It’s shaping up to be a bumper 2019 for Pinchgut Opera. As well as its usual mainstage offering of two operas – next year will see Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses and Vivaldi’s Farnace – the company has added two recitals to its season next year. And following this year’s coup of snagging American soprano Vivica Genaux for the upcoming Hasse premiere Artaserse, one of the recitals will feature exciting Romanian male soprano Valer Sabadus.

Artistic Director Erin Helyard. Photo courtesy of Pinchgut Opera

“Pinchgut’s just grown and grown in the last 15 years,” Artistic Director Erin Helyard enthuses. “We started off with one show per year and then added the winter one as well. I guess always in the back of my mind I’ve been inspired by Bill Christie’s Les Arts Florissants. I’ve loved the emphasis on the voice that Les Arts Florissants have and that’s at the core of what we do as well. So I thought to expand beyond the operas it would be wonderful to present things that weren’t necessarily stage works, but still spoke to our strengths and gave us a chance to work with repertoire we might not usually. I’m really thrilled to put in these two concerts in addition to our two mainstage performances.”

Anna Dowsley. Photo courtesy of Pinchgut Opera

The year begins with a program of Bach and Telemann, which will receive a one-off concert in Sydney and Melbourne. Representing a local line-up, soprano Alexandra Oomens, mezzo Anna Dowsley (making her Pinchgut debut), tenor Richard Butler, baritone David Greco and bass Andrew O’Connor will perform the Bach Easter Oratorio in its original one-to-a-part setting. They will also present the Australian premiere of Telemann’s Thunder Ode, with Helyard conducting the Orchestra of the Antipodes.

Helyard is thrilled to be presenting the Easter Oratorio in its original setting. “The one-to-a-part provides a really amazing clarity,” he says. “Friends of mine like the Dunedin Consort are doing Bach’s Passions in this version and it really works. We’re also doing the Telemann in that version, so it makes sense to do these two as they’re scored for the same orchestra with very similar religious circumstances.”

Alexandra Oomens. Photo courtesy of Pinchgut Opera

For those unfamiliar with the Telemann, Helyard urges listeners to discover it for themselves before the April concerts. “It’s really beautiful. I love Telemann, I’ve always been trying to program him as there are some wonderful operas, but it just hasn’t quite gelled yet. But this one works really well because he wrote it quite late in his life and it’s a sort of celebration of the powers of creation. It depicts earthquakes, it’s a bit like, ‘and God created the firmament and the heavens’.”

“It’s sort of a paean to the forces of the cosmos and it’s got the same orchestration as the Easter Oratorio, but with really beautiful, winning, galant melodies in it as much as poignant arias with lots of counterpoint,” he continues. “Telemann is really different to Bach in that he had a little bit more of a finger on the pulse of modern trends late in his life. And it’s his masterpiece, it really is. It’s got one of the earliest timpani solos, the earthquake depicted is in the timpani, as well solo horn and trumpets and beautiful recorders and oboes so I’m really excited to do that with the forces.”

Then in June, The Return of Ulysses will cap off the company’s exploration of Monteverdi’s operas. Composed in 1640, it takes its inspiration from Homer’s tale of Ulysses, the warrior who returns to his homeland after an absence of 20 years. The title role will be taken by Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães, someone who has appeared as Ulysses to acclaim around the world, while the role of his wife, Penelope, will be played by Australian mezzo Catherine Carby. They’ll be joined by company favourites, as well as countertenor Nicholas Tolputt who makes his Pinchgut debut. Helyard conducts, with Chas Rader-Shieber slated to direct.

Fernando Guimarães. Photo courtesy of Pinchgut Opera

Helyard emphasises the contemporary resonance of Ulysses, his favourite opera.“It’s just such an extraordinary work in terms of the humanity of the piece. Nowadays we see refugees and displaced persons, as well as debates about how we treat them, constantly. And this is very much a political story about that, about being away from your home and trying to find a home. It’s Monteverdi at its best and we have some extraordinary people in the cast.”

Then in August, Valer Sabadus will make his Australian debut in a one-off recital in Sydney with a program of Vivaldi, Hasse and Porpora. Having shot to fame for his portrayal of Semira in Vinci’s Artaserse in 2012, Sabadus is a critically acclaimed recording artist who has established a loyal following in European houses.

Valer Sabadus. Photo © Schneider Photography

“I’m a voracious listener of other people,” says Helyard when I ask him whether Sabadus has been on his radar for a while. “I love listening to the latest recordings – thanks to the internet you can follow people in ways that weren’t possible even eight years ago. Valer’s got an intriguing voice, he’s really a male soprano and his technique is just phenomenal so I’m really excited to do this concert with him.”

“I suppose that’s a pattern I would love to start with Pinchgut [after Sabadus and Genaux], that we’re able to introduce our audiences to some of those amazing artists that are resident in Europe while still concentrating on showcasing Australian singers with the mainstage productions.”

And closing out the year with a bang, Vivaldi’s Farnace will be seen in December in its revised 1738 version, which Helyard hails for its added wealth of orchestral colour. Like Monteverdi’s Ulysses, Farnace is a work at the pinnacle of its composer’s output. It tells the story of the fractious relationship between Farnace and his mother-in-law Berenice, enraged by the murder of her husband by Farnace’s father. The title role will be sung by returning male alto Christopher Lowrey, with mezzo Jacqueline Dark making her Pinchgut debut as his wicked mother in law. The cast is rounded out by company favourites including soprano Taryn Fiebig (Selinda) and mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman (Tamiri), who made a great impression as Poppea last year. Australian countertenor Maximilian Riebl makes his Pinchgut debut as Gilade, Berenice’s Captain. Mark Gaal directs.

Christopher Lowrey. Photo courtesy of Pinchgut Opera

Helyard, who conducts, is keen to sing the praises of his cast. “Chris Lowrey is going from strength to strength. We’re very dear friends and I’ve really wanted to do a Vivaldi opera with him, so this just seemed like the perfect show. Max Riebl also makes his Pinchgut debut, and he’s a talent I’ve been looking at for a while. And of course, Jacqui Dark as Berenice, who’s another really dear friend of mine.”

“Vivaldi, I reckon he’s the great discovery of opera in the last ten years. He’s become almost mainstream in a way. But God, it’s so exciting for our audiences and it shows off the brilliant Orchestra of the Antipodes as well.”


Full 2019 details

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine