Review: The Trial of the Cannibal Dog at Wellington Opera House

By William Dart

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If New Zealanders were not such a mild-mannered, respectful lot, there might have been some audience vociferation during the first performance of Matthew Suttor and John Downie's The Trial of the Cannibal Dog.

There were certainly empty seats after the opera's mystifying first half and, come the next day, Radio New Zealand's Eva Radich and Paul Bushnell were vehement on air in their condemnation of the work.

Yet there was promise here. Anne Salmond's original book offered a complex hero and protean ethnic conflict in the making, but too little of this was realised in the two long hours of the opera.

Andrew Collis' solid performance as Cook was doomed by lines that sounded as if they had been set to music by someone who spoke English as a fifth language. Phillip Rhodes and Deborah Wai Kapohe, both playing a clutch of characters, brought vocal professionalism, but were stymied by incomprehensible dramatics and unflattering costumes - in the second half, Rhodes had the misfortune of resembling a giant kiwi with a human head.

Much of the action had been stylised by director Christian Penny in the manner of avant-garde theatre, although the most effective scenes had the feeling of good old-fashioned operatic ensemble - one in particular, pitting the two women against a lusty quartet of Sea Dogs.

Janet Roddick brought her considerable vocal and theatrical nous to the role of Captain Cook's wife - a mere shadow in Salmond's original but extensively fleshed out by Downie's libretto.

Roddick has diction that keeps eyes away from the temptation of surtitles and moulds every line with a sense of inevitability. It is significant that Suttor, who too often takes the minimalist low road, has given her some of his most powerful writing.

By the second half of the evening, weighed down by its own significance, symbolism and theorising, Cannibal Dog was indeed a trial, despite the limitless ingenuity of Penny Fitt's set and David Eversfield's stunning lighting.

Peter Scholes and his small orchestra deserved admiration too; some players risking RSI through the score's relentless patternings.

Looking back to previous operatic ventures by the International Arts Festival, Christopher Blake's 1994 Bitter Calm seems almost verismo in its immediacy and Jack Body's 1998 Alley an allegory which succeeded in melding the exotic and the universal. After them, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog is a severe disappointment.

What: The Trial of the Cannibal Dog
Where: Wellington Opera House, as part of the NZ International Festival of the Arts

- NZ Herald

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