In a season of ‘H’s’, Erin Helyard returns to his beloved Handel and finally gets to host some Johann Adolph Hasse.

Sydney-based Pinchgut opera continues to excite and enthrall with its offering for 2018 including Athalia, a rarely staged Handel oratorio, and Artaserse, an opera by a neglected German master, Johann Adolph Hasse. And in a real casting coup, not only will a host of top Australian talent be returning to Sydney following success overseas, Pinchgut has secured the services of American soprano Vivica Genaux who thrilled audiences at 2016’s Brisbane Baroque.

Vivica Genaux at Brisbane Baroque, 2016

“I wanted to revisit the world of the Handel oratorio following two great successes in the last year,” Artistic Director Erin Helyard told Limelight. “One was Saul [Barrie Kosky’s production for Adelaide Festival which Helyard conducted] and the other was Theodora [Lindy Hume’s staging for Pinchgut this year]. Investigating the dramatic potential in Handel oratorios is a really interesting way forward for Pinchgut. Oh, and since we’ve got a new contrabassoon, we can use it again!”

Helyard chose Athalia, written for Oxford in 1733 and the oratorio that immediately preceded Saul, because of its prominent role for the chorus. But with a wicked widowed Queen consort trying to eliminate all the rightful heirs to the throne of Judah, its dark tale of political shenanigans has a wonderful resonance in a post Game of Thrones world. “It was commissioned for a sort of High Tory graduation ceremony and then it came to London where it was very successful,” Helyard relates, “but it has this weird story about a crazy despot who’s trying to hold onto power and a priesthood that eventually dismantles the corruption. It even has a part for a very young boy soprano.”

A fine cast will include Perth-born soprano Emma Pearson in the title role – a singer who has had great success of late in Germany – and Miriam Allan (last seen as Isifile in Pinchgut’s 2013 Giasone) as Josabeth, the sympathetic wife of the High Priest Joad who has secretly brought up the rightful heir to Athalia’s throne. Joining them will be Clint van der Linde – “look on YouTube and you’ll find a grainy clip of him singing The Queen of the Night as a young boy back in the 80s”, says Helyard – as  Joad, Brenton Spiteri as Mathan, the oily High Priest of Baal, and David Greco as the trusty Abner, Captain of the Guards.

Since it was formed in 2002, Pinchgut has presented 19 rarely performed gems, from Grétry to Salieri and back again, but this will be the first time it has tackled a work by Hasse, one of the most respected operatic composers of the 18th century. “For years and years I’ve been advocating for us to put on a Hasse opera because he was incredibly popular,” Helyard says. “When we performed a couple of Hasse arias in Bajazet, the pasticcio we produced a few years back, it struck me that he writes for the voice in such a intuitive manner.”

The great 18th-century musical pundit Charles Burney agreed. “The most natural, elegant, and judicious composer of vocal music,” he wrote of Hasse, “as well as the most voluminous now alive. Equally a friend to poetry and the voice, he discovers as much judgment as genius, in expressing words, as well as in accompanying those sweet and tender melodies, which he gives to the singer.”

Artaserse was a Metastasian opera libretto that was reset by so many people, and it’s a really good story that held the stage for 50 or 60 years,” Helyard enthuses. “And I wanted to do a Hasse piece that was written in his youthful period that for our audiences will really link him with Handel.”

In fact, there are two versions of Artaserse by Hasse. An earlier version written for Venice starred the great castrato Farinelli, but Pinchgut will produce the Dresden version from 1740. “Hasse got this plum job with Augustus the Strong – one that JS Bach wanted,” Helyard explains. “It was one of the most important positions in Europe and this incredible Catholic court in the middle of Protestant Germany with its glittering opera was a real magnet for connoisseurs. In Artaserse, Hasse is showing off not only his new forces, but also his wife, Faustina Bordoni.”

And the great Bordoni is where Vivica Genaux comes in. The singer leapt to international prominence with her 2002 hit album Arias for Farinelli on Harmonia Mundi and she’s cemented that reputation through ongoing recordings and a string of opera productions all over the world.

“Genaux has stage presence in spades,” wrote Limelight of her 2016 concert in Brisbane. “Blessed with looks, lustrous dark hair, and plenty of va-va-voom, she drew admiring gasps for her striking gowns in both halves, before she’d even uttered a note. But any fears she might be all glamour and no chops were instantly dismissed as she launched into Costanza’s show stopping Agitata da due venti from Griselda. Possibly today’s most ‘famous’ Vivaldi aria, it’s quite a test of stamina and agility with sometimes ridiculous demands on breath control, all elements over which Genaux demonstrated complete mastery with her exemplary phrasing and effortless vocal dexterity. Add to that a voice of great richness, easy at the top, yet with an ability to plunge at will into a beefy bottom register, and you have what can only be described as the real deal.”

A ‘Bordoni role’, then, should be the perfect fit for her. “Pinchgut’s mission works really well, to work with Australian singers who may not be resident here, but at the same time we can really benefit from working with great professionals who have experience in this repertoire,” says Helyard. “With her work on Farinelli, Vivica was responsible almost single handedly for restoring this opera seria repertoire, and we had a wonderful time up at Brisbane Baroque. Bringing her back to do Hasse is a career highlight for me.”

Hasse’s opera – one of those complicated plots with a maddening array of characters whose names begin with ‘A’ – centres on Arbace, the noble son of the wily Artabanes, and a plot to overthrow the Persian King Artaserse. When he’s accused of attempting to kill his king (and good friend), Arbace is torn between betraying his father or losing his head.

Leading Aussie countertenor David Hansen returns to sing Arbace while Carlo Vistoli – another hit singer from that final ill-fated Brisbane Baroque – sings the cunning Artabano. Genaux sings Mandane, Arbace’s beloved and sister to the king, while Emily Edmonds returns from two years at Covent Garden on the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme to sing Atrasere’s lover and Arbace’s sister Semira. Completing the cast will be tenor Andrew Goodwin who sings Artaserse and countertenor Russell Harcourt who plays the double-dealing General Megabise.

The opera has received support from the international Hasse foundation, which will enable them to record the Dresden version and edit the new score, which task will be carried out by Helyard.

2018 will also see Pinchgut realising another long held ambition when they take a special gala event to the Melbourne Recital Centre. Vivica Genaux will present a concert of arias by Hasse, Vivaldi and Handel. “Vivica is the warmest, loveliest, most generous person, and she’s so open to people. There was no question but that we’d want to work with her again,” says Helyard. “She has an astonishing technical control, and an insight into the repertoire that’s truly phenomenal. And she knows Hasse back to front.”

Pinchgut’s season is on sale for priority subscribers from August 8 with individual tickets available from August 15

Details and tickets