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Perth Festival 2007 Diary pt 1

Journalist and documentary maker, Caroline Baum, writes for StageNoise from the Perth International Festival.

Perth Festival 2007 Diary pt 1

By Caroline Baum

It's the end of week one at the Perth Festival, a week of highs and lows. Inexplicably, the city council chose this time to start major road works outside His Majesty's Theatre, one of the Festival's key venues. But it takes more than a traffic jam to stop Lindy Hume's momentum in her final year as Festival Director.

Opening night this year was more subdued and less emotional than last year's spectacular unveiling of the great Noongar canvas in Kings Park. But Noongar culture was still centre stage, with an impressively stirring festival overture, composed by Ian Grandage, sung by four hundred voices in indigenous language. The audience, seated on the grass in the Supreme Court Gardens, followed the piece on giant screens which also featured helpful surtitles. Gathering together such a large number of singers, drawn from local community singing groups, was an achievement in itself.

Their exuberance was more than matched by the pounding rhythms of Tetrafied, Perth's excellent homegrown percussion group, who deserve to be more widely known interstate; and by the accompanying visual presentation, BLINK, a series of projected images taken around regional WA. Next, the Australian Youth Orchestra took to the stage to play Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf Suite as the soundtrack to a brilliant animation film version of the story in which the duck definitely stole the show.

Next up: the world premiere of The Love of the Nightingale, a new opera from Richard Mills. Undiminished by some scathing reviews for the Sydney production of Batavia and by a recent heart attack, Mills conducted the short season, with libretto by Timberlake Wertenbaker and directed by Lindy Hume, who somehow managed to take a month off her festival duties to rehearse this ambitious, complex and violent work and looked surprisingly relaxed on opening night. The result is something of a triumph, powerful, profound, poetic and utterly gripping, full of psychological insight, and providing a marvelous canvas for discussion of our humanity and lack of it.

While Emma Matthews stole everyone's heart as Philomele with her gorgeous final birdsong solo, bringing a redemptive and optimistic quality to an often very dark work, the strength of the piece lies in the consistently outstanding casting of every role. This was contemporary chamber opera at its best. I hope it travels far and wide, showcasing the talent behind it.

Less successful was another homegrown production, HOME, an ambitious theatre project devised by sometime actor and dramaturg Humphrey Bower and director Sophia Hall. The concept sounded appetising - a five course meal served in private homes for 20 guests, accompanied by dramatic storytelling. Except that's not really what we got. Sure, the food was delicious but we could have done with far less of it as the evening stretched on to four increasingly slow and long hours.

And there was something demeaning about having the actors double as waiters to pour our wine and clear our plates - don't they spend enough time doing that anyway and couldn't we at least for an evening, give them the dignity of their craft and help ourselves? More frustrating still was the absolute lack of dramatic shape or structure to the evening with too many similar characters on parade, all telling refugee stories from fairly similar angles.

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