It gives you the creeps just setting foot inside its grim walls, but the former Glenside Mental Hospital’s infamous Z Ward, where the “criminally insane” were once shut away for life, has that effect. The more so when a murder by suffocation is committed before your eyes – even if it is just opera.
By Melbourne composer Dennis Vaughan, The Tell-Tale Heart is a sizzling little monodrama that encloses the listener for an hour inside the mind of a madman, and it has the effect of making one feel genuinely trapped. The stage merely consists of a drab, barred cell constructed halfway down Z Ward’s main corridor, with the audience seated on either side so that they can view the poor soul within – the Narrator, whose name we never learn – while he paces around like a caged animal telling us of his crime.
True to its Gothic origins, the work is unremittingly dark but curiously entertaining, in a morbid way. Vaughan sets word for word Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same title, so there’s a lot of dense text to get through, and for a couple of reasons it is hard to pick up all the words. However, it is a strong piece, and one cannot help but look upon this sad, deranged individual with voyeuristic curiosity plus a degree of amusement as he shrieks, wails and whimpers.
Tucked away to one side and almost out of view, a 13-piece chamber group provides a wonderfully raucous accompaniment of cackling woodwind, tremulous strings and electronic keyboard effects. Vaughan is impressive in the colourful energy he creates, and he conducts his tight group with precision. However, an audibility problem arises from the fact that the instruments too frequently double the Narrator’s vocal line and thereby obscure his diction. The close acoustical confines of this most unusual venue frustratingly tend to magnify this problem.
Nevertheless, tenor James Egglestone puts on a tremendous performance as the Narrator, and though miniature in scale, this monodrama packs an intensity that reminds one of Schoenberg’s Erwartung in its nightmarish mental claustrophobia. Its language is also similarly atonal in its leanings to Schoenberg, but actually it is very accessible thanks to recurring motifs that clearly signpost each changing mood. In another salute to the Second Viennese School, Vaughan makes good use of Sprechstimme, or speech-song, to add dramatic force to his vocal writing.
Intriguing popular touches are there to find as well in The Tell-Tale Heart. In the more macabre scenes, keyboardist Raymond Lawrence’s noodling around on the harpsichord stop seems a certain nod to Lurch in The Addams Family.
That’s not to say there is something for everyone in this opera. Poe’s lurid storytelling is fully present in graphic detail. Definitely don’t bring the kids.
The Tell-Tale Heart was first performed in 2005 by Melbourne Opera, and this production by State Opera South Australia is likewise directed by Hugh Halliday. It comes hot on the heels of Graeme Koehne’s Love Burns, which was rather similar in murderous intent but entertainingly clothed in glamorous song-and-dance routines. These and other works in the company’s Lost Operas of Oz series are a wonderful excursion into lesser-known operatic repertoire. Bravo to them for doing it.
State Opera is presenting The Tell-Tale Heart in Z Ward, Glenside, until July 4.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.