Sydney Opera House – The Opera (The Eighth Wonder) | IFAC HandaThe Victory and Defeat of Dreams

In 1805, with Napoleon’s troops at the gates of Vienna, Beethoven’s opera Leonora was staged. After the French entered Vienna, Napoleon’s censors took it off, recognising in the evil Pizarro a caricature of Napoleon the dictator. In 1812, as Napoleon was about to be defeated, Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist of Mozart’s Magic Flute, helped Beethoven revise it, made severe cuts to it, and renamed it Fidelio.

In 1995, with John Howard hopeful of becoming Prime Minister, Alan John’s opera The Eighth Wonder, an opera about the creation of the Sydney Opera house, was staged by Opera Australia. In 2016, it was revised, savage cuts made to the score, and staged as Sydney Opera House – The Opera (The Eighth Wonder).

Alan John’s opera is about, to quote the Greek poet Katerina Angelaki-Rourke, “the victory and the defeat of dreams”. The Architect (Utzon) has a vision of an utterly extraordinary opera house; the other main character, a singer called Alex, has a vision of Australia becoming a place which fosters the arts to the extent that she can make her career here, not in Europe. The story that unfolds shows them, assailed by the forces of philistinism (embodied now by those who regard the study of music and the arts as a “life-style choice”), defeated, yet ultimately victorious.

Opera Australia’s new production of this masterpiece takes place, not inside the theatre for and about which it was written (but whose inadequacies for opera are discussed in this opera itself), but outside, with the steps of the opera house for a stage, and its glorious sails for scenery. It was an inspired idea to do this – I don’t know whose, but I can credit their unorthodox but inspirational artistic director, Lyndon Terracini, with that. So the orchestra was inside the building, unseen, though the singers were live. The audience was supplied with headphones through which voices and orchestra were blended.

I saw one of Terracini’s other inspirations, Opera on the Beach, at Coolangatta a year or two ago. There the sound was transmitted through large speakers, and the result wasn’t nearly as effective. The company has addressed this, and the technology triumphed for The Eighth Wonder. My only slight cavil was that the dynamics were rendered uniform. I missed the moments of quiet reflection in the original production. But the use of film really strengthened the original production – Alexandra’s mascara running down her cheeks, as she drove to the almost completed opera house after quarrelling with her compromising husband, made the ensuing scene, when she and Utzon realise their common, uncompromising idealism, very strong indeed.

It was impossible not to be moved by the gorgeous music of the opening (we live “between the earth we know and the sky we see”) and by the scene in Mexico when Utzon envisions a temple to the arts like an Aztec temple; to see these scenes against the finished steps and structure of the opera house itself, such a vivid testament to the victory of dreams, was powerfully effective. In fact Alan John’s whole score, transmitted over headphones with a clarity never available inside the theatre, sounded ravishing. The score is complex, profound, and at the same time has a mercurial quality that very few opera composers besides Mozart and Britten have ever achieved. John can weave seamlessly between aria and ensemble, between chorus and dialogue, with an adroitness few can match.

(Why, by the way, was the composer’s name absent from most of the publicity? Do Opera Australia put on the Ring Cycle without mentioning Wagner? Or Tosca without mentioning Puccini?)

The cast was young and capable. Adam Frandsen, who played the Architect, was outstanding, his tenor role very demanding both technically and emotionally. Almost as wonderful was Stacey Alleaume as Alexandra the soprano, who grew impressively in stature as the opera progressed. Adrian Tamburini, as The Maestro, was persuasive as the evil manipulator, though I missed John Pringle’s performance as the Politician who is responsible for the evisceration of the Opera House, so that the inside ended up so different from Utzon’s vision. In the big choruses I was a little bothered by the clarity of the vibrato in the high sopranos, but by and large there was an engaging drive and commendable vigour in the performances of all the principals.

Audiences have loved Fidelio despite its often-bewailed dramatic shortcomings. In the same way, the very large audience of The Eighth Wonder was enthralled by this production. The dramatic shortcomings of Beethoven’s opera are very largely the result of Schikaneder’s reworking, not Beethoven’s original intention. In the same way, although nothing can prevent Alan John’s opera from being dramatic, much was missed by the cuts that were inflicted on it.

Most noticeable to me was the absence of what I thought was the single most vividly dramatic moment of the original production – when without any break at all the Politician interrupts the waltz of the scene on the Royal Yacht with the words “Seize the moment!” This scene was completely cut, and the transition to the scene that followed made by using music salvaged from somewhere on the cutting-floor which made no sense that I could discern.

But the dramatic shortcomings are not, to me, the greatest casualties of the cuts to both operas. In Fidelio many wonderful musical connections which tie dramatic threads together much more effectively than words are missing. In the original (Leonora) there is a beautiful duet for Florestan and Leonora which is based on the same series of ascending fourths which opens the famous aria “Oh Hoffnung” (hope). In its position, after the rescue of Florestan and the deposition of the dictator Pizarro, this musical reference signifies the fulfilment of the hope expressed earlier.

The same thing happened to the score of The Eighth Wonder in the present production. Bits of scenes were cut, saving a minute or two each, but in such a terse score this often mattered. Why was the utterly ravishing opening shortened? And the scene where Utzon solves the problem of the roof, such a central scene, was shortened too. I missed Alexandra’s panegyric about glittering Sydney – “sea, and sun” – that explains part of her reason for wanting not to study overseas but to stay.

But the worst and most inexplicable cut was the omission of the scene where Alexandra, still a student at the Conservatorium, sings of the “so many steps” that lie between her as she then is and the great opera singer she wishes to become. These steps – the musical scale, La Scala (where she eventually sings), the Aztec pyramid’s steps – are lynch-pins of both the dramatic and the musical structure of the opera. They are frequently referred to in the text and the music, especially of the second act, references which in this production were references to nothing. And – how anyone could make this artistic decision is completely baffling to me – this scene was cut, when the opera is actually being performed on the very steps of the opera house!

At least Fidelio is a good deal shorter than Leonora. But the time saved by all these cuts to Alan John’s highly sophisticated score could not have amounted to more than ten minutes.

The cutting, however, made a telling, if ironic, point. It may not have been intended, but the very compromises forced on Utzon during the construction of the opera house, which ended in his resignation and subsequent exclusion from the completion of the opera house, were accurately reflected in the evisceration of the masterpiece we were listening to. When The Eighth Wonder is next produced, may we have it, yes, by all means on the opera house steps, but in the form in which its composer conceived it? And may the composer’s name not be almost written out of the publicity, as Utzon’s was almost written out of the completion of the building? Then our dreams will indeed be victorious.

Opera Australia / IFAC Handa presents
Sydney Opera House — The Opera (The Eighth Wonder)
composer Alan John | librettist Dennis Watkins & Alan John
Director David Freeman

Venue: Steps of the Sydney Opera House
Dates: 28 October – 5 November 2016