GiasoneLeft – David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Cover – Miriam Allan. Photos – Keith Saunders

What a triumph!

Pinchgut only perform one opera a year, but their production of Cavalli’s 17th century hit, Giasone, would make you think they played baroque opera constantly, so at ease was everyone with the style. There is not a weak link among the principals. Headed by the glorious countertenor of David Hansen in the title role, and the soaring versatility of soprano Celeste Lazarenko as Medea, all nine of them sang as if they’d been born singing baroque music. Perhaps less surprisingly – Sydney is used to excellent baroque playing now – the orchestra of strings, recorder, percussion and continuo impressed, as it does every Pinchgut production, with the variety of techniques they exhibit, a variety so important in making 17th century music come to life.

The opera Giasone (Jason, of golden fleece fame), first performed in 1649 in Venice, shows the operatic form beginning to move from its origins fifty years before – an attempt to revive Greek drama – towards the more formulaic and immensely popular genre Italian opera was to become by the end of the century. The plot is taken from Greek mythology, but does not deal, as Euripides did, with Medea’s terrible revenge on Jason and their children for Jason’s infidelity; instead, it takes the story of the returning Argonaut in a different direction. Yes, the subject is still love and lust, in a plethora of guises, but differs in a very important respect from the Greek tragedies which formed the basis of, say, Monteverdi’s early operas. Whereas the Greek dramatists focussed relentlessly and single-mindedly on a single issue, always to do with the relationship between man and destiny, in Cavalli’s Giasone tragedy and comedy sit side by side, in a manner familiar to us from Shakespeare.

Besides the grand passions of Medea and Isifile, we see a foil, as innocent as all teenagers are (ha-ha!) in the girl Alinda, enchantingly sung by the young soprano Alexandra Oomens; we see an aging servant woman, whose part, like the corresponding part in Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea (Arnalta) is set so low that it was comfortable for tenor McEniery (and certainly the more comic for being sung by a man); and we see Demo, the stuttering servant of Egeo (Medea’s former and faithful lover), memorably delivered by tenor Christopher Saunders. While the tragic characters are kings and queens, the comic characters are all low-born, (as usual but not invariable in Shakepeare), reflecting the great contemporary popularity of the Commedia dell’arte theatre genre in Italy.

The plot weaves a complex web of amorous desires, in which it becomes more and more difficult to imagine a lieto fine, a happy ending demanded by custom. The plot arranges things so that the wrong woman gets murdered, and when the right one comes along a few minutes later Ercole, Jason’s factotum, persuasively sung by Nicholas Dinopoulos, refuses to kill her and delivers the remarkable line “I only kill one queen per day”. The director, Chas Rader-Shieber, produced a miracle of simplicity and compression, with a few Louis IV chairs, a claw-foot bath, a few oars and a single Grecian helmet as props against a neutral stage, and achieved great fluency in entrances and exits, thus reducing the time of the piece from what must have taken all night in the 17th century to a very manageable three hours. Rader-Shieber’s direction was always supportive, never intrusive; thoroughly in keeping with Pinchgut’s avowed intention, to produce opera from the music upwards.

In this brilliant, all-Australian cast Andrew Goodwin’s assured and at times compelling tenor as Egeo, and David Greco as Isifile’s confidante Oreste (no relation to Agamemnon’s son) played fine supporting roles. But the night belonged to the three main characters, equally matched and dazzlingly engaging.

Miriam Allan, as the abandoned princess Isisfile, enters to a lament which testified to the enduring popularity of the Lament of Arianna from Monteverdi’s opera of 1608, whose text and music it echoes. Her role oscillates between touching fidelity and deep tragedy, both of which registers she sang with melting beauty. (The tragedy was at one point actually too deep for the audience, who laughed when she implores Jason not to damage her breasts when he kills her, so that her twin babies could still have some milk.)

I first saw Celeste Lazarenko in Castor and Pollux, last year’s Pinchgut production, and so already had high expectations. But her performance of Telaire in that opera, though gorgeous, didn’t give much of a hint as to her impressive range of expression. As the vengeful Medea she modulates through lust to terrible artificial sweetness to blazing hate in a way which, supported always by the music, held the audience spellbound. Her vocal technique is truly remarkable, and I would go to anything she was in.

And lastly, the very difficult role of Giasone. Difficult because he has to play a king, a libertine, and a vacillator all in one. Hansen’s voice, capable of great power but more often used in this performance in subtle nuance, seems to be made for this role. His countertenor is silvery, true, and breath-takingly beautiful.

Is there room for more superlatives? Because behind all these performances stands the figure of Erin Helyard, both conductor and researcher of this production. His achievement is colossal. I didn’t know a note of this opera before last night, and I can guarantee that there wouldn’t have been five people in the audience who did. Helyard has sunk himself so deeply in both the musical style and the cultural background of this piece that he was able to present it almost as if he’d written it himself. The orchestra consistently played exactly as the singers sang (how often can one say that even of the finest opera performances?) and he knows the style so well that every unusual feature was understood and brought out. In a musical style so broadly consonant the precisely used dissonances sounded very special; the orchestra imitated Medea’s supernatural powers with rasping string sounds; Kamala Bain’s magical recorder playing seemed to add a whole wind-section in terms of sonic variety; the continuo section of two harpsichords, organ, and two theorbo-like instruments was used with a variety and subtlety so deep that I expect the audience hardly noticed it. (The greatest praise for a continuo player is that they weren’t noticed). This was truly a performance where research was embodied in performance so completely that the performance transcended all traces of a profoundly academic foundation.

Pinchgut Opera presents
Francesco Cavalli

Director Chas Rader-Shieber

Venue: City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
Dates: 5 – 9 December 2013 
Tickets: $30 – $125
Bookings: 02 8256 2222 |

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