By James L. Paulk
SYDNEY – Promotional materials for Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera production of Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone claim it was the most frequently performed opera of the 17th century, and there are musicologists who agree. It was certainly Cavalli’s biggest success, owing to its combination of a deliciously trashy libretto and a score filled with sweeping arias and ensembles. A modest riesumazione has taken place over the last few decades, with a handful of productions in the U.S. This was apparently the opera’s Australian premiere.
From the moment a hunky young sailor, stripped to the waist, arrived onstage to mime the announcements about cell-phones and cameras, it was evident that the production, in following recent trends, would turn the show into something of a burlesque. And soon it became clear this would be one of the funnier opera outings anywhere, thanks to the deliciously witty staging by American director Chas Rader-Shieber and the comically gifted young cast.
The story is drawn loosely from the legend of the Golden Fleece. Giasone (Jason) and his fleet are supposed to be heading to Colchis to steal the Fleece, but Jason gets sidetracked on Lemnos, where he seduces Isifile, the queen, promises marriage, gets her pregnant, and abandons her. He reaches Colchis, but then seduces Medea, who throws off her lover, Egeo, king of Athens. From this point, the story proceeds via twists and turns, multitudinous infidelities and affairs, confrontations, murder plots, drowning victims who are miraculously saved, a monster, and lines like this one, from Isifile, as she confronts Giasone with Medea, instructing him to slaughter her: “and may my slow death prolong my torment, and your pleasure… leave these breasts unharmed: at least then my sons can have cold milk as they suckle at their dead mother’s breasts.” But don’t worry, there’s a happy ending.
For understandable reasons – the opera ran well past three hours even after cuts and with only one brief intermission – the prologue was omitted. That scene, a dialogue between Cupid and Apollo, explains much of the history, so patrons who failed to shell out $15 for a program and read it beforehand probably spent the first part of the evening figuring things out. Still, the translation (the opera was sung in Italian with projected titles) was clever and easy to follow.
The title role was sung by David Hansen, a fine young Australian countertenor who seems to have worked mostly in Europe. As this voice type continues to flourish, the quality keeps rising, and there is more diversity than ever in the sound produced. Hansen has a bright, ringing, trumpet-like, unforced sound. It helped that, like everyone in this performance, he is talented as an actor and physically attractive, like a movie star. That is not a minor matter in a production where he first appears naked, taking a bubble bath in a pink tub, surrounded by sailors with pink towels ready to help him out and protect what little is left of his modesty. His muscular torso is then bared regularly, as befits someone who seems to spend most of his time seducing women.
There were no ringers in this young, all-Australian cast. Soprano Miriam Allan, as Isifile, possesses a clear, bright, youthful voice with the ability to switch on a nuanced vibrato when needed. Soprano Celeste Lazarenko, who played Medea, sang with a big ringing tone with lovely colors. Tenor Andrew Goodwin brought an ardent sound to the role of Egeo.
David Greco brought a nice lyric baritone to Oreste. The character role of Demo, who stutters, was nicely performed by Christopher Saunders. Nicholas Dinopoulos, a bass-baritone, was fine as Ercole, and Alexandra Oomens was a standout in the small role of Alinda, Isifile’s companion.
The role of Delfa, Medea’s nurse, was written for a contralto, but drolly performed here in drag by tenor Adrian McEniery, who wore an absurd wig and matronly suit.
Erin Helyard conducted the 14-piece early-instrument ensemble from the organ with great skill and sensitivity. The orchestra performs independently as the Orchestra of the Antipodes, and includes players from some of the world’s best-known period orchestras, including Les Arts Florissants and the Academy of Ancient Music.
Rader-Shieber’s production was a model of simplicity owing to the venue: City Recital Hall Angel Place, an attractive new space with fine acoustics but nothing much in the way of stage facilities. These guys did so well with a tiny curtain, a few doors, and a handful of props that one might almost wonder why we bother to build opera houses at all. A spiffy crew of sailors kept things moving along and added their own entertainment value.
Pinchgut Opera, now in its 11th year, has become a treasured Sydney institution, with fans flying in from across Australia, like the enthusiastic Melbourne octogenarian seated behind me. It has usually performed one opera per year, but plans are apparently afoot to double the output.
James L. Paulk is an Atlanta-based freelance critic, primarily writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the ArtsATL.com website. The owner of an insurance agency, he is a former member of the Georgia State Senate, where he co-chaired the state’s first legislative committee dealing with arts funding. He has written about classical music for more than 25 years.