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March 10, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Cook and the Cannibal

The Trial of the Cannibal Dog Opera by Matthew Suttor New Zealand International Arts Festival Opera House, March 2, 4, 5

Captain Cook, the Kupe of the Pakeha, was a more complex character than his iconic image would suggest. This was revealed in Anne Salmond’s book The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, and explored (quirkily, sometimes frustratingly so) in the opera inspired by it.

For the first two or three numbers, every note held me spellbound. Composer Matthew Suttor employed a simulated 18th century style for Cook’s sailing orders (outlining the Enlightenment values that were to be diluted over the three voyages), and for his wife Elizabeth’s heartfelt farewell (immaculately sung by the versatile Janet Roddick). As the work progressed, however, rapid delivery of the wordy text (surtitles helped – but even they went by too fast) underpinned by repetitive minimalist figures (think John Adams, and even more Philip Glass), began to pall. At times it seemed more like a play with music than an opera.

The incident which provoked the trial of the dog – Cook’s leniency towards an act of cannibalism – is relegated to a small part of Act Two, despite its importance in sparking the decline of Cook’s mana with the Maori and with his crew, and his subsequently harsher discipline (“sixty lashes … seventy lashes”).

Things improved with the beginning of the second half. Cook’s meditative soliloquy, movingly interpreted by Andrew Collis, was followed by what was for me the highlight of the evening – a charmingly melodious duet between Elizabeth Cook and the Tahitian Queen (Deborah Wai Kapohe). Here Suttor effectively melded the baroque and the minimalist together, rather than keeping them deliberately separate, as in the rest of the work. After this, though, more pedestrian elements again took over, while the Epilogue, in particular, (set in a modern hospital) seemed tangential to the plot.

Librettist John Downie admitted to being a fantasist rather than a fiction writer. Maybe The Cannibal Dog needed more gritty, grounded fiction and less symbolic fantasy (along with the hospital scenes, the reappearance of Elizabeth after her death was notably unconvincing). Yet Downie can write well, too: some of his strongest lines had the power of pure poetry.

Suttor (a graduate of Auckland University and now based in the US) made intelligent use of indigenous instruments in his post-modern polystylistic (and multicultural) mix. A conch marked the arrival in Tahiti; the Maori pukaea wooden war trumpet signaled the landing in Aotearoa. Koauau and putorino flutes, and bird-calls on the karanga manu, were integrated sensitively by Rangiiria Hedley into the rest of Peter Scholes’ twelve-member ensemble.

Penny Fitt’s set played a starring role. Assisted by varied lighting and projection from David Eversfield, the sail/tent of elastic strips could represent the deck of a ship, the night sky, or the open engorged vulva of death goddess Hine-nui-tepo. It could serve as a surface through which heads emerged, bodies scrambled, or the buttocks of enthusiastically copulating “seadogs” protruded.

The Trial of the Cannibal Dog was an ambitious project, and if not entirely successful, showed enough promise to merit revision and further development. It was, nevertheless, a curious choice for a Festival, given that – while it’s great to see younger composers such as Suttor supported – there are two major operas by leading NZ composer (and former School of Music lecturer) Ross Harris (A Wheel of Fire, based on King Lear, and Rasputin, with libretto by Victoria’s Vincent O’Sullivan) which languish unperformed.

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