Sunday, March 7, 2021
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In the zoo where the Tassie tiger died, a bird and a whale find love

In the zoo where the Tassie tiger died, a bird and a whale find love
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Lucy Bleach with Alethea Coombe, Rueremus, Mona Foma 2021Credit:Mona/Jesse Hunniford

The zoo has been defunct since 1937 – not long after the last thylacine in captivity died there – and has fallen into eerie desuetude; the performance layered music, video art and physical theatre throughout the site to incredibly haunting effect.

Meditations on extinction and ecological collapse proved a running theme. At Rueremus, slabs of ice suspended from the rafters melted, depositing rocks and rubble frozen inside. Lucienne Rickard’s Extinction Studies has been ongoing since 2018, with the artist drawing meticulously detailed sketches of extinct species, before erasing them one by one. Her final muse – the critically endangered swift parrot – isn’t gone yet, offering tenuous hope.

There were diverse responses to COVID-19. At Good Grief studios, locked down creatives had made bizarre art machines allowing COVID-safe cuddles and handshakes, while a local cathedral played host to a musical adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.

That gruesome tale seems tailor-made for a pandemic. It’s the one where a prince and his decadent followers hole up in a castle with no entrance or exit, carousing as a hideous plague rages across the land.

Yet the performance sometimes undercut Poe’s gothic sensibility by confusing camp with kitsch. Kris McQuade’s fruity narration was backed by Tom Rimes’ portentous and playful score, which roved through famous requiems, Carmina Burana, even a riff from Sesame Street.

The TSO choir sang in masquerade, fully utilising splendid acoustics, but the costuming and associated puppetry were too uniformly repulsive – rather than an unsettling contrast of beauty and the grotesque – to really disturb.

The Masque of the Red Death, Mona Foma 2021

The Masque of the Red Death, Mona Foma 2021Credit:Mona/Jesse Hunniford

With almost every face deformed by fleshy excrescences resembling intestines or cerebra, it was more Lovecraftian than Poe-like, and any musical coda might feel superfluous after the story’s immortal concluding line: “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

It wasn’t as disappointing as experimental opera Judith Returns, which gave a salutary lesson in how academic imperatives might parasitise artistic ones.

The artists turned to the biblical legend of Judith – the Jewish widow who saved her people by seducing and beheading an enemy general. It has inspired some astonishing artworks: the exultant baroque fury of Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans, the indelible paintings of Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi, and the Rilke poem from which this piece takes its libretto.

Trouble is, the poem is short, and the actual opera singing (from soprano Jacqui Dark) plays second fiddle to some laughably pretentious stage business, including the diva struggling against rope bondage, veiled, in a huge fuchsia gown.

Equally problematic is the way Judith has her story mansplained by a chorus of male inmates from a Polish prison. And whatever virtue there might be in mixing criminology, social research, prisoners’ insights and opera – I’m sure the grant applications were masterpieces of the craft – aesthetic demands (in this case, the “singing yourself empty” Rilke mentions in his Sonnets to Orpheus) must trump intellectual justification.

Still, it was a festival that held all the cards, from an arts party on the summit of kunanyi/Mount Wellington to the ultimate joker in the arts deck – MONA itself.

David Walsh’s visionary enterprise was a sight to behold in full festival mode. Nightly concerts were held on its picturesque grounds, with local acts including United States of Amnesia – a band of American musical expats, revelling in popular styles from bluegrass to jazz – formed by festival director Brian Ritchie of Violent Femmes fame.

Between its architectural beauty and the ever-changing trove of provocative art inside, MONA remains a bucket-list destination.

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