With A Reworked Third Act, ‘Farnace’ Soars Down Under

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In Vivaldi’s ‘Farnace,’ the defeated King of Pontus (countertenor Christopher Lowrey) insists that his wife kill their son to avoid slavery. Pinchgut Opera’s version is a creative cobbling; the original third act is lost. (Photos by Brett Boardman)

SYDNEY – Pinchgut Opera has, in its 20-year history, become a little powerhouse, now presenting two staged operas per season plus occasional concerts for an enthusiastic core of supporters, many of whom fly in from across Australia just for these performances. The company has benefited from strong artistic leadership and the surprising wealth of first-caliber Baroque singers and musicians on this side of the globe.

When I first encountered the company five years ago, I was impressed by the almost total absence of any kind of sets, probably a concession to frugality, but they made up for that cleverly with a truly hilarious production of Cavalli’s Giasone that was musically one of the finest Baroque opera performances I can recall. Upon seeing their production of Vivaldi’s Farnace Dec. 8, I was struck both by the relatively more elaborate set and the much larger orchestra (22 players). Pinchgut seems to be prospering.

Erin Helyard, Pinchgut’s artistic director, conducts at the keyboard.

Though Vivaldi is known primarily for his concert works, he was prolific as an opera composer. Of the 90 operas he is said to have written, 21 survive. His Farnace was performed here in a new version pulled together by Erin Helyard, Pinchgut’s artistic director. The original third act from the 1727 Venice premiere is lost. Rather than working with one of the surviving versions of that act prepared by Vivaldi for productions elsewhere, Helyard chose to cobble together a new third act, using arias from at least eight Vivaldi operas. Helyard makes the case that the composer often borrowed from his other works, which is true, but he was Vivaldi, and it’s not quite the same thing. In any case, the new version does work rather well musically and as theater. Helyard also rearranged the structure into two acts, sparing us a second intermission.

The plot is complex, untidy, and a bit absurd. Farnace, King of Pontus, has just been defeated by the Romans after a long war. He commands Tamiri, his wife, to kill his son and herself in order to avoid slavery, but Tamiri disobeys him. Meanwhile, Tamiri’s mother, Berenice, despises Farnace. There’s been a bit of bad blood between them: Farnace’s father murdered Berenice’s husband, then Farnace murdered her son.

Vengeful Berenice (suitably villainous Jacqueline Dark) wants Farnace dead.

Out for vengeance, Berenice plots against Farnace with Pompeo, the Roman general. Farnace’s sister Selinda, who has been captured by the Romans, manages to seduce both Gilade, a general allied with Berenice, and Aquilio, the Roman prefect, and uses them to save the day.

Director Mark Gaal has updated the action to a modern battlefield wasteland, complete with hanging corpses and apparent allusions to the Middle East, an approach similar to that followed by Garry Hynes in her 2017 production of the work at the Spoleto Festival USA. It’s a sensible approach, and probably an economical one. Isabel Hudson designed the simple sets and costumes. Benjamin Brockman’s spare lighting design was especially effective.

The period-instrument orchestra, which performs separately as the Orchestra of the Antipodes, consists of strings, flute, bassoon, two horns, two theorbos (whose players double on Baroque guitar), and harpsichord. Helyard, who conducts from the harpsichord, is a beloved figure here, and it’s easy to understand why. I don’t think I have heard Baroque music played with greater clarity or more elegant phrasing. The orchestra has its own crisp sound and a thrilling sense of propulsion when called for.

Queen Tamiri (Helen Sherman) despairs at Farnace’s demand.

The young cast was equally fine. Countertenor Christopher Lowrey, in the title role, blended charisma with a finely colored, expressive, flexible sound. A second countertenor, Max Riebl, portrayed Gilade (Berenice’s general) with excellent coloratura technique.

Mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark was suitably villainous as Berenice, with tantalizing stage presence and powerful singing. Another mezzo-soprano, Helen Sherman, gave a moving portrayal of Tamiri. Taryn Fiebig stood out in the role of Selinda, both for her deft acting and sweetly sung arias. Timothy Reynolds and Michael Petruccelli were impressive as Pompeo and Aquilio, respectively.

Getting to a Pinchgut performance can be a bit of a jog for Americans and Europeans. But the company has created a formidable lineup of recordings: Some 19 are available from the website. Here’s hoping Farnace will join them soon.

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in Atlanta, where he works as a development officer with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.