Lovers’ Metamorphoses: Richard Mills’ “Love of the Nightingale” at Sydney Opera House

Does “The Love of the Nightingale” really find its moral resolution “in the freedom of uninhibited enquiry” as stated in the Opera Australia synopsis? No. Although a disappointingly trite final scene makes such an attempt, more about which later, the real power of the opera lies in its resonance with the modern world, in which there is no more resolution than there was, in reality, in the world of ancient Greece.

Then, and now, gods have been created in man’s image to explain our failings; to provide an excuse for all those powerful and often destructive forces which reside in all of us. Love, lust, anger, power, greed, fear are all the stuff of gods, who conveniently provide us with the perpetrator’s excuse, the victim’s excuse: someone, something made me do it. It is pointless to question. The gods have already determined the outcomes.

To build an opera around this provides a massive palette of opportunity. Richard Mills and his librettist Timberlake Wertenbaker have produced a remarkable work. In its music, its words, its direction (by Tama Matheson) and staging (Dan Potra) there have been few missteps. A simple set design with rolling platforms is sufficient to provide a variety of place. Rear projection was a powerful provider of emphasis to emotional crisis and the influence of the elements. The staging, in a sort of black and white, with sepia overtones in some costumes, might have been drab, but was, in its execution, evocative of the unfolding story. The omnipresent Aphrodite (a statuesque Taryn Fiebig), in the only splash of colour on stage, raised immediate questions: if a power for good, then why can love be so destructive? Don’t ask that question, because the gods cannot explain us to ourselves.

The production says much about inequality as well as inability to communicate. Again don’t ask the question, nor seek the resolution: the gods know nothing of equality, particularly between the sexes.

Richard Mills’ music was so much an integral part of the whole, it tied the experience together in a fine example of what operatic music, particularly contemporary music, can achieve. Sometimes Straussian in its emotion, Wagnerian in its intensity, it reflected nothing. It was the opera. The singing, across the whole cast, was outstanding with the possible exception of young Oliver Brunsdon’s Itys, whose projection was variable and whose stage presence reminded too much of a little boy playing a little boy. Might Itys be a role for a counter-tenor, or could it even be a pants role? Reality might suggest no, but dramatic effect could suggest yes. It was not only the principals that excelled. Emma Matthews, Anke Hoeppner and Richard Anderson were all outstanding. How graced Opera Australia is with fine female voices that can also act. The lesser roles were also well drawn and well sung. The Bacchae were wonderful, yet able to evoke fear and loathing. Hekate was clearly at play here. The Captain (played by David Corcoran who also doubled as Hippolytus and Narrator) was a fine cameo. Poor fellow. He was clearly doomed as soon as a pubescent Philomele set eyes on him. Corcoran’s Hippolytus was no less fine a rendition. It was play within a play, but how strongly it made the point that the gods, too, are fallible.

For a production containing so much violence, there was always the possibility of falling either into the grotesque or the farcical, a danger carefully avoided and for which all parts of the company can take credit. There was a strange sense of the inevitable as the story unfolded. The key elements were flagged right from the start so that a sort of Sophoclean irony pervaded the events as they unfolded.

The final scene, however, seemed somehow a bit bizarre. As the Bard said: “A good play needs no excuse”. While the ancient Greeks resolved a lot of things with a bit of metamorphosis, this bright, white depiction of final redemption belied the truth behind the words. The audience had got the message, loud and clear. Tereus and Itys did not warrant redemption. It would have been sufficient to let the nightingale sing her final vocalise in the peace that only the sea and sky can provide.

Was the message overstated? Not at all (at least until the final scene). The real life examples seen in our everyday lives are the overstatement: the potentates; the politicians; the A-list, A-type chief executives play out these roles as convincingly as the Opera Australia ensemble. They blame the gods for their misadventures while Aphrodite looks on amused. The women wonder whether, maybe, the Aristophanes’ solution to war and aggression might not be the answer, then fall at Aphrodite’s first hurdle. It is no wonder the world remains at war. To paraphrase: “The fault lies not in our gods, but in ourselves”.

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About johnofoz

An occasional correspondent, with particular interest in music.
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3 Responses to Lovers’ Metamorphoses: Richard Mills’ “Love of the Nightingale” at Sydney Opera House

  1. Interesting idea to make Itys a counter-tenor – would reduce the mawkish sentimentality of final scenes. Although if you can’t have mawkish sentimentality in opera, where can you?

    • johnofoz says:

      Thanks. Agree about the mawkish sentimentality. In opera, sure, no problem. But I think I like my Greek tragedy straight. (What was it said in LOTN? “If you love the right person it’s comedy. If the wrong person it’s tragedy”. This got one of the two laughs of the evening (the other being at the narrator’s first act explanation: “of course it didn’t happen as quickly as this…”).

  2. marcellous says:

    I agree with you about the last scene but I don’t think the last scene was the only overly prosy moment.

    What about that guff about “now you are a victim too” which Elizabeth Campbell had to spout, and the stuff about little girls being raped in carparks? These were fingers-down-the-throat gaggingly awful bits.

    It would have been better to leave the libretto straighter and less anachronistic (put it down to the gods) and to make some of these points less directly or by way of production concept. Ie, there should have been less telling and more showing.

    The music was serviceable and indeed effective but the orchestral score could have thinned out a little with even just occasional respite from the busy-ness.

    The production (set/costumes etc) was great.

    Btw, what is it with Mr Mills and his taste for the schlock-horror? Maybe I’m just too squeamish for it, but to be effective in the theatre I think it would be better if short and punchy, like Salome.

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