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Arts Festival Review: Trial of the Cannibal Dog

Arts Festival Review: The Trial of the Cannibal Dog

Review by Richard Thomson

The Trial of the Cannibal Dog
Composed by Matthew Suttor
Libretto by John Downie
Directed by Christian Penny
The Opera House, 2, 4, 5 March
2 hours including interval
Review by Richard Thomson

One of the endearing quirks of our nation is our ambivalence about nationhood. It becomes clear what a blessing this is on the rare occasion (sporting events excepted) when hysterical patriotism is unleashed, such as the reaction to flag-burning protesters one recent Anzac Day. But ambivalence brings other, unintended, consequences, and The Trial of the Cannibal Dog is almost a textbook example.

The story of the voyages of Captain James Cook to the Pacific and to New Zealand have the power of a foundational myth. These were The First Meetings between English and Polynesian, and Anne Salmond's book, from which this opera is adapted, deftly constructs a mighty edifice of primeval and tragic symbolism that resonates across centuries.

It is, as composer Matthew Suttor notes, the kind of story operas are made of. And there's so much to like about this opera. Suttor has written a quite brilliant score that combines twentieth century minimalism with eighteenth century motifs and Maori instrumentation for powerful emotional impact. I struggled at first with John Downie's libretto, especially the lines given to Andrew Collis, as Captain Cook, to sing. But his stilted and verbose formality, as well as being true to our understanding of the man, also operates on another level as the working out of an artistic formalism. It won me over.

Penny Fitt's set is simple and versatile, an ocean of blank canvas on which to project the hopes, fears and discoveries of the characters. Kate Hawley's costumes inventively reinterpret eighteenth century interpretations of the Pacific. Christian Penny's strongly visual and physical direction is ideally suited to opera. He should do more!

At first I felt that the story suffered from an overload of information, that not enough had been jettisoned from the book to created a pared down story that could be sung successfully. Later, I changed my mind. This tsunami of content seems part of a formalist gameplaying, prodding the audience gently towards alienation, that is somehow all of a piece with the grandly overwrought emotions that opera traditionally provides.

So what's not to like? I blame that ambivalence – anxiety even – which manifests in a need to over-analyse and earnestly assert the importance of anything even remotely related to the relationship between Polynesian and European cultures. In Cannibal Dog, this meant inserting a sub-plot about someone in "the present day" getting a heart transplant, and then wringing an entire, excruciating final act out of labouring the point that the story of Cook's voyages is relevant to our modern-day condition.

Look, a story this elemental and loaded with symbolic metaphor is self-evidently "relevant" and will speak to anyone with even a passing knowledge of contemporary New Zealand. (And anyone without that knowledge, to be honest, won't care – they'll be on board for the thrill of the voyage.)

That's the point of myth: it tells truths about us more succinctly and forcefully and beautifully than any modern example can. Not unleashing these dogs of history to roam wild across the stage showed, at the end, a disappointing lack of faith in the story they had to tell.


Arts Festival - Were the Dogs of the South Seas the Savages?
Arts Festival - Lexus Song Quest winner returns
TV3 Video - Festival opera traces Captain Cook's Pacific voyages
The Trial of the Cannibal Dog on the Arts Festival website
Full Scoop Coverage: Festival 2008

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