Another Lament, described as an improvisation on Henry Purcell’s music, is a reprisal of a 2010 Chamber Made season presented in a private living room. An enigmatic piece, with just one vocalist and an obscure narrative, it contains enough delights to sustain interest for the hour or so of the performance.
This work was part of the short Opera XS season at the Malthouse and is very much representative of contemporary directions in opera, where the defining term is used to describe a work with the sung voice as the primary means of delivery. Another Lament also ticks the zeitgeist box with its absence of narrative and reliance on imagery.
As such, Another Lament is a bit like an animated abstract painting, with a series of vignettes each built around a Purcell song. The major discernible theme is one of the domestic isolation and suffocation of a neglected wife, her home populated by servants, ghosts, and fantasies. That of course is my interpretation — with few signposts to help, meaning is left to the imagination of the viewer.
The songs are delivered by Danish-born musician Ida Deieland Dawson, accompanying herself on double bass. As Dawson sings familiar and other less well known Purcell laments she extrapolates on the tunes. This is an entirely appropriate baroque convention, but in this instance, Dawson takes us into the tonalities and inflections of jazz. Her light but expressive voice suits both genres, and she displays remarked vocal assurance and poise as a performer. Dawson’s voice and instrument are enhanced and supplemented with a sound design by Jethro Woodward.
This is most effective in an early scene when the house seems like a funeral parlour, the stillness punctuated by amplified mundane noises like the clacking of crockery or the ticking clock. Also effective are Dawson’s interactions with her bass – amongst other things it is cradled like a lover, laid to rest as a corpse, carried as coffin, and becomes a handy weapon. My attention did start to wander though when she operated on the instrument with different domestic implements, this went on too long and seemed like a gratuitous nod to modernism.
Also occupying the space are performers from Rawcus who wordlessly act out, with gentle physical comedy, the song’s themes of love, solitude, rejection, freezing – and even humorous fantasies of murder.
The only other voice we hear is that of an unidentified character repeatedly knocking and calling at the door – he has been locked out in the cold. This is a literal reference to the composer Purcell who died prematurely in his 30s. One of the theories of his death is that he perished in the cold after being locked out of his home.
As with much contemporary art, Another Lament has a artistic rationale that may or may not be necessary to appreciate the work. I had seen some of the media, which describes the piece as an “investigation of the tragedy of Purcell music and his untimely demise”, but ultimately the piece successfully stands alone as whimsical musical meditation on life and love.