Wonderful performances come from many different sources. One that intrigues me most is an apparently intuitive connection between the performer and the composer, or at least the era of the composer. No-one who has heard, for example, Roland Peelman performing the works of Roland Lassus, aided perhaps by the resonance of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, can avoid the uncanny feeling that he was there. So it is with Erin Helyard and French music of the 18th century.
Grétry’s music is known to almost nobody. Most likely neither cast nor orchestra members had ever performed any before last night. And yet such is the depth of Helyard’s insight into this kind of music, combined with an unflagging zeal for researching it (he made a new edition of this opera for these Pinchgut performances) that one would be forgiven for thinking that we had here in Sydney a well-established tradition of performing 18th century French opera. (That we have a tradition at all is almost entirely thanks to Pinchgut Opera.) From the very first orchestral phrase, no pious delicacy, or any sense that we are entering uncharted waters, but instead a forthright, assured, highly expressive rhetorical vocabulary, extreme flexibility of phrasing, and an immediate sense that Helyard knows this style so well that it is completely natural.
The cast for L’Amant jaloux, as usual with Pinchgut’s productions, is very well-matched and without a weak link. It is always a joy to hear Celeste Lazarenko, and the role of Léonore gave her ample opportunity to display her awesome purity of tone, combined with a vocal control that can deliver a true pianissimo that can tingle the spines of those in the back row. Ed Lyon, who plays opposite her in the role of Don Alonze (the eponymous jealous lover) has a grainy intensity about his tenor voice which makes it sound more high-baritone-like, in useful contrast the suave clean tone of Andrew Goodwin, who sings the role of Florival, the very French French lieutenant. The quartet of lovers is completed by the character of Isabelle, sung by the young soprano Alexandra Oomens, whose unusual, engaging tone reminded me of Conchita Supervia (many generations ago!).
The rest of the cast consists of a nobleman in whose house the action takes place, and a savvy maid whose prototype is the servant in Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, and whose descendant is Despina in Così fan tutte. And here we enter a trope unavoidable in discussing this opera. Mozart was living in Paris in 1778, the year of the first performances of Grétry’s opera, and one may assume that he heard it. A good deal of the second act of Figaro is in the first act of L’Amant jaloux, from people hiding in cupboards to antics from the garden via a ladder. The second act contains a serenade (meltingly sung by Goodwin) with mandolin accompaniment, from which Don Giovanni’s serenade is a clear descendant (though that Don didn’t mistake the identity of the object of his desire). But most tellingly similar to Mozart is the ensemble writing. In the Act II duet between Léonore and Alonze, where they sing with similar emotions their music is similar, but as soon as they diverge so does their music, with a speed and economy we rightly associate with Mozart.
And here is another wonder. A consequence of none of the cast knowing their role from the standard repertoire, all of them had to learn the music (and the production) together. This gave such a strong coherence to their interaction, particularly in the ensemble singing. When the pairs of lovers sang together, often in the thirds so beloved by French composers from Charpentier to Delibes, they were so together and so well-blended that one might have been listening to a specialist group of early music singers who had been performing together for years.
The production, directed by Chas Rader-Schieber, was witty, urbane, up-to-date, and delicate. Most of the burden for expressing this fell to David Greco, who sang the role of Don Lopez, whose house is the setting for the opera. He camped up his role just enough to be funny but not so much as to send the whole thing up. And the part of the maid Jacinthe, sung by Jessica Aszodi and played with great élan and invention, carried this vein of comedy, so characteristic of opera comique of which Grétry was a central proponent, into every event of the plot.
Yes, this is Ancien régime stuff. It's frivolous, frothy, and fun. It gives a remarkable insight into a tiny aspect of life in late 18th century France. It's amazingly well performed. And you won't get another opportunity to see it for a long time, so go.
Pinchgut Opera presents
L'Amant jaloux (The Jealous Lover)
by André Grétry | libretto Thomas Hales
with Orchestra of the Antipodes
Directed by Chas Rader-Shieber
Venue: City Recital Hall | 2-12 Angel Place Sydney
Dates: 3 – 8 December 2015
Tickets: $135 – $30
Bookings: 02 8256 2222 | www.cityrecitalhall.com