Music, Stage

Giasone review (City Recital Hall, Sydney)

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If Showboat was the greatest musical of last century (discuss, over a bottle of Prosecco), Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone could be the greatest opera of the seventeenth. Certainly, the most popular. Apparently hundreds of productions were staged from its premiere, on January 5, 1649, at the Teatro San Cassiano, Venezia. Giasone is the Italian version of Jason as in Jason and The Argonauts, the Greek myth. Of course, Cavalli and his librettist, Giacinto Andrea Cicognini, have taken a few liberties. The people of that time had an appetite for scandal and the authors don’t spare the horses, in really ramping up the melodrama.
This was my first Pinchgut Opera production, I’m ashamed to say, and, on the strengths of it (for it had many), I don’t intend for it to be my last. Pinchgut has a kind of residency at Angel Place’s City Recital Hall, noted for its superior acoustics.
The original opera ran for over four hours, but Pinchgut has pinched it back to around two hours and forty minutes. One of the casualties was the prologue, in which, essentially, there’s a bitch session between Sole (a nom de plume for Apollo) and Amore (the god of love) over who Jason should marry. Gods can be so arrogant.
But we pick up the action with Ercole (bass baritone, Nicholas Dinopoulos), bemoaning his commander’s weakness for women which, he fears, will diminish his resolve and stamina on the battlefield. The Thessalonian Jason has abandoned his lover, Isifile, the queen of Lemnos, mother of his twin sons, in favour of another queen, Medea, of Colchis. This has left Isifile bereft and abandoned and Medea’s husband, Egeo, king of Athens, cuckolded. It’s just as the promotional byline reads. One man. Two women. Three times the trouble. From the first, Dinopoulos demonstrates not only the depth, but length, breadth and richness of his voice, which only gets better as  he and the opera rollick along. Better still, he’s just as substantial theatrically.
Jason is played by David Hansen, who lives in Norway with his harpist wife. His is one of the highest counter-tenors on Earth (he’s actually a soprano). Just don’t call it falsetto, as he insists it’s perfectly natural. His is an extraordinary instrument and, at times, there’s a delectable ambiguity: his anything but fragile (but undeniably ravishing) voice intermingling with female sopranos. It’s always distinguishable, but it can be captivatingly marginal, at times. In short, it’s more than a novelty, it’s a thrill and in the most musical sense. Like Dinopoulos, he has corresponding strengths in the dramatic and, especially, comedic stakes. His entrance, in a bathtub full of bubbles, which he scoops up and blows, in the manner of a little boy’s simple joy, is one of director Chas Rader-Schieber’s cutest ideas. One of his cheekiest (no pun intended) is having Giasone stand up, as servants proffer a pink towel.
Miriam Allan is Isifile and, while she doesn’t seem quite as confident or adept as an actor, her singing is flawless. Not only is it apparent she has command across the two octaves arising from middle C, but of the emotional impetus of the libretto. As the somewhat decorous Isifile, she is very thoughtfully cast: her shimmering, translucence sound the quintessence of modesty.
Medea is a more robust, worldly role and Celeste Lazarenko has something of spinto, or even soprano robusto, about her. Like Allan, she can exhibit a fragile beauty at times, but there are moments and passages which suggest a wolf in sheep’s clothing, vocally and dramatically.
David Greco, as Oreste, envoy of Isifile (despatched, in desperation, to bring news of Giasone’s whereabouts) sports another fine baritone and, indeed, he lives up to the reputation that well-and-truly precedes him, as a dab hand with the works of Italian baroque masters.
While Cavalli’s opera has built-in comedic opportunities aplenty, Rader-Schieber has gone the extra mile, casting Adrian McEniery as Delfa, Medea’s old nurse and interloping busybody. There’s no falsetto here, either. McEniery sings as he otherwise would, as a tenor; with a wow factor, too. A man in a dress practically always brings a titter but, naturally, a man’s voice emanating from a generously-proportioned, er, woman’s body is an enhancement to his over-egged, vainglorious mannerisms. In short, he milks it, even while merely hovering, ornamentally, in the background of a scene. He has a good time and so do we.
Co-designer (with Rader-Schieber) Katren Wood has done clever things with diaphanous curtains, pulled back by cast members to reveal new layers of the set. The City Recital Hall was never designed as an opera theatre (there are access issues and no orchestra pit), so requires a special kind of ingenuity to match theatrics to music. Holding one’s nose and diving through a curtain suffices as plunging  into a raging sea. And it does. It’s easy to forget the power of our imaginations, compromised and made lazy by the spoonfeeding of media like television and big-end-of-town opera.
A similar comical device is when Demo, a stuttering (it’s built into the libretto and score, which shoots down any assumptions we might make about the seriousness of baroque composers) lackey of Egeo’s, is ordered to “fetch the little boat” and produces a toy ship. Or when a choreographed line of sailors slow-marching across the stage, while holding lifeboat oars, stands in for a large vessel. These ideas aren’t only clever, but make one question the need for overblown sets altogether (though the scale and grandeur can be edifying), especially given the bourgeois profligacy they tend to connote.
Speaking of Egeo, Andrew Goodwin puts in an appropriately pathetic performance as an emasculated, jilted lover, his tenor as smooth and self-possessed as any. Audience reaction favoured Christopher Saunders, as Demo, who played the sympathy card, with his gammy leg and patched eye, in the most Chaplinesque fashion.
Twenty-one-year-old Alexandra Oomens had a relatively lesser role, as Alinda but was confident and capable. She has a powerful and surprisingly seasoned voice that belies her diminutive physical stature. The chorus of Argonauts was also strong.
But none of the above would’ve been possible without the chamber orchestra, with their range of conventional, contemporary and odd, archaic instruments. I possibly spent more time watching them than I should, being impressed by their expertise, finesse and enthusiasm. In none was this more evident than conductor Erin Helyard.  He is so spritely his feet barely touch the ground; a performance in itself.
Cavalli is often overshadowed by Monteverdi and Handel. Giasone proves that to be more than regrettable. It’s astonishing how well both libretto and music stand-up after more than 360 years. Then again, perhaps it’s not surprising at all. it’s so well written. Full of intrigue, twists, colour, character and wit. Pinchgut, makes no apology for tampering, editing and updating. Not should it, since it applies the lightest possible touch, only changing what’s necessary; tweaking where the benefit is patent.
[box]Giasone plays the City Recital Hall until 9 December. Tickets are available at cityrecitalhall.com[/box]

One response to “Giasone review (City Recital Hall, Sydney)

  1. Travelled from Melbourne just to see and hear this – It lived up to my high expectations! Such a pity that Melbourne seems to have given up on Baroque Opera. Pinchgut Opera are so excellent in this field it is a pity they can’t travel to Melbourne with their productions. Sydney is streets ahead of Melbourne when it comes to opera – a pity that they couldn’t stage their own “Ring” in the city that dreamed it!

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