Mitchell Butel in 'Biographica' © Lisa Tomasetti

The invention of the combination lock may not, at first glance, seem the most obvious subject for an opera. But when you consider that this intricate mechanism was dreamed into being by the Renaissance polymath Gerolamo Cardano, and add to it his fascination with the cosmos, mathematics, medicine, chemistry and gambling, the notion begins to make sense.

Biographica is the culmination of almost two decades’ work by the Australian composer Mary Finsterer. The inclusion of its world premiere in this year’s Sydney Festival is a vote of confidence in the mainstream appeal of new music, and the Sydney Chamber Opera has joined with Ensemble Offspring to give the piece every chance of success in this context.

Finsterer herself has evolved from a radically experimental composer to one not shy of appropriating both contemporary minimalism and Renaissance harmonies. She has retained enough serialism and meticulous craftsmanship in her toolkit to be able to steer clear of the spectre of kitsch as she borrows from familiar idioms, but Biographica is unashamedly easy listening for a work with such complex ambitions.

Twelve short scenes depict Cardano, played by a speaking actor (Mitchell Butel), interacting with his peers, a range of roles shared by five singers (Jane Sheldon, Jessica O’Donoghue, Anna Fraser, Andrew Goodwin and Simon Lobelson) who shift between English and Latin texts. Tom Wright’s libretto deftly implies the brilliance of its subject’s philosophical and scientific musings, but wastes too many words on Cardano’s failings as a father in an attempt to provide human interest.

To lose three children was not unusual for the age, even if the manner of death of Cardano’s offspring (one son beheaded for murder, the other imprisoned for theft, his daughter syphilitic from prostitution) was dramatic. Wright’s libretto has the children’s ghosts blaming their father’s emotional distance for their fates, which seems too millennial a construct for plausibility. It works better when Cardano is demonstrating the existence of allergens by curing the archbishop of asthma or missing out on his medical qualifications for losing his temper at the examining board (“You morons!” — an outburst which sounds fruitily Australian, but fits perfectly with contemporary accounts of Cardano’s character).

Janice Muller’s production is understated and literalistic, the characters in simplified period dress playing their scenes in reductive gestures. The cast is well rehearsed and assured, the ensemble (modern instruments plus viola d’amore) plays with commitment and precision, and conductor Jack Symonds holds it all together convincingly. The bare industrial setting of Carriageworks, a 19th-century rail yard space, lends a much-needed hint of abstraction to the whole.

To January 13, sydneyfestival.org.au

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