Opera

The Sydney Chamber Opera discovers a new intimacy in its filmed performance of Leoš Janáček’s feverish song cycle. By Harriet Cunningham.

The Diary of One Who Disappeared

Jessica O’Donoghue and Andrew Goodwin in The Diary of One Who Disappeared.
Credit: Craig Wall

A fleeting moment of intense emotion powers Leoš Janáček’s feverish micro-drama, The Diary of One Who Disappeared.

Written for piano, a male and a female singer and a small offstage chorus, the 40-minute song cycle revolves around a chance meeting between two strangers. A prequel to Janáček’s four greatest operas, it’s an exquisite musical miniature that puts misunderstood intimacy and romantic delusion under the microscope. This performance, recorded live on the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre by Sydney Chamber Opera as part of the Sydney Opera House’s digital season, realises the work with a deft, dazzling economy.

It’s a simple story. A man, Janik (tenor Andrew Goodwin), notices a woman. A woman, Zefka (mezzo-soprano Jessica O’Donoghue), notices him. He clings to the moment. She thinks nothing of it. Madness ensues.

The action takes place in a circular pool of light on a black stage. Janik and Zefka are dressed as if for a 1930s cocktail party, complete with champagne flutes and cigarette holders. The floor of the circle is covered in confetti, multicoloured circles of paper you can kick like autumn leaves or throw up in the air, only to watch them drift to the ground in a picturesque, random dance. The circle is edged by a thin strip of white light. Beyond that, all is dark.

It’s a simplicity that invites complication, which is what the music is for. Janik’s operatic yearnings, for example, are overlaid with a jaded commentary on the pursuit of the ideal. Meanwhile, Zefka’s throwaway musings on the infinite mock Janik’s tongue-tied rapture, and the orchestral piano accompaniment – from the shadowy offstage presence of music director Jack Symonds – picks up the song fragments and refashions them into a kaleidoscopic mess of emotion.

In a production that takes care not to overthink things, complications are left to the listener, not the performers. For the performers, the challenge is staying within the intensity of the moment, and they do so with style. Jessica O’Donoghue is a rich and knowing Zefka with a seductive tone, embodying the character with a tantalising swing of her hips and a luxurious sprawl. O’Donoghue also gives voice to the siren-like offstage chorus, multitracked with shades of otherworldly reverb.

Andrew Goodwin’s portrayal of Janik’s descent into madness is beautiful and terrifying to see and hear. Beautiful, because Goodwin’s voice negotiates Janik’s emotions without losing its focused but never harsh tone, even at the extremes of the tenor range. And terrifying, because this level of control comes hand in hand with pent-up emotion etched across his face. This is a virtuoso performance.

In the hands of director and lighting designer Alexander Berlage, with set and costume designer Jeremy Allen, the work translates well to the screen, retaining an essential theatricality that takes advantage of 2020 vision. The cameras raise the stakes for the singers, caught in the gaze of a camera close-up as they strive to hit the high notes. And then there are the alternative camera angles – for example an overhead shot of Janik, prostrate, distraught, but with his shirt covered in gaily coloured circles, strangely clownlike.

Both techniques add insight and intimacy to a medium that, in its traditional setting, can feel remote. Circumstances have driven Sydney Chamber Opera into this new mode of performance. The Diary of One Who Disappeared shows that, far from being a compromise, it sparks new energy. 

 

The Diary of One Who Disappeared is online at www.sydneyoperahouse.com.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2020 as "A kaleidoscope of emotion".

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Harriet Cunningham is a writer and critic based in Sydney.