opera and the primal sublime

douglas leonard on two queensland music festival operas

Katrina Sheppeard, The Love of the Nightingale

Katrina Sheppeard, The Love of the Nightingale

Katrina Sheppeard, The Love of the Nightingale

THERE IS SOMETHING BOTH ENDEARING AND ABSURD ABOUT OPERA AND IT’S NOT THAT IT’S NOT OVER UNTIL THE FAT LADY SINGS. IT’S IMPOSSIBLE NOT TO MENTION THE OPINION OF DR SAMUEL JOHNSON CITED RECENTLY IN THE AUSTRALIAN THAT IT IS AN “EXOTICK AND IRRATIONAL ENTERTAINMENT.” LIKE A CRAZY MARXIST AUNT FROM ANOTHER ERA, OPERA CAN SEEM BOTH HOPELESSLY ANACHRONISTIC AND EMBARRASSING, TOO PRONE TO WEEP OVER LOST CAUSES LIKE, WELL, HUMANITY. IN THE POSTHUMAN WORLD, WE WEEP OVER THE BOTTOM LINE, AND OPERA COMPANIES HAVE MUCH TO WEEP ABOUT IN THIS RESPECT.

But since words have been cannibalised into sound-bites and rhetoric trammelled in the mud of world wars and worse, opera seems well-suited to express our most primal or sublime emotions, and something of those in between. In a cheek by jowl inner suburb in Brisbane sometimes it becomes impossible to edit out the intimate transactions of neighbours. When the phone rang in the home of an elderly Greek couple, the awful pause and ensuing deep male keening accompanied by the broken recitative of a female voice told its own story (their son had died). It seems to me that it would be impossible to render the speechless anguish and profundity of such a moment in any form other than opera (unless in the silent scream of visual art). The American musical has its own fine attributes, but doesn’t quite cut the mustard unless we count George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a self-styled folk opera. From Artaud onwards, avant-garde theatre has aspired to the total experience of Eastern opera while denigrating Western opera as a bourgeois art form, forgetting that ‘bel canto’ was once as popular as ‘the beautiful game’ [soccer, Ed.]. Beaumarchais’ farcical play The Marriage of Figaro was credited with being the insurrectionist spark that inflamed the French Revolution, and was adapted into an equally subversive operatic masterpiece by Mozart. More recently, John Adams’ controversial modern opera Death of Klinghoffer caused a bitter international debate. The mad old aunt is still dancing away.

l’orpheo

The 2007 Queensland Music Festival wins the World Cup by fielding the first (still one of the finest), and our home team’s very impressive latest, contribution to the operatic tradition. The festival participated in the 400th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi’s and Alessandro Striggio’s L’Orpheo which is being celebrated world-wide, while mounting the world premiere season of Richard Mills’ and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of The Nightingale. L’Orpheo was first performed before a court audience (although Monteverdi’s second lost opera was presented al fresco before a reputed audience of 5000) so that the neo-classical, acoustically friendly venue at the Masonic Memorial Temple with its back-straightening wooden pews chimed. It was a sumptuous feast, not because a lot of money had been spent (it was sparsely but adequately staged in the round), but because of the superlative and enthusiastic rendering by the mainly young cast of Griffith’s Conservatorium singers, and the accompanying musical ravishment.

We were on intimate terms with the inner workings of the period music ensemble led by the disarmingly undemonstrative harpist Marshall McGuire. Violone, harpsichord, theorbo, cornetto, sackbut and regal were some of the instruments rarely seen or heard that made the orchestra as entrancing to watch as to listen to, as on the spot as a jazz combo. The loud cacophany of brass and drums, the harmony and rhythm of ‘continuo’ instruments like the organ, cello and viola, and melodic ones such as the recorder were a combined knockout in their day, and are familiarly dissonant in the manner, say, of Kurt Weill to modern ears. Like the songster Weill, Monteverdi turned out some hot madrigals, although he also wrote church music as well as writing for the more profane medium of the theatre. A kind of brilliant musical ‘bricoleur’, Monteverdi mixed and matched: the opening bars of L’Orpheo are the same as his Vespers. It was this conflux of church music, love songs, and dramatic feelings that defined a new genre. By extolling in then voguish Neo-Platonic terms the ‘civilising’ power of music in the classical Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Monteverdi raised men and women to the heights of the gods in what has been regarded by many as the first humanist manifesto. On opening night, Gregory Massingham as Orpheo had lost his voice. His part was sung by Trevor Pichanick while Massingham performed the role. Pichanick’s bel canto rendition grew wonderfully in stature, and a warm and supportive audience responded to the potentially awkward arrangement with appropriately civilised demeanour.

the love of the nightingale

The Love of the Nightingale tenders a less optimistic, less harmonious version of the humanist project from a soured, latterday perspective of civilisation and its discontents. Based on a darker classical myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it sets up an opposition between liberal, sunny Athens and gloomy, repressive Thrace which has come to its aid in times of war, but really it’s the fracture in any society’s psyche between the ineffectual voice of conscience and dumb violence.

The liberator from the North, Tereus, asks only to marry the King’s daughter, Procne, to the chagrin of her naïve younger sister, Philomele. Five years later and after the birth of her son, Itys, Procne languishes for her sister’s company, and asks her husband, Tereus, to escort Philomele back to Thrace on a visit. On the journey homeward, Tereus rapes Philomele and, in a desperate bid to cover his tracks, cuts out her tongue. Philomele is prevented from asking the most basic question: Why? When the deed is exposed, Procne exacts revenge by slaughtering her own sword-wielding, father-proxy child because: “We did not want that future. A future without questions.” Rather than offering the slaying of the patriarchal line as a solution, there is devastating irony here because one of the questions relates to the murder of children. The only hope—because “the blood had to stop flowing, the anger had to subside”—is radical transformation magically provided by Ovid who has the three protagonists turn into birds. In the opera, the possibility of transcendence is made heartbreakingly transparent in a sort of afterlife coda when Itys asks: “Why aren’t you speaking Philomele? Don’t you want me to ask questions?” Philomele breaks into the pure wordless song of the nightingale and we are brought full circle to meditate on the hope (and hopelessness) of the civilising power of music extolled in L’Orpheo.

Wertenbaker’s libretto is simply marvellous in its self-awareness, and Anke Hoppner as Procne and Leanne Kenneally as Philomele interpretively and vocally outstanding, but I found Mill’s post-romantic score (and I’ll be howled down for this) had too many unnecessary strings, literal and figurative, attached. Nevertheless I was still intensely aware that my mad old aunt was dancing.

L’Orpheo, composer Claudio Monteverdi, librettist Alessandro Striggio, musical director Marshall McGuire, stage director Caroline Stacey, designer Kaoru Alfonso, lighting designer George Meijer, Ludovico’s band, chorus and orchestra staff and students Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University; Masonic Memorial Temple, July 23, 25, 27; The Love of the Nightingale, composer Richard Mills, librettist Timberlake Wertenbaker, conductor Richard Gill, director Lindy Hume, designer Dan Potra, costumes Kate Hawley, lighting Nigel Levings; Opera Queensland, Playhouse Queensland Performing Arts Centre, July 13, 16, 18

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 49

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2007