★★★★☆ Nuanced and beguiling exercise in 17th-century performance practice.

Grant Street Theatre, Victorian College of the Arts
September 28, 2016

For many of us, Marc-Antoine Charpentier is known for a single piece, his Messe de minuit pour Noël, the Christmas Midnight Mass (1690). Yet, this master of the French Baroque produced dozens of exquisite gems during his long term in Paris as maître de musique for Sainte-Chapelle. This was the second most important musical post in France after Versailles, a royal appointment he held from 1698 until his death in 1704. It is a rare delight to experience any of his pieces, his ballets and pastorales, his ballets and divertissements, much less a full-length opera.

Aux enfers, Timothy Reynolds as Orphée, foreground

The interconnection between music and affect features strongly in the interdisciplinary work of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions at the University of Melbourne. The Centre provides the groundwork for its researchers within its Performance Programme in investigating how emotions were expressed and performed in the historical past.

The preparation of this Orphee entailed several intensive weeks of preparing student singers and instrumentalists in 17th-century French style of singing, playing and declamation. (All the more remarkable that only one of the students had any experience in speaking French.) This period of study encouraged each student to establish individual interpretations and realisations of their characters, in both musical and dramatic terms. On this occasion, the staging, directed by Jane Davidson, did not attempt the near impossible task of historical recreation faithful to the letter. Rather, it embraced the spirit of the time, investigating ways in which performers and their audience could find bonds between the music, drama and emotional dimensions of the famous Orpheus fable.

Amelia Jones as the bride, Euridice, with her colleagues

On two evenings last week, the tiny Grant Street Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts (seating around 120) was packed with people keen to experience the rare delight of a French Baroque opera. The splendid French series Versailles, screened last month on SBS television, drew out images, but hardly sounds of the extravagance and intricacies of the period. By necessity, only shadows of this were present last week, in a production pared-down and resourcefully low-key, with emphasis falling on sound and gesture, rather than mere visual opulence.

The cast of 19 young performers (10 males, 9 females) was uniformly charming (in the Arcadian pastorale of Act 1) and ghoulish (in the punk-inspired hell of Act 2). In the role of Orpheus, MCM alumnis Timothy Reynolds (tenor) was particularly impressive. Returning to Melbourne after a period of work and study in Europe, Reynolds exhibited both conviction and sorrow on the loss of his beloved Eurydice, in a firm, well-rounded voice and constrained gestural response. As Eurydice, Amelia Jones was an appropriately wooden figure swathed in a beauteous mezzo-soprano voice. Of the other cast members, the bass Liam Hedland as the dastardly Pluton delivered a somewhat restrained performance which, if the period-style rubric would accommodate it, could have benefited from a little more menace and equivocation as he pondered the plight of Orpheus.

The Chorus of Furies in the Underworld

Working with his unfettered imagination as much as his restricted budget, Jacob Battista achieved some effective and undemonstrative design moments, illuminated by Brittany Pholi’s lighting. Overall though, it was Jane Davidson’s understated guidance in creating naturalistic movement, both in ensemble formations and individual characterisations, that did much to elevate the tone and accomplishment of her young cast.

In recent years, I have been fortunate to have experienced several of the productions of Pinchgut Opera in Sydney. For these performances Erin Helyard and David Irving delivered musical standards of truly international excellence that thrill and transport audiences. Something of that spirit infused what we heard last week. Helyard and Irving are distinguished scholars and prized recent appointments to Melbourne University. For this production, their band of period instruments, comprising pairs of harpsichords, gambas, violins, a baroque triple harp, lutes and a giraffe-like bass theorbo, created a kaleidoscope of sonorities using an equal mean-tone temperament.

The Miscreants in the Underworld

In all, this was a nuanced and beguiling exercise in 17th-century performance practice, a glimpse of what audiences in Melbourne, and – one hopes, elsewhere – may see in the years ahead.