Giasone

Pinchgut Opera, City Recital Hall, December 5.

IT’S no wonder Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone was the hit of 1649, the most performed opera of that year. The bigger mystery is why it’s rarely seen now. Giasone is a rousing, expertly constructed sex comedy that throws in low humour, high drama, a bit of magic and a love tangle of some complexity, including the wrong lover being chucked off a cliff. What’s not to like?

David Hansen and celeste Lararenko in Pinchgut Opera's Giasone. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko in Pinchgut Opera’s Giasone. Photo: Keith Saunders

But there’s more: Giasone is underpinned by an affecting strain of deep, raw emotion, expressed in page after page of ravishing music. In Pinchgut Opera’s production – the Australian premiere – this dynamic score enchanted as much as it must have more than 350 years ago. A fine, well-balanced cast was headed by astounding countertenor David Hansen in the title role, the Orchestra of the Antipodes is in fine fettle, and if there was anything more joyous than the full-body conducting of Erin Helyard I hadn’t seen it in a long while.

You may know Giasone – Jason – as the hero on a mission to capture the fabled Golden Fleece, accompanied, of course, by his Argonauts. Alternatively, what first comes to mind may be the love-rat whose lack of constancy drove Medea to murder their sons. Giacinto Andrea Cicognini’s libretto for Cavalli takes a different tack. It is concerned with the fleece only tangentially and no children were harmed in the making of this work. Jason is, however, still a first-class love-rat.

Sexual passion is the driver of this plot and in the first minutes we hear of the female wiles that ensnare men, who are made helpless by their desires. Enter Hansen’s Giasone to sing Delizie e contenti, the dreamy aria aptly described by one scholar as an expression of “post-coital languor”. As Ercole (Hercules) comments, Giasone “never tires of giving”. Quite. Director Chas Rader-Shieber underscored the point by having Hansen appear bare-chested most of the time in circumstances where it may not have been entirely necessary from a dramatic perspective. Not to mention that we first saw Giasone taking a bubble bath while wearing nothing but his plumed helmet, attended by various of his Argonauts, also bare-chested. Yes, it was the tiniest bit Village People, but highly enjoyable.

Uncut, Giasone would take more than four hours to play, excluding intervals, although the music is so richly textured, varied and dramatically satisfying that you’d gladly hear it all. Infectious dancing rhythms, melting laments and lively comic numbers ease in and out of recitative seamlessly in Helyard’s racy reduction. It leaves out minor characters but essentially everything is there, and in not much more than about two and a half hours of music, which was directed superbly by Helyard from the harpsichord.

Rader-Shieber’s production was acted out on a simple but effective set, which he co-designed with Katren Wood. A couple of doors, a recessed chamber and some entrances and exits via the auditorium (these the least successful aspect) were sufficient to the task at hand. On one side of the ledger are the lower orders pragmatically deciding it’s most sensible to love the one you’re with. On the other, two queens battle almost to the death to win Giasone.

Sopranos Miriam Allan (Isifile) and Celeste Lazarenko (Medea) were a riveting pair of antagonists, representing the forces of constancy versus lust. Allan had some difficult tonal shifts, from down-trodden to majestic in her fidelity, and handled them with grace and clarity. Looking lovely in a long gown with a full skirt, Allan sang with purity and immense feeling.

Lazarenko was a compelling object of desire in her slinky red gown. While Lazarenko doesn’t have the ideal weight of voice for the exciting aria Dell’antro magico, in which Medea summons supernatural help for Giasone, she was otherwise fascinating, singing with sensuous warmth.

Giasone is a far from admirable character, not even winning the fleece through his own powers as Medea’s other-worldly contacts help carry the day. Hansen’s advantage was his stratospherically high countertenor, which gleams brightly and pours out with voluptuous ease. With that at his command he managed to ingratiate, even if you never quite believed these women would give up everything they hold dear for him. He was affecting in Giasone’s 11th-hour volte face, one of those moments similar to the Count’s capitulation at the end of The Marriage of Figaro.

The libretto and the music are somewhat at odds in this aspect of Giasone. Time and again the music for Giasone and Medea is unambiguously and almost overpoweringly erotic and the lovers are the only characters whose voices entwine, which they do in intoxicating fashion. But they will not end up together. Rader-Shieber made a wise little nod to this in the opera’s final seconds.

The City Recital Hall provided the happiest of spaces for all voices. The supporting cast members offered enjoyably vivid characterisations, particularly Christopher Saunders as the blustering, stuttering Demo and Andrew Goodwin as the noble and nobly sung Egeo. Adrian McEniery had a few wobbly moments vocally as Delfa but was in amusing cross-dressing form as he rocked a pink Chanel-style suit and pearls. David Greco’s Oreste and Nicholas Dinopoulos’s Ercole most ably played the part of long-suffering supporters to their betters as did young Alexandra Oomens, in prettily fresh voice as the attendant Alinda.

The story, absurd though it is on the surface, is touchingly truthful and universal in its understanding of how love binds, pains and deceives. The production adds more well-deserved laurels to Pinchgut’s brow. And it’s splendid news that next year will bring a second opera from this wonderful company.

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera

Carriageworks, Sydney, August 5

THE tyros at Sydney Chamber Opera nimbly and thrillingly tread where larger organisations fear to go, or at least traverse sparingly. Owen Wingrave is perfect SCO territory: it is 20th century repertoire, it’s an Australian stage premiere and it suits presentation by a small, tightly focused group of musicians. Another attraction, very much for audiences as well as SCO, is that Owen Wingrave is far from being over-familiar, yet in Benjamin Britten’s centenary year it has an undeniable claim on selection. Lots of ticks there.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The company, founded in 2010, has an astute understanding of what is right for it and what it can do well. Its gripping Australian premiere last year of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony, in celebration of Glass’s 75th birthday, is another case in point, and it is no wonder SCO asked In the Penal Colony’s gifted young director, Imara Savage, to return for Owen Wingrave.

Written in 1971 as a commission for television (those were the days), Owen Wingrave was Britten’s penultimate opera and is an extended cry for peace. Owen, a young man from a family with a deep-rooted military tradition, “heir to the Wingrave flag of glory”, turns his face against war. His apostasy shocks his friends and relations. His willingness to fight and almost certainly to die is the only thing expected of him. He is not to think, to question or to have ideas. When he does, the icy rectitude of his hidebound, unimaginative family cracks.

It’s harrowing material that comes with a twist, a supernatural element present in the Henry James story on which the opera is based. Librettist Myfanwy Piper’s introduction of this spectral material is less elegant than one might wish, but Savage, designer Katren Wood and movement director Johanna Puglisi quietly make it part of the fabric from the start, which is a real achievement.

The setting is a cheerless space enclosed by a three-sided wire fence, giving intimations of prisons or encampments real and imagined. I was taken by the way that within this, Savage uses only a small number of big, uncluttered images. A huge stag laid out on the dining table silently attests to a tradition of killing and entitlement, a suddenly unfurled portrait becomes a constant reminder of the weight of heritage and a blood-stained boy mutely represents a family tragedy. I do wish directors would find a way other than opening black umbrellas to indicate a trip to the cemetery, but it’s a small point.

The simplicity of means lets Britten’s highly coloured score do its passionate work. The small orchestra plays David Matthews’s well-regarded reduction and features a bracing concentration of brass, woodwinds and percussion alongside the strings. There’s an enormous sense of urgency as the music groans, clashes and cries out, then subsides into quite lovely introspection or unsettling premonition. The mix of influences, particularly from eastern music, can make for unexpected, even unruly, passages but conductor Jack Symonds and the 15 players make an extremely persuasive case for music that’s rarely heard in any big opera houses.

Morgan Pearse in Owen Wingrave

Morgan Pearse in Owen Wingrave

Against these riches the vocal lines are solid and unadorned, mostly serving the text well. There are no reservations about the cast, all admirably suited to their roles. Morgan Pearse is a revelation in the title role, engaging sympathy with a glowing, firm, rich baritone and nuanced acting. Owen’s fiancée Kate is an unlikeable woman, yet Emily Edmonds finds a way to make her understandable and does so with a beautifully produced mezzo that is penetrating without losing its smooth texture. Tenor Pascal Herington also makes a strong impression as Owen’s friend Lechmere and as the ballad-singing Narrator who tells how the Wingrave family came to be haunted. I also very much liked Georgia Bassingthwaighte’s sensible, caring Mrs Coyle, but there was no weak link anywhere.

Owen Wingrave finishes on Saturday.

This review first appeared in The Australian on August 7.