The stage is busy as the musicians of the Orchestra of the Antipodes tune their period instruments. Flowers and ladders are brought on, artworks are delivered, and lanyard-wearing staff bustle to and fro. The chaos coalesces into the preparation for a lavish costume gala at an art gallery – a clever framing (pardon the pun) device with which director Crystal Manich binds the three works in Pinchgut Opera’s triple bill.
Channelling the heady and competitive opera scene of Paris in the 1750s, Pinchgut presents two actes-de-ballet by French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau – Anacréon and Pigmalion – with the Italian Leonardo Vinci’s comic intermezzo Erighetta e Don Chilone as a palate cleanser in between.
Rameau’s more serious offerings – in contrast to the Vinci intermezzo – tackle high-brow concepts like the nature of love and reality, drawing on stories of gods to explore deeper philosophical ideas. But Manich manages to inject plenty of earth-bound concerns into Anacréon. Essentially an argument over whether love and intoxication (symbolised by the god Bacchus) can co-exist, in the context of the boozy art gallery event it becomes the story of a man who gets drunk, angering his wife who then leaves him.
Lauren Zolezzi and Richard Anderson in Anacréon. Photo © Patrick Boland
Bass Richard Anderson is the poet Anacréon (and a wealthy donor in the Art Gallery plot) who argues – in beguiling, resonant tones – that he can be both drunk and in love. His wife is Lycoris (mezzo-soprano Allegra Giagu), who is decked with flowers as she gazes out at the audience through an empty picture frame, alternately serenaded and ignored. Soprano Taryn Fiebig is the clipboard-wielding ex-wife of the donor, who becomes a fiery priestess of Bacchus, her warm soprano breathless with indignation that Love should be praised in Bacchus’s temple.
Anacréon’s wine-dreams allow further escape from the reality of the art gallery as he wakes up in a thunder storm – some wonderful orchestral painting here from Rameau – to rescue a child who turns out to be Cupid (Lauren Zolezzi), setting in motion the process of self-discovery in him that puts his world aright once more. Zolezzi’s shimmering, agile soprano brings to life a spirited school-girl cupid, her wings a jiggling backpack made of flowers. Her crystaline aria Avant ce jour, is a highlight. Anderson brings a darker tone of contrition to Sans Vénus et sans ses flammesi, before concluding that it’s probably still OK to have a drink – Bacchus and Love banding together in a final triumphant chorus number.
Lauren Zelozzi as Cupid
Anacréon flows into Erighetta e Don Chilone, presented as a play-within-a-play, Anderson and Fiebig ‘rehearsing’ with a script as assorted gallery staff watch on. There is an immediate shift in the music’s flavour, to a bubblier Italian style as the two-hander pits an ambitious widow seeking the freedom afforded by having a wealthy but out-of-the-way husband against a hypochondriac bachelor unsure of whether he really wants a wife. An eager Fiebig and a pouting Anderson squeeze plenty of laughter from the intermezzo – which relies on the disparity between the singers’ interior monologues and their outward politeness, not to mention plenty of crude humour – and Erighetta’s dressing up as a doctor to minister to Don Chilone adds an extra dizzying level to the characters within characters.
Richard Anderson and Taryn Fiebig in Erighetta e Don Chilone
The preparations at the art gallery continue all through the interval before the Rameau’s Pigmalion becomes intertwined with the costume gala. Tenor Samuel Boden is Pigmalion, the sculptor who creates a statue so beautiful he falls in love with it, only to have it come to life. He brings an exquisitely crafted, nuanced sound to the role, offset by the sound of the two flutes, who have plenty to do in Rameau’s score. Boden gives a detailed, polished account of Rameau’s florid vocal lines.
A table full of food, lit with candelabras gives the scene a ghostly atmosphere, Alica Clements’ set reflecting the opulence of the realities and fantasies, while Rameau uses the ‘magic’ of the harmonic series to bring the statue to life before paring back the texture to voice and continuo in the shocked afterglow as creator and creation meet. Fiebig, as the statue, is in fine form once more – demonstrating a remarkable flexibility as she shifts between roles (and roles within roles) while soprano Morgan Balfour makes for a melancholy, sweet-toned Céphise – the girlfriend cast aside in favour of the statue. Zolezzi is a fine Cupid, though this time more dignified and less capricious, once again.
Lauren Zolezzi, Taryn Fiebig and Samuel Boden in Pigmalion
As in Anacréon the plot is thinly stretched to allow room for the music and – in the case of Pigmalion – several dance numbers. The fantasy of the costume gala is also an excuse for costume designer Melanie Liertz to employ the luxurious baroque frills of 18th century French aristocracy.
While the additional layers of realities and subplots – explicit and implied – murky the clean, simple lines of the actes-de-ballet and intermezzo – particularly at the beginning of the show – Manich ties it all together neatly in the final scene, giving the works a nice through-line. Matthew Marshall’s lighting design provides a subtle yet effective delineation between the three works, harnessing the mood and magic of each.
The high walls of the stage – the concert-hall shoe-horned into an opera theatre – mean the lines of vision aren’t ideal for some of the seats along the edge of the hall, but the sound is excellent throughout.
Allegra Giagu, Morgan Balfour, Samuel Boden, Taryn Fiebig and Mariya Tkachenko in Pigmalion
The art gallery plot also provides a neat excuse for the chorus – who also do a fine job – to be on stage when they aren’t gainfully employed, often an issue in productions of baroque operas. The band, led by Erin Helyard from the harpsichord, is excellent and the balance almost uniformly perfect.
Pinchgut Opera’s triple bill is a complex interweaving of plots and realities, taking the hothouse of musical and intellectual thought of mid-18th-century Paris and launching it into the 21st century. And with such fantastic music, this one’s definitely worth a look.
Pinchgut Opera’s Anacréon & Pigmalion is at City Recital Hall until June 20