It’s a rare event when a centuries-old opera receives its first ever performance in Australia but this is the case with Pinchgut Opera’s production of Johann Adolph Hasse’s Artaserse.

“I’ve been wanting to do the work of Hasse for many years,” Pinchgut’s Artistic Director Erin Helyard explained at a roundtable event earlier this week, which saw mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, countertenors Carlo Vistoli and David Hansen and director Chas Rader-Shieber take part in a wide-ranging discussion about the show that opens at Sydney’s City Recital Hall later this month. “He probably was the most famous composer of the 18th century, no question. He was certainly the most beloved.”

Vivica Genaux, Artaserse, Pinchgut OperaVivica Genaux, Erin Helyard, Chas Rader-Shieber, David Hansen, Carlo Vistoli. Photo © Candice Docker

Helyard describes Hasse as being one half of an 18th-century power couple. “He married the greatest soprano of his generation, that was Faustina Bordoni, and together they held the European stage for about 30 years,” he explains.

While Hasse wrote Artaserse in 1730 in Venice – it was his first big international success – he reworked it with his wife in mind for the role of Mandane (who in the opera is in love with Arbace, who is accused of murdering her father to take his throne) and it is this version that Pinchgut performs in Sydney, with Genaux (just arrived in Sydney and straight into rehearsals) taking the place of Bordoni and Australian countertenor David Hansen singing Arbace, a role made famous by superstar castrato Farinelli. “[Hasse] newly composed 12 arias from the score and revised it quite thoroughly,” Helyard explains.

Genaux, an advocate of Hasse who is also famous for her work in Rossini, knows Bordoni’s work well, and while it’s impossible to hear exactly what the 18th-century singer sounded like, she explains that there are certain clues left to us by history.

“I’ve sung a lot of the repertoire that was written for Faustina,” she says. “I think the first things that I sang were written 1721-23, so this is now 15 – 17 years after that.”

“You find that in Farinelli’s voice, when you look at the things that he sang when he was 19, what he sang when he was older, generally the range comes down a little bit – so that’s where we are at 1740, she’s a little bit more central, she’s not as high as she was in her 20s.”

Castrati, and particularly Farinelli, were famous for their vocal power. “But if you look at what’s written for Faustini, Cuzzoni [who sung Mandane in Venice] and for the women of the time, they have phrases that were every bit as long as the those of the castrati.”

“Breath, extension and hiding the breaths, she was very adept at that,” Genaux says. “She liked a good trill, and repeated notes also. So when you look at the music you can see a person, an artist’s life-span really.”

Scores from the 18th-century tend to be bare bones, with issues of interpretation and ornamentation left up to performers and passed on in largely aural traditions, but according to Helyard there are some ornaments attributed to Bordoni and some to Frederick the Great, who was a fan. It’s interpreters who research and perform, however, who breathe life into the music. “So we do have these precious documents that we’ve reconstructed and it’s the confidence, the stylistic confidence of the singers you see before you that actually brought this to life,” he says.

“These works were written for particular singers and re-written when they were sung by other singers,” Genaux says. “The object is to make the most of what you have to offer as the artist. That’s what you look at with the ornamentation and the overall presentation.”

“[Hansen] is one of the most extraordinary improvisers of ornaments,” Helyard says. “It’s up to the performers. We do a lot of experimentation, but it’s based on a very strong historical foundation.”

While Hansen and Russell Harcourt – who sings Megabise – are soprano countertenors, Vistoli is an alto countertenor, singing the ‘villian’ role (though in the discussion, all agree he is perhaps a little more complex than that) of Artabano, Arbace’s father. It is in the second act – and the opera’s most famous aria, the 18th-century hit Pallido il sole, that, according to Vistoli, Artabano “finally he reveals himself to the audience as human.”

“But it’s fun for me to play an ‘evil’ character because normally I play very sweet [characters],” he laughs.

Past and present will intersect in director Chas Rader-Shieber’s production, though he is cagey about revealing too much before the opening. “It’s a piece that’s very much about the sometimes terrifying weight of legacy, of inherited power,” he says. “And the two warring but coexisting groups in this palace space – the royals and the military leaders – and that’s a scary, tenuous relationship.”

“We want to talk about time, the fact that these are people who feel the weight of years and years and years and so the visual, the surrounding world that we live in, is in fact a period room in a palace – I’m not going to give away any more than that – but yes, it has age, it has old world beauty to it,” he says. “But the people who live in that world are like us.”

“That electricity between people who are alive right now, like we are, and the space in which they live, that becomes very exciting to me,” he says.

“It’s about story telling that we can relate to,” Hansen says. “There are so many implausible opera plots out there! So this story is such a wonderful precursor to events we’ve all seen play out.”

Pinchgut Opera’s Artaserse is at City Recital Hall, Sydney, November 29 to December 5 


Vivica Genaux performs in concert with Erin Helyard at Melbourne Recital Hall on December 7


Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine