Rebecca Tansley brings us a dramatic, moving interpretation of NZ Opera’s contemporary chamber opera inspired by a pivotal event in the life of New Zealand writer Janet Frame.
Curled in bed, Janet Frame scribbles in a notebook before concealing it under her pillow. So opens the film The Strangest of Angels – an interpretation of the 2022 NZ Opera production performed in Christchurch and Dunedin.
Filmed opera is nothing new, but rather than filming a performance, Rebecca Tansley (Crossing Rachmaninoff, NZIFF 2015, The Heart Dances – the Journey of The Piano: the ballet, NZIFF 2018) takes us inside the crumbling walls of the mental institution where Janet Frame is a patient awaiting a lobotomy.
The close quarters and moulding walls bring with an immediacy and intimacy as we are caught up in the imagined relationship between patient Janet Frame (Jayne Tankersley) and her (fictional) nurse Katherine Baillie (Anna Leese).
Nurse Baillie recognises Janet as a former classmate and is torn between duty (all starched superiority) and empathy, eventually revealing her own inner torment and we question who is the patient and who is the carer.
Ending as Janet’s lobotomy is cancelled after she wins a literary prize, she is presented with a typewriter – “they’re allowing you to have this… it’s a great privilege,” sings Nurse Baillie – and we’re given a sense of the future with the knowledge of what comes next. Dramatically played and superbly sung, this contemporary opera was presented by NZ Opera under the innovative directorship of Thomas de Mallet Burgess and with Tansley’s film, can be enjoyed by even more. Bravo.
Featuring New Zealand sopranos Jayne Tankersley and Anna Leese alongside the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young, this NZ Opera film was filmed on location in the former Kingseat psychiatric hospital in Auckland, New Zealand. – Sally Woodfield