In his first year as sole Artistic Director, Erin Helyard offers Rameau and Monteverdi with an Aussie premiere for good measure.

Sydney-based Pinchgut opera has launched its 2017 season in its usual eclectic style. In his first year as sole Artistic Director, Erin Helyard will lead the company into a brave new era with a season featuring works by Claudio Monteverdi and Jean-Phillippe Rameau, with the Australian premiere of a real rarity thrown in for good measure.

“The pleasures of programming come from the excitement of choosing often little-known works that I know will thrill and delight our audience,” Helyard told Limelight ahead of the launch. “I have a good friend who is a sommelier and he loves introducing people to new grapes and new kinds of wine. That’s how I see myself with Pinchgut – I love introducing people to new composers, new operatic genres, and new styles. But of course they are old at the same time, just like vintage wine. The challenges come from having to make a decision, as there were just so many extraordinary operas waiting to be unearthed!”

Helyard in rehearsal

In November 2017, Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea – most likely the first ever opera ever to have been based on historical figures – will be Helyard’s third collaboration with director Mark Gaal. Monteverdi’s epic depicts the scandal following the petulant Emperor Nero’s liaison with the ‘high-class courtesan’ Poppea Sabina. “It’s a towering masterpiece of superbly crafted characterisation, biting satire, and heartbreaking beauty,” said Helyard, “I’m looking forward to revisiting the colours, poetry, and melodies of the 17th century – a sound world we haven’t revisited since the enormous critical success of Giasone in 2013.”

For many, The Coronation of Poppea is the very finest opera of the 17th century. “I agree wholeheartedly,” says Helyard. “Poppea is Monteverdi’s greatest operatic achievement. The depth of characterisation, the genius in perfectly welding music and text together, the perfect libretto, the quicksilver narrative. 17th-century Venice is one of my favourite places to explore. It’s great for the instrumentalists as there is so much improvisation and colour.”

In an unusual touch, Pinchgut’s Poppea will be subtly different, in that for the first time they will be re-creating aspects of the original casting. “I’ve been corresponding with a Monteverdi scholar in Europe who has done some fantastic work on re-creating the original make-up of the cast,” Helyard says. “The effects of doubling some of the characters does much to increase the level of irony. Also, we’ll have some special 17th-century instruments, like the lirone, on show!”

Australian mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman – Irene in Pinchgut’s 2015 production of Vivaldi’s Bajazet – will sing Poppea, while Korean-American counter-tenor Kangmin Justin Kim sings Nero. Soprano Natalie Christie Peluso, recently a soloist in the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mahler 4 conducted by Simone Young, is Ottavia, the reigning Empress, while Kanen Breen will threaten to steal the show as her aging nurse, the hysterically pragmatic Arnalta.

Taryn Fiebig and Richard Anderson in Opera Australia’s Don Giovanni, 2014. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

The season will open next June with a pair of actes de ballet by Rameau – Anacréon and Pigmalion – augmented by an intermezzo: the Australian premiere of Leonardo Vinci’s Erighetta e Don Chilone. “Anacréon and Pigmalion have long been recognised as some of Rameau’s best work, containing some of his most memorable and tuneful ariettes,” said Helyard. “We revive the intermezzo tradition in the best traditions of the genre of the acte de ballets themselves: which were sparkling, diverting, lyrical genres centred on a short story that revolve around the theme of love and pleasure.”

“I’m involved at the moment with a conference at the University of Melbourne on the 18th-century ‘battle’ between the French and Italian styles. Many people of the time talked at length about the pros and cons of the Italians and the French. I love that the French would whack this crazy Italian intermezzo, full of fart jokes and innuendo and real-life drama, between the acts of serious French opera. People loved it! It certainly created a stir and ticket sales went through the roof. Preparing for the conference inspired me to showcase these two styles so Pinchgut’s audience could savour them for themselves, in their original juxtaposition. It will be like having red and white wine with a well-designed meal, rather than just sticking with one kind.”

Award-winning soprano Taryn Fiebig leads the cast with bass Richard Anderson – both leads currently on stage for Opera Australia’s Così fan Tutte. “I’m particularly excited to be working with Taryn and Richard in the Rameau,” Helyard enthuses. “We haven’t worked together since my first Cavalli opera for Pinchgut: L’Ormindo. Richard is an old mate and it will be great to create these roles with him.”

Subscriptions for Pinchgut Opera’s 2017 season are onsale now.