“Voice” was the theme for the 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival which closed last weekend. Singing followed “the text” and “the body” to shape a triad during Robyn Archer’s three-year directorship. A few of the voices were sublime, none more so than Romina Basso’s as Penelope in Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses. Only Athene could have married so much physical and vocal beauty. Indeed, the entire cast was a reminder of the majesty that classical singing can achieve. Those glories returned on the final night with Bernadette Cullen’s ravishing Wood Dove in Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.

Several pieces delivered extraordinary vocal techniques but with next-to-nothing to say, either in ideas or as theatre, calling to mind a remark of the poet Roy Campbell: “They use the snaffle and curb all right, But where’s the bloody horse?”

What was missing in substance could not be supplied by amplification, dance movements, puppetry or projected images - embellishments scorned by some commentators as distracting. To dismiss visual effects as an adulteration of the purity of the voice is to forget that combinations of sound and sight are how we usually receive messages. Speech comes from an expressive face, now even over mobile phones. Since Edison and Marconi, technologies have supplied us with most of the noises we love.

Machinery is all very well for pop groups, the traditionalist will respond, but why need Mozart arias or Schubert lieder be daubed with colour and movement? The answer must be weighed according to how those elements are realised.

The Festival opened with three Mozartian sopranos and a dance company stretching to over two hours a song and dance routine which held barely forty minutes of material. A solo performance by their Belgian choreographer, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, confirmed this anorexia of the spirit.

OK, the stuffed-shirt concedes, prancing round to one of Amadeus’s Cassations is in keeping with his pubescent temper. Adding anything to the heart-piercing poems that Schubert set in Winterreise is sacrilege.

Against this fair warning it should be noted that the usual staging of recitals is not visually neutral but mimics the heartless drawing rooms against which poet and composer raged. Hence, dressing a barefoot Simon Keenslyde down to homespun came closer to the cycle’s intent. White tie and tails would not have lifted the qualities of Keenslyde’s baritone, which were most evident when the volume was high or low. His failure to sustain the cycle’s anguish was not the fault of the acrobatics contrived by U.S. choreographer Trisha Brown. Her literalist visualisation journeyed from banality to bathos so that in “The Linden Tree” the cast lined up behind each other to wave their arms like branches.

The projection of images during vocal performance is less disturbing to staid sensibilities than the stirring in of dancers. For the Monteverdi, the filmic unfolding of director William Kentridge’s drawings was so engrossing that I had to avert my eyes so as not to be distracted from the sublime singing. In other shows, the visual material added nothing. By far the best integrated was the news footage in Sandakan Thredony, where Ong Keng Sen’s flow of bodies played with Margie Medlin’s lights and videos to carry forward the POW narrative while deepening the emotional force of its intellectual currents through the measured score from Jonathan Mills.

Puppetry appeared in four of the shows. Top of the bill, Canadian Ronnie Birkett gave a virtuoso recital of talking in voices at a hundred to the dozen for two hours while his marionettes skated and flew. The puppets in Ulysses rarely did more than stand beside the cast member they represented. Midnite delighted all the way from a mountainous Queen Victoria to a glove-puppet parrot. “Quarrelling Pair” at La Mama animated a handbag and its contents.

Although Melbourne spotlights its insecurities by boasting about being “International”, the local productions were among the most commendable, starting from the musical, Eureka! In similar vein was OzOpera’s Midnite, based on Randolph’s Stow’s tale of a dumb bushranger whose gang of animals is masterminded by a Siamese cat. Raffaele Marcellino’s score bounces along to variations on “The Wild Colonial Boy”. Any opera aimed at youngsters demands impeccable articulation.

The Festival ended with a bang as Markus Stenz conducted an electrifyingly textured account of Gurrelieder.  Six stunning soloists, an augmented Melbourne Symphony and three choirs drew on Schoenberg’s palette to lavish more passion and pity around the Hamer Hall than any scene painter could render. Score a win for the purists.