Three-and-a-half hour opera seria becomes a right old carry on (don’t lose your panties).

Griffith Theatre, Queensland Conservatorium, Brisbane
April 10, 2015

By 1737, the taste for Italian opera in London was on the wane while its greatest proponent, George Frideric Handel, had suffered a mild stroke. That season’s money-spinner turned out to be an English language satire on English taxation policy and a send up of foreign musical ways by John Frederick Lampe called The Dragon of Wantley (in which a tippling knight errant reluctantly gets into a battle where he merely wounds his furious opponent in the backside). Faramondo, with its a torturously convoluted plot of blood feuds, sibling rivalry and babies swapped at birth didn’t stand a chance. In other words, it was not one of Handel’s hits. A pity, as recent recordings and a couple of stagings have revealed it to contain some fine music.

At moments during Paul Curran’s busy, entertaining, generally light-hearted staging – originally for the Göttingen Handel Festival but now making landfall at the inaugural Brisbane Baroque – you could be forgiven for thinking you’d wandered into an update of The Dragon. Curran has ideas, and he isn’t afraid to use them. Some of them are funny ha-ha, some funny peculiar, frequently he over-eggs his pudding, but the production is never less than entertaining, and as we are talking about three-and-a-half hours of what was originally an opera seria we should be thankful that he has chosen to lighten the load with some lashings of broad-based comedy.

Based on a mythical tale of the early Frankish kingdoms, Faramondo concerns Gustavo, King of the Cimbrians, who believes his son Sveno to have been killed by Faramondo, King of the Franks. Gustavo’s daughter Rosimonda has feelings for Faramondo and his son Adolfo has the hots for Faramondo’s sister Clotilde, thus Gustavo’s hapless attempts to spur his children into taking revenge for Sveno’s death are doomed to failure. I won’t attempt to summarise the numerous twists and turns further, save to mention that we were provided with a handy relationship chart on arrival…

Curran sets it all in a crumbling contemporary state with more than a hint of Eastern Europe about it – we could be in a Balkan conflict zone or even a corner of Ukraine today. Gary McCann’s garish, faded red palace staterooms are contrasted with the labyrinth of concrete-clad service corridors behind the scenes through which the characters blunder in an endless game of ‘find the secret passage’. The costumes express a ‘Eurotrash’ aesthetic – power and money have clearly outweighed good taste – but it is cohesive and adds to the sense of place. The decision to take it all with a pinch of comedic salt is Curran’s masterstroke. Without that leaven, Handel’s soufflé would possibly sink, and the moment of revelation at the end when we laugh at the ludicrous coincidence would feel like a misfire.

Directorially, Curran musters his troops, including a busy band of local supers, and deploys them with skill. He’s inclined, though, to have too much going on at any given moment resulting in moments of split, and more fatally pulled, focus. When the mezzo is singing her aria di furia do we watch her or the six soldiers ‘kicking the shit’ out of a prisoner in the far corner? At times it appears he has an aversion to anyone standing still for more than 30s and with no prior knowledge of the characters, the staged overture was five minutes of meaningless hustle and bustle. If that sounds like a big criticism, it nevertheless doesn’t outweigh a great deal that is engaging, inventive and sharply observed, especially with respect to the narrow divide between the safe comfort of political power and the dirty backstreet violence unleashed when it crumbles.

Fortunately, too, the production is blessed with musical assets in abundance. Erin Helyard conducts the admirable Orchestra of the Antipodes with enormous energy and flair. A human dynamo at the keyboard, Helyard urges, coaxes and generally proves a lightning rod for Handel’s musical ideas. Undaunted by the sheer length of the beast, each aria is given its due, laced with appropriate imaginative detail. The orchestra, led by Brendan Joyce respond with playing of verve and skill, and the continuo group of Helyard, Anthony Hamad on second harpsichord, Tommie Andersson on theorbo and Anthea Cottee on baroque cello is a rock solid team.

The outstanding cast was led by two spectacular singers: The American mezzo Jennifer Rivera as Faramondo and Irish soprano Anna Devin as his sister Clotilde. Rivera has a rich mezzo, easily capable of overriding orchestral horns, and her diction is to die for. Her first aria, Rival ti sono, is a tour de force with beautifully decorated da capo, the following Sì tornerò a morir with gorgeous obligato violin (Brendan Joyce) was a noble cousin to Ombra mai fu (written the following year). Devin is a true vocal star, her voice clear as a bell and her attention to text and conveying character through words is outstanding. In her aria Mi parto lieta, the number of ways she finds to vary the repeated words parto and lieta is an object lesson in textual nuance. Her first aria, Conoscerò, se brami, is the first winner of the evening, Comabttuta da due venti is another dazzling display (although I didn’t really get the need to munch pizza in the da capo), and her reading culminates in a magnificent demonstration of breath control in Un’ aura placida.

The production also stars two exceptional young American countertenors. As the King’s son and Clotilde’s lover, Adolfo, Tai Oney sings with real distinction, his voice even over the full range, subtle and delicate at the top, never coarse at the bottom. Each of his solos is memorable for his stylish delivery and committment to the emotion of the moment. His Caro/Cara duet with Devin was a heartbreaker and beautifully staged to capture the full pathos of the situation. The gold star for sheer entertainment, however, must go to Christopher Lowrey as the villainous Gernando – King of the Swabians and lusting after Rosimonda something rotten. Dolled up in furs and lippy, he struts the stage with his leather-clad gipsy banditos and a couple of skanky looking ‘bitches’ while never missing an opportunity to take a sniff of the various pairs of tights and panties that somehow always seem to end up in his pocket. He’s a lovely actor, but the voice is to die for as well, packed with enough character to sink a battleship (Voglio che mora was a histrionic showstopper). Extracting every drop of malice as he hacks his way through the supernumeraries, he is also able to carry off radiant arias like Act III’s Così suole a rio vicina.

As Gustavo’s daughter Rosimonda, Ukranian soprano Anna Starushkevyich plays the journey from spoilt princess to heartbroken lover to perfection. In a series of OTT frocks, she’s entertainingly in and out of her heels every time the going gets serious, and while her acting chops get a good working out, her comedy timing hurling glasses of champagne over Gernando is spot on. Vocally she shines brightest in feisty numbers, though details of articulation occasionally disappear beneath the orchestral waves. King Gustavo, Wayne Tigges, sings well enough, though his voice is a little inflexible, and manages the character journey effectively (though he is inclined to chew the scenery early on).

Australian baritone and Victorian Opera graduate Jeremy Kleeman wins his spurs as Gustavo’s duplicitous henchman, singing with rich, full tone and acting up a storm. A pity his stage left aria was rather lost against some lascivious extraneous business going on stage right… Alexandra Oomens is charming as Childerico, the bespectacled youth who at times seems the only competent combatant on stage and turns out to be the rightful King in the end.

Despite its length, Faramondo seemed to fly by, thanks to the stellar quality of the music making and plenty of inventive and engaging staging. And a chance to see a relative rarity is not to be missed – just don’t leave your lingerie lying around if you notice a shifty-looking countertenor lurking nearby…

Faramondo runs until April 18.