Armida | Pinchgut OperaPhotos – Brett Boardman

The opera productions of Pinchgut are reliably excellent in many ways, and tonight’s production of Haydn’s Armida was no exception. My first impression in this performance was how wonderful it was to hear the Orchestra of the Antipodes with a full wind section. Antony Walker caressed near-perfect balance and delicious warmth out of the whole orchestra, in which Erin Helyard’s harpsichord continuo was particularly exciting – but it was the woodwind that amazed me most. Melissa Farrow’s flute combined so well with the violins that I felt I had never heard this, after all fairly normal, combination – and in one piece there was an extended passage for her and the first bassoon (Simon Rickard) in double octaves which had everyone on the edge of their seats.

As we have come to expect, the singers were all good, and blended well together in the ensemble pieces, of which there were quite a number. The singer who drew the most applause from the audience, and whom I too enjoyed the most, was Janet Todd, who has a rare combination of lyric and coloratura soprano at her command, and can sculpt with effortless lyricism extreme high-register passages. Rachelle Durkin as Armida, and Leif Arun-Solen as the vacillating Rinaldo, combined brilliantly in a coloratura duet, and Durkin in particular showed a huge range of expressive power in her role which requires velvety seductiveness in sudden alternation with utter rage. She was made for this role.

And another thing that Pinchgut reliably does is present operas you’ve never heard of, of which, as Helyard says, there is an endless treasure trove. Armida was Haydn’s last, and he himself said, his best, opera, and it indeed contains exciting and beautiful arias, and Haydn simply doesn’t know how to be boring. But the plot has to be one of the worst I’ve ever come across (discounting The Fairy Queen, which doesn’t even pretend to have one). The action, such as it is, happens before the opera starts – Rinaldo, a crusading knight, is seduced by the magical Syrian woman Armida and kept in her uncle’s castle in a semi-comatose state resembling that of Odysseus’ sailors in Circe’s palace. During the opera he is torn between his love for Armida and his duty as an enemy soldier. This starts in the first act, is replayed in the second and third acts, and is still going on in the closing chorus in which nothing at all is resolved. OK, he gradually gets closer and closer to doing his duty rather than obeying his heart (violence presumably being nobler), but his U-turns occur in just about every aria he sings. And his mates in the Crusading army do practically nothing to help him either, being also from time to time magicked by Armida. A whole sub-plot involving Zelmira (Janet Todd’s character) starts and is simply abandoned. The whole opera is in fact a vehicle for the character of Armida herself, to show how the singer can move suddenly through a series of extreme and contradictory emotions.

And Haydn’s music, lovely at it is, doesn’t quite penetrate these extremes – he wasn’t a very extreme man, after all. Written in 1784, it shows the influence of his friend Mozart’s recent opera Idomeneo (which Pinchgut produced some years ago), and also looks forward to the second act of Cosi fan tutte (of four years later, which I’d love to hear them do some time) in the seduction scenes. But I was left feeling that Haydn hadn’t experienced these emotions, whereas Mozart had.

The staging was probably the most impressive I have yet seen from Pinchgut. Crystal Manich used the fact that the stage at Angel Place has no depth but great height, by suspending another stage about 4 metres above the main one. Visually this was very effective, and dramatically it was useful in that it enabled the Syrian castle and the dense woods (a slightly Shakespearian image – I don’t think there were dense woods in Damascus even then) to be visible both at once. Manich filled the space with, in addition to the principals,

Pinchgut Opera’s motto has always been, to misquote Monteverdi, Prima la musica. Music first, then drama. This opera was chosen for its music, not for its drama. But don’t let my comments on its lack of forward movement put you off – it’s really worth seeing (yes, seeing as well as hearing), and there’s so much to enjoy in all aspects of the musical side of the opera that one can look, bemused, at its dilatory plot with affection. Further, it has just been announced that it’s Antony Walker’s last performance as artistic director of Pinchgut Opera – he is handing over the reins completely to his co-director, Erin Helyard from now. So don’t hesitate – book tickets now.

Pinchgut Opera presents
by Joseph Haydn

Conductor Antony Walker

Venue: City Recital Hall | 2-12 Angel Place Sydney NSW
Dates: 22 – 28 2016
Tickets: $150 – $40
Bookings: 02 8256 2222

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