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24 October 2008

The Navigator at Melbourne International Festival

Melbourne // VIC // 09.10.2008

Andrew Watts, Talise Trevigne and Omar Ebrahim in <em>The Navigator</em> Image: Andrew Watts, Talise Trevigne and Omar Ebrahim in The Navigator  
© John Sones / Melbourne International Arts Festival

I approached Liza Lim's opera The Navigator with a certain amount of trepidation. This had to do with my slightly complex relationship with her earlier opera Yuè ling jié (Moon Spirit Feasting, 1999). I remember finding it challenging to digest, and spending time afterwards wondering about my reaction. It wasn't the certain uncompromising nature of Lim's compositional style, as I tend to feel that Lim's work is yet another, convincing proof of the fact that an original voice makes all debates about audience accessibility seem rather silly and irrelevant. No, it was the sheer information overload, for me, of the 'ritualist street opera'. The cornucopia of unfamiliar cultural and musical references combined with vocal and instrumental fireworks made me feel slightly inadequate as a listener and spectator.

Since quite a few years had passed, it was difficult to remember the sound of Moon Spirit Feasting. I was interested, then, at the start of the performance of The Navigator at Melbourne International Festival, to find myself transported back to a familiar mental and aural space. I was, however, kept waiting for this homecoming, since the opera begins with music the composer of which I would never have been able to guess. The 'overture', performed onstage by the brilliant recorder player Genevieve Lacey, is a relatively consonant, if virtuosic, solo piece – music that seems to invoke the age of storytelling and campfires, complete with goat-legged and horned gods from mythical forests. This was rather different from anything I had expected. As the events unravelled, the music returned to more Lim-like territory, and that mythical forest turned out to be the impenetrable jungle of human emotions, where the characters of The Navigator got lost over and over again looking for themselves and one another.

Lim's score is again rich in detail. Yet in opposition to the richness of the surface – the vocal fireworks, the extraordinary performance techniques, the clever interlacing of voices and instrumentals – the overall pace and structure of the opera is surprisingly even. Much of the time, the dramatic twists and turns happen on the surface. If you close your eyes and concentrate on the music, it proceeds at a calm tempo, with a growing sense of inevitability regarding the destinies of the characters. In this great scheme of things, it is actually difficult to find obvious dramatic turning points or climaxes, and neither is there a real resolution at the end – rather unusual for an opera.

Some of this is obviously due to the poetic libretto by Patricia Sykes. This is not a piece with a plot, though the themes are familiar from epics of yore: philosophical questions about the nature of life, death, love and humanity. I should point out that I experienced the opera without a program (oddly, the Melbourne Festival ran out of programs on the opening night of the opera in what looked like a half-full theatre). I was forced to take in whatever was coming my way without the aid of as much as a cast list or synopsis. The latter, as it turned out, would not have helped me all that much. Call it deliberate deconstruction and reconstruction if you like, but if there was a narrative, it might as well have been pushed through a mincer.

The libretto apparently contains elements from Tristan und Isolde as well as the Mahabharata. I was blissfully unaware of this intertextual finesse, and I don't think I was any the worse for it. Apparently I also missed a fleeting musical reference to Wagner – there's a little task for anyone who attends later performances of the work, quite a few of which are forthcoming in Europe.

In fact, I don't remember ever being to an opera performance where I paid less heed to the libretto. I'm sure this was not the creators' intention, but it seems to have been my way of dealing with the anticipated threat of information overload, with both the music and staging demanding all my attention.

I have to admit disliking Barrie Kosky's view of the work fairly passionately. Likes and dislikes, as such, are hardly interesting, but I fear that Kosky might have done a disservice to Lim's vision. The subtleties of the music and – possibly – the libretto were overpowered by events onstage. I understand, from what I have since read, that there was meant to be a deeply erotic and sensual undercurrent to this work. If so, Kosky's interpretation doesn't help it to shine through. His characters wander through the opera in an increasingly bleak and desperate atmosphere, never truly making erotic or loving contact with one another. Instead, there is no end of copulating, masturbation and cross-dressing, and some oversized and anatomically misplaced (for better visibility I am sure) genitalia. These, at least, seemed to have some relationship to what was going on in the characters' heads, unlike the Teletubby-heads and trouser-dropping routine. A few dozen audience members walked out during the show, so the shock effects worked, as I'm sure was the director's intention.

Bare flesh and artificial pubic hair were not the reason, but I did find myself closing my eyes for stretches of time just to hear the music properly. I can't stop wondering at the skill required to blend so seamlessly the five voices with the virtuosic playing of the ELISION ensemble and the baroque trio, directed by Manuel Nawri. Elements from the vocal lines transformed themselves into instrumental gestures in this perfectly crafted, fascinating score. There was particularly beautiful vocal writing in some of the duets, reminiscent of the more mainstream operatic works.

While the vocal lines were clearly incredibly challenging and included a great many extended techniques, the score seemed to sit quite comfortably within the singers' vocal ranges (some of these quite breathtaking) and to showcase their impressive skills. The star of the evening was the countertenor Andrew Watts, who sang the title role with meticulous diction and a captivating stage presence. He managed to overcome the distraction of the more shocking stage effects and the general bleakness of the production, to bring home the sensual and touching side of the libretto and the music.

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Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, and the acting editor of resonate magazine.


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