A calm and curious aura of scientific wonder and sacred rites greet patrons as they take their seats for composer Mary Finsterer and librettist Tom Wright’s Australian chamber opera, Biographica, now showing at Theatre Works.
A work first performed by Sydney Chamber Opera and Ensemble Offspring in 2017, it’s welcome to see Lyric Opera Melbourne’s latest endeavour revive this valuable contemporary work in a potent new production.
On the left, a candlelit desk heaped with books and scientific paraphernalia is the primary device alluding to the Renaissance life of influential Italian polymath and subject of the work, Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576).
Further back but nearby, there is a bed-sized platform. A series of large brass-like rings sweep strikingly over the stage area, parts of which a mesh curtain is attached that picks up projections beamed to the blackened rear wall.
It just so happens that they evoke the concentric rings of a gimbal, one of many devices, it turns out, Cardano described in his extraordinary body of work.
Five long white-skirted performers with large matching circular collars take up their positions. Three hold various bowl gongs and one each is alongside a drum and a large gong awaiting musical director Patrick Burns’ cue, almost unseen, with his 12 musicians at the rear.
Directed by Heather Fairbairn, with an overlay of ritualistic movement and attention to both the gestural and emotive, from this initial stage picture, Biographica morphs through an 85-minute, 12-part tableaux adding up to a musically intoxicating, visually compelling and powerfully fused performance piece.
The resolution of ideas bristling through Finsterer’s score and Wright’s libretto via Savanna Wegmann’s suggestive set and costumes, Niklas Pajanti’s dramatic lighting and Aron Murray’s encompassing video designs – drawing on Cardano’s broad scientific studies including astrology and astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology – is faultless.
Ideas relating to an inextricable link between science and religion, the intellectual and visceral, working and personal life and strengths and weaknesses seemingly orbit through the stage rings as Cardano’s complexities are revealed. In doing so, the work effortlessly conveys the omnipresent contradictions rooted in self and the universe.
Finsterer’s masterful score thrums, surges and plinks with phenomenally thrilling energy from moods magisterial to meditative. It’s beauty, impact and theatricality – a soundscape drawing on the depth of Renaissance polyphony but reinvented with fresh and creative use of instrumentation and vocal arrangements – emerges and soars as a lens is held to Cardano’s psyche.
It is aided by a palpable structural cohesion beginning with Cardano reviewing his astrological charts on the day he predicted he would die. A reflection on episodes in his life follows and culminates in his day of death.
Finsterer juxtaposes Wright’s meaty text spoken through Cardano, with five sung voices representing various personal relationships – primarily his mother, daughter Chiara, youngest son Aldo and oldest son Giambattista and Giambattista’s wife Catterina.
A well-polished preview night bodes well for the short season. Burns illuminated Finsterer’s music scored for 11 musicians with the utmost sensitivity, revealing its plentiful nuances and textures while supported by excellent musicianship throughout.
What does seem compromised, however, is the clarity of Wright’s text. As Cardano, actor Dion Mills certainly wears the part of an eccentric scientist with aplomb but the music sometimes overpowers his pacy spoken word as he renders Cardano’s manic, inquiring but impatient style.
The five singers are outstanding in their own right and divine in combination. Still, the performance would benefit greatly by the use of English titles.
Belinda Dalton first impresses with her attractively sinewy and penetrating soprano as Cardano’s mother in her grief of a traumatic childbirth. Assured and expressive, crystalline soprano Rachael Joyce is affecting as Chiara who is dying of syphilis.
Mezzo-soprano Juel Riggall’s mournful and agonising portrayal as Catterina, poisoned by husband Giambattista and furthering Cardano’s personal tragedy as scientific triumphs continue, is an especially fine highlight.
Douglas Kelly is a commanding presence start to finish, employing his firm and powerfully resonating tenor to great effect, including the role of the hopeless imprisoned youngest son, Aldo.
And stepping up to the almost impossible challenge to learn his part less than 72 hours before curtain, baritone Raphael Wong slotted in smoothly. As the miraculously cured archbishop and detestable oldest son Giambattista, Wong’s warm, pliant, depth of voice sounded confident. Even carrying a handheld device for the music never detracted from his performance. Until Bailey Montgomerie recovers from illness, the part is in splendid hands.
Biographica is a little gem that serves as a reminder that greatness and achievement are simply a legacy that paints over the celebrated one’s lived experience and true psyche. And it may well encourage further exploration of this intriguing little known Renaissance man.
Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda
Performance: Friday 22 September 2023
Season continues to 1 October 2023
Information and Bookings: www.theatreworks.org.au
Image: Dion Mills as Cardano and Artists of Biographica – photo by Jodie Hutchinson
Review: Paul Selar