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FANTASIST AWAKES TO REALITY IN STALIN’S RUSSIA – THE AUSTRALIAN

July 30, 2014

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By John McCallum

Mayakovsky. By Michael Smetanin and Alison Croggon. Sydney Chamber Opera, Carriageworks, July 28.

THIS wonderfully urgent new piece by Sydney Chamber Opera takes up the central tension of one of the most interesting times in 20th-century art and politics — when for the first and last time modernist artists were engaged actively, and finally tragically, in a revolution supposedly in the service of the people.

Vladimir Mayakovsky was a poet and playwright — and a lover and enjoyer of decadent bourgeois pleasures — who embraced the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Like the great director Vsevolod Meyerhold — who, after a series of major revisioning of the classics, needed just such a Russian writer to justify his work in the face of the increasing pressures of the new regime — Mayakovsky endeavoured to serve a revolution that, with the rise of Jos­eph Stalin and socialist realism, ended up not wanting him.

Mayakovsky, in love with all his hapless women and betrayed by the revolution, shot himself in 1930. Stalin anointed him after his death. Meyerhold was murdered by Stalin’s police.

Michael Smetanin and Alison Croggon have created an opera that reflects that time and its great tragedy — the ultimate conflict between the personal and the political — and then takes us into the contemporary world. Their work is framed to resonate now, using references to the best play Mayakovsky wrote for Meyerhold, The Bedbug. This is a play that imagines, half comically, from the point of view of Soviet Russia in 1929, what might have happened if someone had survived the rise of Stalin to reawaken in the future. In this production the future is now, evoked by a re-creation of Mayakovsky’s Phosphorescent Woman, done here as a video projection by Design Davros.

Smetanin’s music is thrillingly theatrical, performed by an orchestra made up of James Nightingale, Nicholas Russoniello, Rainer Saville, Michael Dixon, Matthew Harrison, Stefania Kurniawan and Joe Manton. Mayakovsky is sung by Simon Lobelson and there are fine performances by Mitchell Riley as Lenin and Stalin; Jessica O’Donoghue as Mayakovsky’s lover; Brenton Spiteri as the author who comes down from the auditorium to comment on the action; and Sarah Toth and Lotte Betts-Dean.

Croggon’s libretto draws on Mayakovsky’s poetry and plays but it is also intensely poetic and sparely lyrical in its own right. Every word counts.

Kat Henry’s production, on an impressive set by Hanna Sandgren, lit by Guy Harding, has tall panels that the characters move happily around and through when they are playing in their decadent bourgeois way at the beginning but then turn sternly to the front as the great revolution begins to oppress its artists.

This is a splendid work.

Tickets: $35. Bookings: 1300 723 038 or online. Duration: 90min, no interval. Until August 2.

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