Emma Matthews in Love Of The Nightingale | Opera Theatre

How often do you hear of a homegrown opera? Well, occasionally, I suppose. Not often enough. But then, it takes a lot of resources, which are relatively scant, to get such a major undertaking off the ground. And a lot of commitment.

What we can be sure of is that Richard Mills, who composed and conducts The Love Of The Nightingale, had a lot of the latter. Timberlake Wertenbaker wrote the libretto and provides, perhaps, a window into her objective with the following: “Where does violence come from? I feel, instinctively, it has to do with being silenced.” Certainly, Opera Australia has brought out the big guns, vocally, in order to do the work, centred around the story of the Athenian princess Procne (Anke Hoppner), her sister,  husband and son, justice. You remember Procne, right? Alright, admittedly, it’s some time since she was kicking around Greece, and has long since turned into a bird. But that’s where our tale begins. I think it was Ovid who first wrote of these hapless women, but Sophocles certainly had a stab, as have numerous others, since.

Procne is courted by the kingly Tereus (Richard Anderson) and abducted, by way of marriage, to his digs, some distance away, in Thrace. Even from the get-go, it augurs badly, in the way of yet another sham royal marriage, made in an accounting firm, rather than heaven. Procne and her sister are almost Siamese-close, so one can almost feel a physical tear when they’re separated. All’s well for a while: Procne bears, apart from the lingering scars of seaparation, a son, Itys, but soon longs, nonetheless, for her dear sister, Philomele, from whom she’s, by now, been long parted. She implores Tereus to go to Athens to fetch her. He complies, but in so doing, finds her fetching in a way he’d not noticed before. Against his (weak) will, he’s smitten by Aphrodite, played and sung fetchingly, too, by Taryn Fiebig (who seems to have her dress on back-to-front). Finding her unwilling on the prolonged (Tereus orders the captain, played by David Corcoran, not to raise the masts, even when the wind favours them) journey home, Tereus takes Philomele, in the worst possible way.

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Director Tama Matheson hasn’t shied from a very graphic, literal telling, which sees Emma Matthews swathed in a blood-soaked gown. Costume designer Kate Hawley sees to that; indeed, all her costumes are splendid (such as Tereus’ heavy, ankle-length faux fur coat, donned throughout, as if he can’t shed his animal skin). Meanwhile, set designer Dan Potra keeps things true to Matheson’s uncompromisingly dark, quintessentially tragic vision; the weight leavened only occasionally by Wertenbaker’s cynical wisecracks exposing ‘harmless’ chauvinism and routine misogyny for what it really is. Lighting designer, Nigel Levings, is equally faithful to Matheson’s bleak, black outlook. Said outlook is, of course, finely attuned to Mills’ grave score and the tale of woe with which it’s entwined.

Wertenbaker appropriates this age-old myth to not merely tease out, but baldly, coldly confront us with questions about the nature and causes of violence, the effects of which we know only too well. Above all, women know them best. Obviously, it’s scrutiny no less justified in its forensic enthusiasm today, than in days gone by. Its premise, insofar as violence being the ignition of a spark caused by silent suffering, also goes to questions of poverty, education, starvation, malnutrition, torture, genocide and national homelessness. It’s a happy coincidence that the fruits of the Arab spring are in evidence, as another season of this quadruple Helpmann-winning opera takes flight, at the Sydney Opera House. Wertenbaker’s feministic adaptation of this ancient narrative started life as a play, commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, before it found new life, as a libretto.

Mills score is rich, pregnant with a sense of doom and danger and a technical triumph, what with its complex harmonic layers, which the ear loves to hear. This is especially evident in the chorus work, which is exemplary and a tribute to the company at large. The principals parts are challenging, too; if not downright difficult. So it’s no surprise the players received a rousing reception, not least the adored Matthews, whose very considerable vocal limits were once again tested, without her betraying the merest hint of it.

Hoppner contributes her customarily robust soprano, imbued with heartrending, aching loneliness and sadness. Anderson, similarly, can always be relied upon, it seems, to bring an unexpected dimension to a role: here, despite his criminal mischief, betrayal and abhorrent absence of self-discipline, he manages to render Tereus as being, somehow, pitiable, as well as pitiful, by way of his warmly-individuated, tobacco-coloured, ace of a booming bass. There’s almost too many and too much to applaud herein but, again, in deference to the shimmering performance by the chorus, let’s mention tenors David Woodward and Benjamin Rasheed, as well as basses, Christopher Hillier and Adrian Tamburini. Andrew Brunsdon, as King Pandion; Dominica Matthews, as his queen; Elizabeth Campbell, as Philomele’s handmaiden, Niobe; Natalie Jones, as Hero; Annabelle Chaffey, as Phaedra; Sian Pendry, as Iris; Sharon Prero, as Echo; even Richard Alexander, as a mere foot-soldier. With that eminent list, you can see casting leaves very little, if anything at all, to be desired.

OA, characteristically, leaves little room for reservations, but, if pressed, I might admit such with regard to the impressionistic, animated projections which backlit the set. And I would’ve liked to have seen water; thundering volumes of it.  I wanted to feel the tumult of the sea, which so rocked the seagoing voyage, to hell, of Tereus and Philomele. More importantly, while Matheson’s production, save for the above, can’t really be faulted, nor Mills’ score, the dialectic between the melodrama common to Greek tragedy and sly asides more akin to the sitcom genre makes for a slightly twisted and strange juxtaposition of dictions.

But if you don’t mind being surprised by a slightly oddball take on the form, you’re bound to derive plenty from this buccaneering opera. Especially, musically. Just be prepared to suspend preconceptions, conventions and any lust for seductive tunes.

Anke Hoppner and Emma Matthews in The Love Of The Nightingale | Opera Theatre

The details: The Love Of The Nightingale plays for three more performances — October 26, 29 and November 1 — at the Sydney Opera House’s Opera Theatre. Tickets via the company website.