The Love of the Nightingale, Perth International Arts Festival, Australia

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The drought in new Australian opera is being remedied as a collaboration between five different organisations bears fruit this week at the premiere of Richard Mills’ opera The Love of the Nightingale. Nightingale was commissioned and directed by Perth International Arts Festival director Lindy Hume. Clear storytelling and the heartbeat of humanity have marked all four of Hume’s festivals and the imprint is found in Nightingale too. Hume directs with bold humour, high energy choreography and theatrical canniness – it makes for damn good story telling.

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s libretto is an adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the grisly story of Procne and her sister Philomele who is raped by Procne’s husband and has her tongue cut out. In Wertenbaker’s hands wider themes of the importance of language and communication are explored, revealing as the King of Thrace foreshadows “the human heart’s uncomfortable folds”. Her poetic writing is beautifully suited to opera but the message gets a little heavy-handed after the third moralising coda.

Mills conducts the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra deftly. His score puts the focus on the singers, with the chamber orchestra often functioning as a percussive continuo. Texture is cleverly created by layering voices, typically by using the chorus simultaneously to echo and respond to the action. Act One has moments of pastoral poignancy, sighing phrases coloured by horns, harp and strings. Act Two is dominated by fractious instrumental chatter – odd for an opera about silence – and occasional musical confusion; why the warm chord in the strings when Tereus kisses the tongue-less Philomele, his “caged bird”?

But these faults are hard to spot for the sheer lyricism of the vocal writing, sung superbly by an all-star cast. Orla Boylan is a warmly compelling, wise Procne, Douglas McNicol a hulking, thick-voiced Tereus, and the alluring Sara Macliver as Aphrodite has a voice as seductive as her chalked naked torso. Mills wrote the part of Philomele for Emma Matthews, who steals the show with a performance that develops from childish birdlike giggles to proud rage and spitting blood, culminates in an effortlessly glowing nightingale song.

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