Sweeping the cobwebs from one of Salieri’s smuttier masterpieces.

City Recital Hall, Sydney

July 6, 2014

Fatally sullied by Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, it’s taken quite a while for poor old Salieri to re-emerge from under the cloud of second-rate poisoner and return to the glow of the musical enlightenment where he belongs. Anyone who has heard the tragic passion of Les Danaïdes will know why to contemporaries he was right up there with Gluck (in fact, that opera was initially passed off as the master’s work until Gluck himself declared that it was all Salierei). Now, thanks to the intrepid Pinchgut Opera and courtesy of a smart, witty production, Sydneysiders are able to discover that in the comic singspiel he was also up there with Mozart.

The Chimney Sweep, or Der Rauchfangkehrer to give it its guttural Germanic title, was written in 1780 for many of the same cast as Die Entfürung aus dem Serail, and it placed similar vocal demands on its singers. It drew favourable comparisons at the time and, for a work that sends up the vagaries of both the Italian and German opera of the day, it’s a darn sight funnier than, for example, Mozart’s The Impresario. It has a novel bourgeois moral slant to it as well, being concerned with music and money – in particular, the way one can be utilised to gain the other. As director Mark Gaal points out, despite the master servant relationships crucial to the plot, none of the characters are nobles – all are self made and/or social wannabes.

The tale is simple. Volpino, a chimney sweep wants to marry Lisel, a cook. To make them rich he determines to fleece Mr Bear and Mr Wolf, the respective lovers of Mrs Hawk and her stepdaughter Miss Hawk, by persuading the two vain and foolish ladies to fall for his charms. Posing as an itinerant faux-Italian music teacher, he plays all sides off against one another, winning through (three acts later) against all vicissitudes. Various subplots ensure that the other servants also end up bettering their masters, and in an intriguing twist Gaal casts the maid Fränzl as a man, thus offering a cheeky same sex nod to contemporary mores.

The show is a singspiel, so there’s a fair bit of dialogue, and Pinchgut wisely decided to play it in English to maximise the fun. It’s a bit overlong for its material, but once past a slow start, Gaal keeps it all moving along nicely. And he’s blessed with an excellent cast of singers, none of whom flounder when confronted with the spoken word.

Stuart Haycock makes for a roguish Volpino – the name means fox – full of confident business and wielding an entertaining Italian accent. He sings with an easy charm in a role that combines romantic lead with comic foil. His feisty Lisel is Alexandra Oomens, exhibiting the vocal charms of a soubrette in an otherwise Cenerentola-ish role. That the two are made for each other Volpino makes clear in Andrew Johnston’s neat translation when he declares, “She and I, we fit so easy. I’m so black and she’s so greasy”. The other servants include a delightfully sexually ambiguous Gary Clementson as the venal Hansel and a beautifully crafted comic performance from a be-frocked Nicholas Hiatt as the (bearded) maid Fränzel.

As the under-bright, over-sexed Hawks, Amelia Farrugia and Janet Todd are vocal gold and comic delights. Farrugia takes full pleasure in the predatory aspect of the role (in case you haven’t guessed it, each principal is a form of anthropomorphised animal), and employs her rich soprano and dazzling coloratura to great effect. Todd is, if anything, even funnier for being a little more understated, and is hysterical in a demanding aria where she ends up lasciviously straddling the harpsichord in a highly dubious manner. Vocally she’s right on the money (Miss Hawk was also Mozart’s first Constanza) and her surly, pouting demeanour belies a razor sharp vocal technique. Her aria decrying women’s adherence to fashion as supporting male oppression is delightfully ahead of its time, while her revenge aria, where she threatens to tear her rival from the sky, is a showstopper.

Christopher Saunders and David Woloszko are the hapless Mr Wolf and Mr Bear and make a nicely contrasted double act of it. Saunders is an extremely watchable and natural comic actor, relishing every moment. Vocally he comes pretty close too, just struggling at the very top of the range in his otherwise brilliant ‘storm’ aria. Woloszko is a rotund ball of pomposity, revelling in some cuddly campery and exhibiting a firm bass, though the writing’s not quite as spectacularly ripe as in Seraglio (Bear was Mozart’s first Osmin).

Salieri was a master orchestrator, and Erin Helyard and the excellent Orchestra of the Antipodes immerse themselves to the hilt in his imaginative sound world. From the energetic overture to the folksy ländlers of the finale, this is a revelatory reading. Time and again the ear is tickled by moments of passing loveliness – flute, oboe and pizzicato strings in Volpino’s aria to the little birds; the surging strings in Wolf’s storm aria – the list could go on at considerable length. Helyard is not just a wiz at bringing out the felicitous colours, he’s also a terrific dramatist, urging band and singers on to bring out every musical gift that Salieri gives. The ridiculous version of the Ganymede myth (it’s in German but otherwise it’s alright, declares Miss Hawk) is just one of the operatic sendups that Helyard plays to the hilt.

In short then, if you fancy a little saucy, light operatic relief, with a surprising level of compositional aptitude, The Chimneysweep might be just your bag. I look forward to hearing it again, when hopefully Pinchgut’s recording comes out next year.