Friday, November 4, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

For most North Americans, Sydney, Australia and its fabled Sydney Opera House are no more than a name on the map for the former and an item in the “I must see it before I die” bucket list for the latter. Australia is not exactly around the block but you can make it there in a mere 15 hours on the plane if you leave from Vancouver.

Needless to say, the Sydney Opera House is even more spectacular than what you see in pictures or videos. When opera seasons gear up in North America, it is spring in Sydney and Opera Australia wraps up its season for a few weeks until it starts again in January. I was able to catch several productions before the closed sign went up for 2011.

The first production I saw was The Love of the Nightingale by Richard Mills, a two-act opera based on a libretto by playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker. It is a powerful and very dramatic opera with some magnificent music.

Wertenbaker’s play premiered in 1988 and is based on the myth of Tereus, Philomele and Procne. Tereus is the king of Thrace who marries Procne, the daughter of King Pandion of

Athens. Five years after marrying her, Tereus returns to Athens to bring Procne’s sister Philomele to Thrace. On the return journey he rapes her and cuts her tongue off to ensure her silence. When the two sisters are reconciled, they take vengeance by killing his son Itys.

The plot is violent, complex and multi-layered. Mills’s music reflects and captures the power and violence of the story as well as the few tender and lyrical moments.

The most remarkable performance was delivered by Australian bass Richard Anderson as Tereus, the warrior king from wild Thrace who speaks ill of love and thus offends the goddess of love, Aphrodite. Tereus is physically and morally deformed and Anderson with his powerful voice and lumbering gait brings out the seething violence and lust of this rapist.

Soprano Emma Matthews gives a passionate performance as Philomele, the curious and innocent young girl for whom Tereus develops an uncontrollable lust. Matthews is at times wistful and playful in the opera but in the end she is the brutalized victim. She gives a stellar vocal performance and a marvelous acting presentation. In wreaking her own revenge agent her rapist, she accuses the warrior king in front of his soldiers of cutting her hymen with a knife because of his inability to penetrate her.

Procne, sung by German soprano Anke Höppner, is tortured almost as much as her sister but she does have some tender moments with her son Itys. Höppner gives a vocally accomplished performance and is very moving as the distraught wife of the brute.

Less successful vocally were Andrew Brunsdon in the dual roles of King Pandion and a Soldier and Elizabeth Campbell in the roles of Niobe, Nurse and Narrator. Brunsdon sounded strained in his upper range though fine in his mid-range and Campbell was unconvincing in her aria telling a parallel story of the abuse of women in the time of war.

Australian soprano Taryn Fiebig soared as the goddess Aphrodite, the cause or at least personification of all the ills that befall the characters in the opera. She punishes Tereus for speaking ill of love.

The opera is performed on several raised platforms in front of projection screens designed by Dan Potra. The projections provided some colour but were not particularly effective. What was happening on stage was enough to keep one busy without looking at the screens at the back. Otherwise, the platforms worked well and the costumes suggested the wildness of the Thracians and the more civilized Athenians.

Director Tama Matheson directed the complex plot efficiently and managed to bring out the extreme horror without making it ridiculous.

The composer conducted the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and the music sounded simply extraordinary. The score could and should be recorded and listened to alone without the vocals.

The opera has some lyrical passages and there are many opportunities for bravura singing but this is modern opera and there are no show-stopping arias. In the end, the violence is brought to a conclusion with transformation and transfiguration, if not redemption. Kong Tereus is changed into a hoopoe, Procne into a swallow and Philomele into a nightingale.

A memorable night at the opera.

The Love of the Nightingale by Richard Mills opened on October 21 and was performed four times until November 1, 2011 at the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Australia,au

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