By Richard Mills
Libretto by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Respected Australian composer Richard Mills boldly thrusts opera into the 21st century with his The Love of the Nightingale. As society is daily confronted and desensitised by graphic brutality on television, cinema and computer screens, why should we expect opera to remain in safe territory of the lush but escapist timbres of Wagner, the delicacy of Debussy, or the relatively censored violence of a Wozzeck or Salome? Mills tackles a gritty tale from Greek mythology and challenges us with dissonant sound pictures of dark, disturbing elements – ritual slaughter, infanticide, rape, patriarchy, murder and exploitation of women as mere chattels.
Inevitably, being Greek, there is a running commentary from the chorus; firstly a modern executive-clad male-female pair gives contemporary perspectives; later the Thracian women, rather reminiscent of dark crows, flutter, weave and wail. As it’s Greek mythology there is a play within a play in which a rather unconvincing Aphrodite (with a touch of Queen of the Night bravura) plants lustful seeds of “I did it for lurve, blame lurve, it wasn’t my fault” into an otherwise upstanding warrior, Tereus of Thrace, liberator of Athens. In gratitude for his valour the Athenian King’s eldest daughter Procne is parcelled off to lonely Thrace with him. Lost and out of her element Procne pleads for Tereus to fetch her sister, Philomele. Big mistake.
Again, as it’s Greek mythology, revenge rates high after innocent blood is spilled or, rather, cut, in the form of a young virgin’s hymen, for all-powerful Tereus proves impotent when raping his wife’s sister, Philomene. It’s all the more potent that this revenge spirals into infanticide from a pack of inebriated Bacchanalian women who revolt against the lies, rape and abuse they’ve suffered. Their justification is “You bloodied the future for all of us. We do not want it. Monsters, fiends! I will kill you all.”
Metamorphosis is another major theme; after the barbaric portrayal of the violence in the first act, it’s a relief when the music melts into lyricism as the chief characters are transformed into birds, Philomele into a nightingale, her sister Procne a swallow and Tereus a hoopoe. The protagonists are translated into an idyllic final scene, presumably happy-ever-after in their after-life. Having thrown off their black weeds for pristine contemporary white gear, the women explain their dire actions in killing Itys, son of Procne and Tereus: “We had to become different or it would have gone on and on. Revenge and again revenge. We had to transform…” The musical textures mirror a complete metamorphosis from the first act’s barbaric, disjointed phrasing and ambiguous tonality into the respite of subtlety and harmonic resolution.
Another major recurring theme is how characters communicate or do not; the chorus frequently cautions characters to “be careful” and expresses frustration (“there are no words; we do not have words”) that they cannot prevent events they foresee. The final scene shows a transformed Philomele encouraging her nephew Itys to ask questions, yet unable to answer. “Didn’t you want me to ask questions?” he puzzles. Where earlier Tereus justified the dire step of cutting out Philomele’s tongue, as “I loved her I silenced her. She only mocked. She was dangerous; I had to protect my kingdom” now finally he concedes some token of culpability: “It stopped the questions; it was wrong to stop the questions.” He justifies that how could he know what love was – “who was there to tell me?” To the question “did you ask?” he falls back on the lame mantra “I had no words.”
Overall, the libretto by Timberlake Wertenbaker is gripping and effective. At times repetition slowed the drama but sudden touches of humour mercifully lifted it: “It did not happen so quickly, it took months of discourse. That was the gist of it.” There’s a sizeable degree of social justice in the text but still we’re left with defeatist bewilderment: “What is right?” At times the tone becomes self-righteous, as when it suddenly translates into the present: “Why are little girls raped and murdered in our parks?” Thanks, we got the message.
In astute direction by Lindy Hume, simple but effective staging changes spaces by wooden rises rolled out to create platforms, which indicate a stage and a ship, under which our eyes are mercifully spared the actual rape scene. However, the blood-spilling in the murder and tongue-cutting might have challenged the younger members of the audience.
Mills is a master orchestral colourist, creating a quite exhausting, gruelling roller coaster of sound, through which Richard Gill capably steers The Queensland Orchestra, who are generally equal to the challenges. By interval, the audiences felt almost numbed, drained by the sheer energy and often quite brutal timbres that continually surge from the orchestral pit. Effective woodwind cascades capture a stormy wind at sea and Philomele’s aria “Catch the moonlight with your hands; tell me the secrets of the wine-dark sea” gives welcome relief from all the Sturm und Drang.
Generally the cast cope with the challenge to learn and pitch often-tricky intervals, though with occasional resulting intonation issues. McNicol as Tereus projects a resounding voice, while Campbell’s trio of characters and Annabelle Chaffrey’s duo give rich tone.
Apart from a cacophony of nightmarish sound to signal the murder of the lad Itys, the second act compensates with truly effective lyricism, especially in the magical moments where the final nightingale song, beautifully nuanced by Kenneally, resolves into a sense of cadence. This virtuosic aria was masterly in its control and technique, with luminous tone matched by the ethereal green backlighting. Birdcalls reflected from the orchestra with the help of pre-recorded sound samples and the orchestration includes synthesiser. It appeared that there was also pre-recording of voices in many of the cries and drones.
If your taste is the gossamer sheen cast over Grimm’s Fairy Tales, choose Hansel and Gretel. The Love of the Nightingale is not your easy-listening night out, but disturbingly thought-provoking and certainly worth hearing.
Directed by Lindy Hume
Played until July 18 2007 at 7.30pm
Duration: 2 hours and 20 minutes, 20 minute interval