardines in a can. This would surely have been a factor that positively influenced the way it performed. The brass section, in particular, was much on its mettle, not only in the pit but, from time to time, taking up positions at opposite ends of the dress circle which brought a neat stereophonic quality to the proceedings.
Richard Mills has produced a technically skilled score, unsurprisingly, because over time he has developed a fine understanding of instrumentation. There is little in the form of set-piece arias here, little in melodic terms, little that could be described as catchy. And for all the care with which it was listened to, I cannot say – this on the basis of a single hearing – that any of the opera’s musical ideas imprinted themselves so strongly on the consciousness that they lingered on to any significant degree after the conclusion of the work. This reinforces a view that it was the visual dimension of the work with its fine re-creation of 17th-century Dutch clothing, Rory Dempster’s excellent lighting design as well as the directorial skill, everywhere apparent, of Lindy Hume, not least for her imaginative and effective deployment of her forces, that left the most enduring impression. Certainly, the visual element was so overwhelming that, for a good deal of the imte, it overwhelmed the music and monopolised the attention. But, for those for whom lavish spectacle is important, Batavia will not disappoint, not least for an epic shipwreck scene as the ship disintegrates in heavy seas off the Abrolhos Islands. For sheer spectacle, this was an episode of which even Cecil B. de Mille would have been proud.
No less successful is Dan Potra’s inspired design of the ship’s interior that brings a striking sense of time, place and atmosphere to the proceedings.
I dare say the work will eventually be placed on compact disc – and this, divorced from visual distraction, would allow the music to be listened to the exclusion of all else; it would be the acid test from an aural perspective.
In purely vocal terms, soprano Emma Matthews was perfectly cast, clearly fulfilling the rich promise of early years. She takes top honours, entirely convincing as Zwaantie Hendricx. Persuasive in technical terms – her rapid, high register arabesques were an object lesson in how to do this sort of thing impressively – she could hardly be faulted. And she was no less convincing in acting terms as a wanton, lascivious woman getting her kicks from schadenfreude at its worst. Another excellent contribution in both vocal and histrionic terms, was Anke Hoppner as Lucretia; the probity of the latter character was finely evoked in both vocal and theatrical terms. As the evil Jeronimus, Michael Lewis’ portrayal of a feral, amoral man creating horrific havoc was spot on. So, too, was Jamie Allen as the violent and murderous Conraat van Huyssen, Jeronimus’ dastardly co-mutineer. Quite unintentionally, I am sure, Allen and Lewis, in stage make up and costume, looked so strikingly alike that at times it required close attention to determine who was playing whom. As ship’s captain, Bruce Martin brings customary seriousness of purpose to his role. As the predikant (minister), Timothy DuFore gives a richly rounded performance as a man in turn anguished and opportunistic, whose moral standards are questionable. Elizabeth Campbell, reliable as always, does well in the role of the predikant’s wife. And Barry Ryan as Wiebbe Hayes, cuts a rather stiff figure but sang commendably.
In the rapidity with which civilised norms corrode, how the veneer of so-called civilisation can crumble to be replaced by barbarism, the Batavia tale has striking parallels with Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s novel about the descent into savagery by a group of school boys marooned on an island.
© 2004 Neville Cohn