This time, Italian composer Antonio Cesti’s Orontea – premiered in Innsbruck in 1656 and one of the most popular Italian operas of the 17th century – rollicked along with a host of spirited characters and their interwoven sexual affairs on Thursday’s opening night at Sydney’s City Recital Hall.
Audiences are advised that Orontea includes haze, sex scenes, partial nudity and use of toy cap guns. Forgotten was mention of a truckload of alcohol when bottle after bottle of wine was guzzled by one endearing character, Gelone, to the cause of doing whatever you please!
A couple of disruptive souls seated near me had exactly the same idea. Prudish, conservative and outmoded, Baroque opera is not. Especially in Pinchgut’s book.
Loyal Pinchgut fans have become accustomed to the vitality and sparkle that reside within the framework of Baroque opera’s oft-characteristic fizzing moral debates.
Orontea opens with Amore (Love) and La filosofia (Philosophy) arguing over their respective merits, sung splendidly from the hall’s boxes either side of the stage by Sofia Troncoso (doubling as Silandra) and Roberta Diamond (doubling as Giacinta) respectively. As they do, dancers Alexandra Graham and Ryan Smith bring characterful stage presence and remain an integral part.
Amore declares that philosophy is a mere folly while La filosofia dismisses as nonsense what Amore speaks. With that, Amore flys off to the royal palace where Orontea presides – she the fictional and fiercely independent Queen of Egypt – in order to win over any mockery of love. There on, a fascinating satirical poke at social etiquette and a tussle between love and reason ensues.
Never a dull moment arises as Sydney-based writer and director Constantine Costi spices things up with insightfulness and wit, conjuring a wealth of theatrical detail and vitality from Giacinto Andrea Cicognini’s intelligible, amusing and saucy libretto laced with double entendres.
As revival director for Opera Australia’s iconic Elijah Moshinsky production of Verdi’s La Traviata which just closed in Melbourne, Costi shows the same meticulous strength of hand in enhancing the drama.
Assisted by Shannon Burns’ unrestrained and natural choreography and an excellent cast well-equipped in expressive vocalism, comic subtlety and physical agility, Costi’s artistry is encapsulated in an edgy and modern romantic comedy fantasy.
Designs by Jeremy Allen (sets), Sabina Myers (costumes) and Damien Cooper (lighting) come together in a vibrant variety of eye-catching scenes with plenty of cheekiness. Taking the audience from the banquet hall to the bedroom, including a male strip club along the way, the several plot twists reach saturation as the cleverly conceived jester-like Amore works his magic.
Luscious and creamy voiced mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley is a gold power-suited knockout in the title role. Dowsley captures Orontea’s journey from disdain for love to unexpected attraction for the common painter Alidoro (who unbeknownst to him has royal blood) with glowing and comic ease and masterfully regulated vocal colouring and expression.
Then comes Orontea’s jealousy when Alidoro is seduced by the young courtesan Silandra (who was already tiresomely and hilariously bonking the courtier Corindo), followed by her coerced dismissal by Creonte of Alidoro from the court and eventual reunion with him in a convoluted, overflowing course of events.
Dowsley has much to contend with and never has her artistic guard down. Act 2’s poignantly contrasting arias either side of Alidoro’s confusion after being discovered with Silandra, E che vorresti? (And what is it you wish?) and Intorno all’idol mio (Around my idol) are special highlights as heartbroken rage and passionate longing are portrayed with complete conviction.
With heart-stealing ruggedness, Jonathan Abernethy’s warm, fireside tenor is the perfect match for the swooned-upon-by-all Alidoro. As the vixen-like Silandra, Sofia Troncoso’s penetrating and gloriously rich and translucent soprano has just as much impact as her character’s ways with men.
Tenor Douglas Kelly is a dashing polo player and charismatic in voice as Corindo. Always an artist to look forward to seeing, David Greco’s earthy-rich and resonant baritone boomed impressively as Orontea’s court philosopher and advisor, Creonte.
Roberta Diamond roller skates in and, disguised as a cowboy called Ismero, sings with gorgeously bright and mellifluous beauty as Giacinta, first in pursuit to kill Alidoro but then falls under Amore’s spell to pursue him in love.
Dominica Matthews is a dishevelled white-furred hoot as Alidoro’s presumed mother Arestea, who sings with lushness to the disguised Giacinta wanting ‘Ismero’ to be the trusty captain of her vessel – on a toilet seat! Pinchgut’s inaugural Taryn Fiebig Scholar and third tenor, Louis Hurley, is polished and gleaming in voice as an earnest schoolboy, the page Tibrino.
And the guzzling Gelone? Lyrically inviting and woolly bass-baritone Andrew O’Connor is pure joy to watch as he plays the fool and praises Bacchus, no lightweight role which Cesti shrewdly assigns almost as much music to as he does for Orontea.
Surrounded by an extended stage and catwalk which brings the action and voices delectably near, Cesti’s music bathes and splashes with lively undulating rhythm from a small band of 8 musicians of the Orchestra of the Antipodes with Erin Helyard conducting from the harpsichord and chamber organ.
Helyard keeps the momentum sailing along buoyantly, supporting the singers respectfully and evoking the rich musical onomatopoeic flourishes and melodic orchestral interludes with purpose.
Costi sums the evening up perfectly in the program notes in saying, “The characters are Amore’s playthings in a world where Love proves his eternal ability to make us mad.”
It comes as no surprise that Love is victorious. And the surprises in store are humorously and wildly irrepressible in this Pinchgut Orontea.
City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
Performance: Thursday 26 May 2022
Season continues to 1 June 2022
Information and Bookings: www.pinchgutopera.com.au
Image: The Cast of Orontea – photo by Brett Boardman
Review: Paul Selar