The Eternity Man

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Having sat on a number of juries in my time, national and international, I can assure any doubter that the voting "system" can throw up some quirky results - everyone's last choice becomes a winner.

Having sat on a number of juries in my time, national and international, I can assure any doubter that the voting "system" can throw up some quirky results - everyone's last choice becomes a winner.

The Eternity Man at the Almeida was the Genesis Opera Project's final 2003 offering. The work comes from an Australian team. For the composer, Jonathan Mills, and librettist Dorothy Porter, this is their second collaboration; their first, the chamber opera The Ghost Wife, enjoyed a number of performances at the Melbourne and Adelaide festivals in 2000 and the Sydney Festival in 2001, and then at the Barbican's Bite series last year.

So some optimism seemed not misplaced. Alas, in a single one-hour span, it would be hard to imagine a more numbing experience. The piece, in seven continuous scenes with prologue, features a poor, benighted, withered man, apparently "getting God" after some tragic past. This is explained not on stage but in the advertising blurb: "Arthur Stace is a historic character from Sydney urban folklore. An ex-petty criminal, ex-alcoholic, ex-gambling hobo, he converted to Christianity and spent the next 37 years writing the one-word sermon - 'Eternity' - across half a million surfaces in Sydney and elsewhere." And we're promised "a journey through the seamier sides of Sydney life". It sounds potentially racy, but the threat of repetition, given those half-million surfaces and a single word, was worrying.

So it turned out. The curtain (yes, a real curtain!) revealed three women of different colour and size, obscenely dressed to suggest "women of the night", taunting and tempting our withered friend with eternal pleasure of the type that didn't appear to be on his radar screen. Indeed, he's "Prozac-man" in search of redemption. And so the story - or non-story - proceeded. Nothing else of substance happened. One longed for a few more scribbled "eternities" on those surfaces. Where were they? Not even full-frontal male nudity, vomiting on stage or attempted drowning could lift this piece out of its comatose state.

The music, almost uniformly slow, thin and melancholic, with the occasional Ivesian hymn recollection, lacked any dramatic tension, closely echoed by Benedict Andrews's production. Richard Jackson made little of the central role, while Tara Harrison, Claire McCaldin and Andee-Louise Hippolite as the tarts, though vocally adequate, were woefully underproduced. Stuart Stratford conducted the Almeida Ensemble.

This, Sirius on Earth and Thwaite were apparently the best of the 2003 Genesis bunch, but a whiff of "minority report" did hang in the air. One jury member, David Pountney, mounted Isidora Zebeljan's Zora D in Amsterdam when it was rejected by the project. A sign of things to come?

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