Review: The Weight of Light, Sydney Conservatorium of Music

David Barmby

At one hour’s duration, this theatrical song cycle seemed far longer.
Review: The Weight of Light, Sydney Conservatorium of Music

The Weight of Light performed by Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Supplied.

Humberstone and Featherstone’s recently composed song cycle The Weight of Light, commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium and The Street Theatre Canberra, fearlessly takes on some big issues: Australia’s protracted conflict in Afghanistan, post-traumatic stress disorder, war crimes, suicide and accidental pregnancy amongst them.

The story is of an Australian soldier (Michael Lampard, baritone) returning to his ‘Ma and Pa’ in the Southern Tablelands of NSW, carrying with him significant psychological damage, and haunted by the memory of combat in Afghanistan. In particular, he is obsessed by the killing of an Afghani girl by his own hand while she innocently tended her sheep. On his return to Australia, he learns that as a result of carelessly drunken encounter six months earlier the girl is now pregnant. The tender memory of his young brother who we are told is ‘a delicate, effeminate young man’, has sustained him through his traumatic recent past.

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On the soldier’s return to the farm he learns from his Ma, standing at the gate, that his younger brother has taken his own life during the recent winter. The death of the innocent shepherdess in Afghanistan and that of his brother become symbolically identified with the imminent birth of (now confirmed) twins. The work concludes with his sorrowful intent to stay and ‘mend together’.

This darkly Gothick work is part song cycle and part theatre, with subtle lighting (Linda Buck) of effectively simple sets, and costumes (Imogen Keen). The set appears as two intersecting lengths of timber that succinctly suggest man’s inevitable interaction with fate, a symbol that eventually is multiplied by Buck’s lighting. On the floor is a shaped cloth representing a river that we are challenged to cross on our journey through life, lest we become consumed and overwhelmed. The cycle comprises 14 songs, each acting as a separate, individually contemplated scene or tableau, with four instrumental interludes, points of reflection, called Lacuna 1-4. It was in these four brief instrumental Lacuna movements that I found the most interesting and effective music.

Baritone Michael Lampard is a good actor with an effective stage presence, though in this production he was rarely allowed to stray from an anxious and deeply troubled state; the work doesn’t explore subtle character development. His voice is attractive enough across its range with an overall smoothness, and rich depth when needed. The composition, however, extends his tessitura into heights that are well beyond that of a baritone and, though bravely negotiated, it once or twice came off second best. Well directed by Caroline Stacey, Lampard made effective use of the entire stage including the piano that was employed as a prop.

The accompaniment, largely static and simple material, straightforward and two dimensional, was sensitively performed by pianist Alan Hicks. Hicks was called upon to play not only on the keyboard but also within the instrument, a practice never recommended by any fine piano manufacturer. Sometimes this became excruciating when bands entwined in the strings were raggedly dragged, paper was laid over the strings and hard-headed mallets used all with questionable effect.

The musical language of the cycle is a combination of attractively resonant French early 20th century harmony coloured by some English (Britten/Tippett-like) angular vocal contour, with American minimalism and more commercial material, for a voice aligned to the music theatre. At just over one hour, it all seemed far longer, with mostly slow and contemplative music that avoided direction. But there were moving and effective moments, and Featherstone’s libretto impressively balanced narrative and contemplation. Yet after much sobbing, gasping and anxious crying from the stage, and still some way before the end, when we are left with The Soldier about to scatter his dead brother’s ashes from a black urn into the ‘river’ ‘I’m sorry/I failed you both -/I am no man’, I had more than enough of the pathos of this character’s tragic situation.

Rating: 2 ½ stars ★★☆

The Weight of Light

Presented by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the University of Sydney
James Humberstone, composer
Nigel Featherstone, libretto
Caroline Stacey, director
Imogen Keen, designer
Linda Buck, lighting Designer
Michael Lampard, baritone, The Soldier
Alan Hicks, piano

27 July, 2018
The Workshop
Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the University of Sydney


What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

David Barmby is former head of artistic planning of Musica Viva Australia, director of music at St James' Anglican Church, King Street, artistic administrator of Bach 2000 (Melbourne Festival), the Australian National Academy of Music and Melbourne Recital Centre.