SEPTEMBER 24 2013 – 3:00AM

Bushfires remembered in sensitive production

Jennifer Gall

From A Black SkyA Dramatic Chamber Opera Set in the Maelstrom of the Canberra Bushfires
Saturday, September 20, 2013
The Street Theatre

Sandra France, with librettist Helen Nourse, have created a monumental musical work, which translates the events of the 2003 Canberra bushfires into an exploration, on many levels, of the tragic elements leading to personal and civic destruction and loss. It is a brave creation, engaging directly with the community through interviews with the bushfire survivors, to weave these painful memories into a libretto and score that conveys the shock of a seemingly invulnerable suburban normality disappearing suddenly in an event of violent natural destruction.

Nourse’s libretto is economical and relevant in its vocabulary, enabling the music to support and communicate emotion. France’s score is complex, both melodically and rhythmically, in keeping with the conflicting forces at play; and the orchestration is a tour de force, pioneering a new model for operatic writing.

Soloists Judith Dodsworth, Don Bemrose, Rachael Duncan and David Rogers-Smith gave their all to voice the narrative. France and Nourse pose powerful questions about the deceptions perpetuated on a private and a civic level to maintain the veneer of stable, comfortable life in the nation’s capital. It takes the catastrophe of the bushfire to expose these duplicities.

Two married couples – Sophie and Tony, Amelia and David – are the focus of the dramatic action, but it is quickly obvious that hidden emotional secrets are undermining the superficial harmony of these relationships. At the public level, the rituals of Saturday morning in a pleasant suburban shopping-centre are endangered by the bureaucratic agendas to save money by cutting jobs and the unfolding confusion within the chains of command of emergency services responsible for fighting the approaching fires. As the weather deteriorates, the relationships unravel, and as the maelstrom reaches its climax, the cruelty of the emotional interactions push David to his death.

Director Caroline Stacey has achieved an extraordinary feat, working with a large cast of diverse ages and constrained staging arrangements to breathe life into the opera. Soloists and chorus members were rock solid in their performances of an extremely demanding score, and tribute must be paid to chorus directors Alan Hicks and Lynne Kowalik.

Placing the orchestra within the centre of the action worked well, although there was difficulty at times hearing the vocalists over the orchestra. David Kram conducted with heart and soul to anchor the performance, supported by really fine playing from the chamber orchestra.

From a Black Sky will be remembered as one of the great highlights of Canberra’s centenary year.