Left – Helen Sherman and Christopher Lowrey. Photo – Brett Boardman
Farnace, Vivaldi’s personal favourite among his operas, and one of the most popular in his own time, was given its Australian premiere last night by the wonderful outfit that is Pinchgut Opera. The company’s dedication to staging operas that have rarely or never been performed in this country is only matched by the sustained excellence of their performances.
The cast, headed by countertenor Christopher Lowry in the title role, rose without exception to the formidable demands of Vivaldi’s coloratura writing, Lowry’s astonishing agility being matched by his fellow countertenor Max Riebl as a Roman centurion. Jacqueline Dark was impressive as ever in the role of the vengeful Berenice, so much so that she rather put the Roman general Pompey (Timothy Reynolds) in the shade. But whenever Taryn Fiebig was on stage the stage belonged to her.
It helped that her character of Selinda is the only remotely sympathetic figure in a world of male machismo and female powerlessness or vindictiveness. Fiebig’s stage presence, assertive without being overstated, was complemented by her vocal control which showed not only that she knew that vibrato was an ornament rather than the universal fill-the-hall timbre of modern practice, but also that she could adapt to the subtleties of intonation demanded by the beautiful Italian baroque temperament (Valotti) used by the orchestrate in this production.
The music of the opera becomes increasingly interesting as the opera progresses. The highlight is without doubt Farnace’s aria “Gelido in ogni vena” which is astonishingly inventive, and was the centrepiece of Lowry’s commanding performance. But I often feel with Vivaldi, as with Handel, that one has to listen to half an hour of fairly routine music before they give you something gorgeous. Perhaps they just wanted to be sure that the audience had actually arrived by then...
The Orchestra of the Antipodes is now a vehicle of Baroque performance so well-honed that one would go to Pinchgut’s productions just to hear the band. Erin Helyard drew every ounce of detail from Vivaldi’s famously inventive string writing, supplemented once by a flute solo played enchantingly by Michaela Oberg. But the most remarkable feature of the orchestral sound of this opera is the use of the pair of horns. They are used for martial moments, for rage, for despair, and even occasionally in an almost Brahmsian way simply to underpin the string texture. Carla Blackwood and Dorée Dixon were in their element.
I don’t envy the job of the director of this opera, especially in this venue (Angel Place). Like Bajazet, and perhaps other contemporary operas, Farnace doesn’t really have a plot, more a situation that is examined in great emotional depth throughout the piece. In this case it is the demand Farnace makes to his wife Tamiri (sung by mezzo soprano Helen Sherman) that she must kill both herself and their young son should Farnace be defeated by the Romans. Furthermore, the stage area has almost no depth, so visual monotony is hard to avoid. Mark Gaal emphasised the cruelty of the war, at the expense of all nuance, by having an almost universal black, relieved only by some red masks and roses. Five corpses, wrapped in black weedmat and trussed up, were suspended over the stage throughout by ropes which occasionally, and seemingly arbitrarily, pulled them up and down. And the searchlight lighting became quite wearing by the second act. But the actual acting was directed with great energy.
Pinchgut Opera is a national treasure. International recognition of the company’s achievements has been followed by recognition within Australia (why do we still not trust our own judgment in this country?) to the extent at last of ongoing State funding. Onwards and upwards!
Pinchgut Opera presents
Director Mark Gaal
Venue: City Recital Hall | Angel Place, Sydney
Dates: 4 – 10 December 2019