I saw *The Planet – A Lament* on Jan 15, 2021. It was presented as part of the Prototype Opera festival, but is more properly classified as a staged song cycle composed and performed by singer Septina Rosalina Layan, directed by Garin Nugroho.
The performance I saw was a film of a live performance at Arts Centre Melbourne in 2020. It started with a grainy film projected onto a silky curtain, a film of a woman walking barefoot, a close-up of her making something in her hands. This was shown with no music but with ominous white noise. It was a hypnotic start to the performance.
The first music we heard was an a cappella lament by Layan, gentle and powerful at the same time. Her partners onstage for the performance were the Mazmur Chorale, from Indonesia. They came onstage in the next scene and the music they sang was beautiful and perplexing. The core of the harmony was straightforward and uncomplicated, four-part folk music. The perplexing element was the way that solo voices were used along with the chorus. Often the soloist was singing in a completely different tonal atmosphere. At first I thought maybe they were singing out of tune, but it became clear that the effect was deliberate.
Layan had another solo scene, shared with a male dancer. The staging by Nugroho was a fascinating mixture of design, movement, and film, always keeping an eye on the tone, message, and pacing. The overall message of the piece was about the defilement of the earth and our urgent need to repair the damage we've done.
The next scene had more energy than we had seen so far, the chorus sang with drive and vigor and the three dancers really put it out there. Layan had a brief solo scene, then a joyful scene with the chorus. This moment of joy had a big impact, having been preceded by scenes that were mournful or angry. This scene featured one of the dancers cradling a large egg, which I think was meant to represent the Life Force. He gently laid the egg on the floor and had a long, silent dance around it. This was one of those moments in a performance where you decide that you don’t need to understand what’s going on, you just need to surrender yourself to the experience. I’m very familiar with this, after all of my years of going to the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The three vigorous dancers were back in the next scene and the chorus was doing a mixture of rhythmic speaking and singing. This was the most complex section of the piece, musically speaking. I loved it and would love to hear other choruses sing it.
The final scene started with a mournful tone but quietly built into something bright and positive, culminating in a celebration of community, with singing, speaking, squeaking, and hand clapping, two dancers and the egg center stage. The dancers had a dance to no music and Layan and the chorus sang a warm, lovely chorus they had sung earlier in the show, but with a new ending, some unusual harmonies and Layan’s most beautiful singing of the performance. The closing tableau was mournful and hopeful at the same time.
One of the things I enjoy the most in a work of art is when it feels unlike anything I had seen before. That was definitely the case with *The Planet – A Lament.*