Sydney Chamber Opera and Ensemble Offspring’s world première of Mary Finsterer and Tom Wright’s Biographica, a twelve-scene snapshot of the life and work of Renaissance polymath, Gerolamo Cardano, attracted high praise from critics at the Sydney Festival earlier this year.
The Australian’s Murray Black lauded the opera’s dramatic power, which stems from the “intriguing duality” of Cardano’s character: an intellectual genius, he is emotionally flawed. Finsterer and Wright dramatise this duality by making the role of Cardano a non-singing one, while a quintet of singers portray family members to whom he shows appalling coldness.
Of Finsterer’s score, Black writes that it “proves to be as wide-ranging and eclectic as Cardano’s intellectual pursuits”, its “complex yet crystalline textures, evocative instrumental colours and intricate rhythms” resulting in an “absorbing, appealing sound world.” Tom Wright’s libretto, says Partial Durations’ Alistair Noble, is “complex and subtly nuanced”, its layered textures effectively presenting the “complexity of the stories and characters”.
As Cardano, beloved Australian actor Mitchell Butel garnered high praise. Limelight’s Angus McPherson writes that Butel’s “striking intensity” held the show together. The family members were well received too: Jane Sheldon as Cardano’s mother, sang with “frightening power”, “from soaring fear to guttural rage” (Keith Gallasch, RealTime), while Jessica O’Donoghue “found an elegant awkwardness” for Cardano’s tragic daughter (Alistair Noble, Partial Durations.). Mezzo-soprano Anna Fraser shone as the unfaithful wife poisoned by Cardano’s son, sung by Simon Lobelson, her “full, characterful mezzo” standing in stark contrast to Lobelson’s “cold, smooth baritone”. (Angus McPherson, Limelight). Tenor Andrew Goodwin, as the kleptomaniac son, Aldo, “sustained pure expressive tonal evenness” (Peter McCallum, Sydney Morning Herald).
Janice Muller’s direction was simple, direct and effectively lit by Matt Cox, according to McCallum, and conductor Jack Symonds “controlled the balance of iridescent purity and gritty noise in the sound to create an aural equivalent reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s image of a person lying in the gutter staring at the stars”.
In conclusion, Biographica is “inventive, engaging, stimulating, and moving”; and, “an outstanding new opera” which “deserves a permanent place in the repertory”, says Murray Black.
Another mission accomplished for Sydney Chamber Opera and the artists who enable the company to pursue its ideals.