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December 12, 2013 5:45 pm
“To find a husband, the girls of today give themselves a test run,” observes Delfa. “It’s charmingly economical, and shrewd . . . ” Delfa is a middle-aged man in drag. Some members of the audience at Pinchgut Opera’s Sydney production of Giasone complained.
This is nothing new. So did Rome’s self-styled “Arcadians” in the early 18th century. When Francesco Cavalli wrote the opera in 1648, he set out to pen a hit that would appeal as much to the bawdy commoner as it did the connoisseur. He got exactly what he wanted, and Giasone became the most-performed opera of the 17th century – and the victim of the next generation’s neocon backlash. The piece is an action-packed bodice-ripper, full of ribald jokes and lewd plebeians, with even the tragic scenes balanced on the knife-edge of hilarity. Giacinto Andrea Cicognini’s libretto seems racy and droll enough to have been written yesterday, and Cavalli’s music, especially in Pinchgut’s antipodean hands, is both achingly sweet and compellingly modern.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Pinchgut, which was founded by a private group of opera-lovers to produce one good baroque opera a year in the city’s Angel Place recital hall. The plucky little company has become a Sydney establishment, financially self-supporting, with a loyal audience, its own Orchestra of the Antipodes, a stable of regular soloists and a well-earned reputation for excellence. In creating the Angel Place hall, architect Andrew Andersons drew inspiration from several European opera houses, and Pinchgut’s productions revel in the clean, rich acoustics.
Its Giasone exhumation makes the opera’s comparative obscurity incomprehensible. For his Australian audience, music director Erin Helyard has created a new edition, radically trimmed, transposed where necessary, and lushly orchestrated, with added organ, percussion and recorder.
Pinchgut has assembled an attractive young cast, headed by countertenor David Hansen, who spends much of the evening gratifyingly bare-chested, gracing the title role with a glass-clear lyricism and playful ease that lend Cavalli’s selfish, nasty hero an endearingly laddish touch. He is perfectly partnered by Celeste Lazarenko’s narcissistic temptress Medea, played as a bitch with great frocks and absolute faith in her own artistry.
As the wronged but saintly Isifile, Miriam Allan avoids any such physicality and lets her voice do the acting, lending a hauntingly poised kind of hysteria to her dramatic final aria that held Monday’s audience spellbound. The role of rejected husband Egeo sits low in the tenor register, which suits Andrew Goodwin’s tractable middle register and intelligent musicality, while newcomer Alexandra Oomens makes a promising debut as Alinda. David Greco’s authoritative Oreste, a stuttering but sinister Demo from Christopher Saunders, Adrian McEniery’s camp, growly Delfa, and nimble Nicholas Dinopoulos as the unsuccessful assassin Ercolo complete the cast.
Chas Rader-Shieber’s staging is deft and witty. He and designer Katren Wood have done clever things with curtains and a fake proscenium to add the illusion of depth to the concert hall’s stage, and most of the cast move with a clear sense of purpose.
But it is Helyard who must take the evening’s highest honours, for musical direction that lends clarity to every word, bends supply with the speech rhythms of the recitatives, lets his excellent instrumentalists breath and articulate as one, has the dramatic pace of a good thriller, and walks the tightrope between laughter and tears with consummate grace. This is a delight of unexpected substance amid Sydney’s summertime festive season.
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