The publicity for Pinchgut Opera’s most recent offering, Hasse’s Artaserse, concentrated almost exclusively on the gorgeous, charismatic mezzo Vivica Genaux, who sang the prima donna role of Mandane. At first I thought that this was odd. After all, although Hasse was a household word in the second half of the 18th century, Charles Burney waxing especially lyrical about his work in 1770, he hardly is nowadays. In fact, although I’d read about him in musical history books, I’d never heard a note of his music until the previous night, when I wanted to satisfy my curiosity. So I thought it might have been wise to tell the prospective audience at least a little about this composer, so successful in his own time but so neglected now.
But then I reflected, perhaps this was appropriate. Hasse wrote operas, we are told, with the principal intention of showing off the manifold virtues of his singers, not of writing gripping drama (unlike for example Gluck). Indeed, his wife, Faustina, premiered many of his operas over three decades, including the role of Mandane. So, taking my cue from this, despite the unfamiliarity of the music (though some of the audience will no doubt have been more literate than me), I will begin by talking about the singers in this production.
We were led to expect great things from Vivica, and we were not disappointed. I loved her clarinet-like sound, most unusual, including even a chalumeau register in her lower notes. She used the different timbres of her different registers to great effect, wonderfully credible as the proud princess, slightly less so as the love-struck woman. The seamless flexibility of her voice reflected every twist and turn of Hasse’s surprisingly fluid vocal lines.
But the most remarkable feature of her singing was her coloratura. I have at once to say that all six members of the cast demonstrated this emphatically. How do singers develop this so well when there is so little opportunity to actually use it? It is so far from the bel canto style of 9 out of 10 opera singers today. The cast was blest with three countertenors, all really at the top of their game. Carlo Vistoli, as the vile Artabano, who frames his own son to further his political ambitions, had a voice of steel; Russell Harcourt, as the toadying turncoat of a general, has a well-oiled voice that perfectly suited his character; and David Hanson, as the honourable son who will not rat on his despicable father, has a flexibility in coloratura that matched Vivica’s. Tenor Andrew Goodwin (Artaserse) and mezzo Emily Edmonds (Semira) who completed the cast, were no slouches either, Goodwin’s voice having both clarity and strength, a tenor such as you always wanted them to be, and both coping well with the coloratura.
The singers were supported beautifully by the Orchestra of the Antipodes, which played in a to my mind particularly lovely temperament (which I’d never heard of – Neidhart’s Grosse Stadt (1724) in case you have). It gave at least four pure fifths before it started to compromise, which meant that the music in major keys (all but two of the arias) was quite seraphically tuned, enabling for example the two flutes, Melisaa Farrow and Michaela Oberg, to combine entrancingly in some of the more interestingly scored numbers. And the music in minor keys sounded really anguished, with the minor third almost too sharp for comfort.
So what is the opera like? Well, I would go to this production for the sheer beauty and virtuosity of the singing, combined with the fabulous orchestra – but not for the music itself. Erin Helyard made it a delicious evening with his extraordinary penetration of Baroque style (way more than just historically informed, he translates the most exhaustive research into utterly meaningful practice), but although he protests in the program notes that the opera isn’t just a string of da capo arias, I can’t quite agree. The first half was a series of such arias, which even in their internal structure were entirely formulaic. Although all singers decorated the da capos with great skill, the action stops dead for each one. And while the action is supposed to be about the murder of Xerxes, most of the arias in the first part were an excuse for love songs of one sort or another, and nothing to do with the political side of the plot.
This interruption to the dramatic flow was almost emphasised in the production by Chas Rader-Shieber. He has Emily Edmonds listen to no fewer than 4 of these arias, in which various characters sing things she doesn’t want to hear, and there is a limit to any actor’s repertory of facial expressions indicating annoyance and impatience. Because the music is quite like early Mozart in places I kept thinking of what Mozart must have thought as he listened (which he did in the 1770s). “Why aren’t they singing duets? Where are the ensembles?” When at last there is a single duet, between Mandane and Arbace (Act III scene vii) it is ravishing, and really well written. Why doesn’t he do it more?
The second half contains two remarkable accompanied recitatives, for which apparently Hasse was renowned, and Artabano’s “Eccomi al fine” was another example of why doesn’t he do it more. It precedes the most famous aria in the opera, “Pallido il sole” where Carlo Vistoli displayed his full range of passionate colour.
The action itself is barely believable. Artaserse is a fully rounded character; but it is really stretching credulity that such a terminally evil creature as Artabano would have a son so committed to honour that he would allow himself to be framed for Xerxes’ murder, even though he knew Artabano had himself committed it.
So my conclusion is that this is a wonderful concert on the stage. As such, it marks a return from productions like their recent Incoronazione di Poppea to the ideals Pinchgut espoused at its foundation. These ideals can be summed up as the opposite of Monteverdi’s: Prima la musica, poi la drama (first the music, then the drama). This is a production no serious student of early music should miss, and that anyone can enjoy simply to revel in the unwavering beauty of sound throughout.
Pinchgut Opera presents
Director Chas Rader-Shieber
Conductor Erin Helyard
Venue: City Recital Hall | Angel Place, Sydney NSW
Dates: 29 November – 5 December 2018