Opera Queensland’s new production ain’t your average Baroque chamber opera.

Powerhouse Theatre, Brisbane

February 21, 2014

Dancers and singers cavort about with sensual grace. A soprano sings atop what appears to be a human pyramid. The set is somewhat alarmingly dismantled as the recital bounces along. There is no plot that I could see; there are no characters. The continuo part isn’t even played on harpsichord!

It’s certainly not the way Handel would have imagined his lovely music performed; it’s all a bit naughty, a bit too fun. Nonetheless, Opera Queensland pulls off a masterpiece in Abandon, a new work created for the international World Theatre Festival at the Powerhouse in Brisbane. The show, produced in collaboration with Dancenorth contemporary dance company, is a wilfully eclectic mixture of contemporary dance and choreography set to a cycle of Baroque arias – all Handel – sung by a quartet of vocalists.

Abandon rarely slows down. There is never just one place to fix your attention – the sheer number of things happening at once lent the performance a sense of theatre – a sense of energy throughout the entire cast. Even cellist Teije Hylkema and accompanist James Crabb join in the relentless dance for a few particularly energetic songs.

Musically, the stand-out of the night is Annie Lower. Her hugely sexy interpretation of Ma quando tornerai – complete with pyrotechnic high notes – is clearly appreciated by the audience. A few moments verge on self-parody (in the best possible way): at one point, poor Monique Latemore sings a series of tricky passages, heedless of the rubbish bags being blown past her head. During Affanno tiranno, dancer Bradley Chatfield jumps around stage like a boxer, threatening various individuals one at a time before being finally driven off by the cast as a whole. The interpretation is both apt and hilarious.

There are many beautiful moments amidst all the action. Bass-baritone Christopher Richardson has probably the most touching moment of the show, singing Leave me, loathsome light from Handel’s opera Semele. Richardson’s warm tone and excellent diction nicely complement the previous solo by cellist Hylkema.

The only element that feels missing from Abandon is a moment of stillness – after a relentless hour of movement it becomes difficult to focus on the gorgeously lyrical music. While the frenetic energy gives the performance an incredibly exciting sense of life, a brief change of pace would be refreshing. At times the accordion can overwhelm the singers, though that is probably unavoidable. On the other hand, the over-wrought and vague program note provided to the audience is an annoyance that might have been easily avoided. A list of songs would help as well.

These are both minor quibbles; the concert is almost totally flawless from a technical perspective. All participants ought to be very proud of their achievement. Above all, this is exactly the sort of small-scale, innovative, multi-dimensional work that Opera Queensland should be, and ought to continue doing.