After Life | Michel van der AaPhoto - Mark Allan

The Melbourne International Arts Festival officially launched last night with the contemporary Dutch opera After Life, from composer Michel van der Aa. A lavish presentation, it featured six opera singers, large scale film projections and a full classical orchestra. International arts festivals have big budgets and big budgets mean big production values, with the chance to present work on a scale that is not often seen in Australia. But above all, these festivals should take big artistic risks.

When these risks succeed the result is exhilarating, providing audiences with experiences and memories that grow and linger for days, months and sometimes years. But when they fail, the result is equally spectacular. For a work that investigates the notion of memory itself, viewing After Life is one that I would soon like to forget.

A group of strangers gather in a way station between heaven and earth. The newly deceased must choose one memory that will accompany them into eternity. Guided by staff members Aiden (Roderick Williams) Sarah (Marijje van Stralen) and the Chief (Yannick-Muriel Noah) they have three days to choose the memory that will remain with them or else stay suspended in this place of limbo.

The live action is interspersed with projected documentary footage of 'real life' people responding to the proposition. This was the most interesting part of the production but still felt somewhat superficial, failing to take the theatrical investigation deeper into the values and interests that these answers represented. The live performers were also at odds with the onscreen personalities, the stilted and stylised operatic delivery of the singers sitting unappealingly next to their easy naturalism.

The libretto was uninspiring when it was able to be understood, but for the most part was incomprehensible, requiring extensive program notes to unravel the convoluted narrative. Which meant when the audience weren't leaving in droves they were sitting trapped in a kind of grim, stunned confusion.

Integrating the onstage singers with the onscreen documentary performers was a deft directorial touch but came too little too late as by that point most were thoroughly disengaged from the production and eagerly awaiting its conclusion.

The orchestral score is the strongest part, weaving discordant harmonic strains with slapping cello strings and electronic elements to create an atmospheric aural soundscape.

I'm not denying that contemporary opera is a difficult, unwieldy and expensive exercise that should be developed and invested in. But like the abysmal operatic production from the 2010 Melbourne Festival Tomorrow in a Year, After Life fails to deliver on so many artistic fronts that one can't help but wonder about the costs so vastly outweighing the rewards.

On the other end of the scale the festival program features Nilaja Sun's brilliant No Child, which has audiences leaping to the their feet in multiple ovations with no more than a bare stage, a few chairs and one consummate storyteller. It's a masterful lesson in simplicity and restraint, one that the creators of After Life and festival curators alike should take note.

Melbourne Festival presents
Libretto by Michel van der Aa, after Hirokazu Kore-eda

Venue: Regent Theatre | 191-197 Collins Street, Melbourne
Dates: 11 - 13 Oct @ 7.30pm
Tickets: $130.00 – $25.00

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