Saturday, November 5, 2011

What is there left but physical violence?

It was only by chance that I got to see Richard Mills' opera, The Love of the Nightingale. 'Flu had kept the legitimate ticket holder at home and in bed. On Tuesday night, after a long day at work, my companions and I thought we'd be struggling to stay awake through the whole two and a half hours, but in the end there was not a moment to haze over. Here was Opera in all of its capitalised extravagance: blood, lust, rape, torture, revenge and murder.

The Love of the Nightingale is an opera about violence. In the program notes, the librettist, Timberlake Wertenbaker, writes:

Where does violence come from? I cannot answer this but I feel instinctively that it has to do with being silenced. Not to be able to express something, even anger, not to be listened to, what is there left but physical violence?

All this is absolutely clear in the libretto. As King Pandion tells his guest, Tereus, before the classic interlude of the play within the play (or opera within the opera), 'the playwright always speaks through the chorus', and the refrain of the female chorus throughout the entire production is 'we do not have the words'. Philomele was once, as Procne her sister describes for her ten year old son, 'full of words and laughter'; when Procne confronts Tereus with the rape and mutilation of this sister -- he has cut out her tongue -- his answer is that he had no words. But did you ask? respond the women.

The chorus of women is the shimmering centre of the opera. In the program notes, the composer describes how he wrote not only for their 'separate personae' but also for their 'complex single composite character of many dimensions'. Along with the smoothly sliding platforms on the stage and the muted colours (all the better to set off the deep rose of Aphrodite's dress and the brown-red shock of blood on Philomele's white shift), the chorus mesmerises us with its circling anxieties and the tonal clusters of its piercing ululations.

My only reservation about the performance had to do with the final section of the opera: the scene where the main characters, at the height of their pursuit and anger, have been turned into birds. In itself this resolution or non resolution after Ovid could have been peculiarly beautiful; it could have been short and wonderful and strange. Initially the effect of the change in mood after the metamorphosis is refreshing. The muddy drama of blood and lust has given way to the simplicity of a pervasive white light with only touches of clear pink and blue and yellow; the clothing, like Philomele's hair at the end, is uniform white. The figures arrange themselves on the now becalmed wooden platforms. The family that had rent themselves apart -- Procne, Itys, the son that she, her sister and the Bacchae had killed in a frenzy of rage, and the instigator of the violence: her husband, the bearded Tereus -- now hug each other in an unlikely image of reconciliation that evokes, in the details of its colouring and clothing (even the beard!), images of the blessed in religious tracts, such as this one that I found on the Mormons' website, under God's Plan of Happiness:

The aunt, Philomele, prompts the nephew whose neck she had lately hacked at, to ask the kind of sweet, innocent questions that the previously sword-obsessed, petulant child would never have asked. Here the theme of the opera -- words and wordlessness, and the importance of questions -- is delivered to the child and the audience. As the lecture dissolves into virtuosic, inarticulate song, it does not so much become the soaring climax of the whole opera -- although it is also that -- but a great relief. Were it not for this unfortunate attempt at an epiphany, The Love of the Nightingale might have eventually convinced the most immovable of audiences -- those that had stayed away and so made our tickets cheap for no other reason than that the opera was contemporary -- and in decades it would have joined the Turandots and La Bohèmes as regular fare.

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