Sydney-based Pinchgut Opera made their welcome return to Melbourne with a right right royal treat on Thursday evening when the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall stage hosted two unfussy, short and sweet operas originally written for King Louis XIV, the Sun King who ruled France from 1643 to 1715.
Infused with lovely singing, harmonious music and a first for Melbourne – a delightful semi-staging – it bodes well for the company as local audiences build an affinity with their fresh and polished approach to baroque repertoire.
Pleasures of Versailles could very well be the tasty hors d’oeuvres for future fully-staged work for Melbourne and which the company have been producing for 20 years.
From the great French composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, the French sung Les plaisirs de Versailles (The Pleasures of Versailles) and Italian sung Amor vince ogni cosa (Love Conquers All) notch up around 20 minutes each.
Written as divertissements and performed to a select number invited into the king’s private apartments while dinner and other hoity-toity goings on were the sure focus, such works simply fluffed out the evening with amusing and often innocuous content. And it never harmed to lavish a little praise on the king in the process.
A raised fake grass and topiary-set stage, giving the impression of a broad terrace, and a changing background contained by a trellised arch to which it overlooks, are the hallmarks of Melanie Liertz’s simple but well-considered design.
To the left Artistic Director Erin Helyard presided from the harpsichord, a coequal among his 7 musicians of the Orchestra of the Antipodes whose blending and expertise both entertained and impressed. The tonal beauty and colours of the viola da gamba at the hands of Laura Vaughan particularly shone as did the flute playing by Melissa Farrow and Mikaela Oberg.
Proceedings began with Charpentier’s Sonate à 8, a pleasant 9 movement work, 3 of which are dances. Unfolding with moods reflective, downbeat and attractively sunny, its almost 20-minute length, however, held the tiny operas – butted together without pause – at bay for too long.
The lengthy tuning prior to the opening operatic piece, Les plaisirs de Versailles, further broke the effect. I wondered if two brief orchestral preludes would have offered greater benefit.
That gripe brushed aside, fittingly contrasted sopranos and characterful actors Cathy-Di Zhang and Lauren Lodge-Campbell took centre stage in the roles of La Conversation and La Musique respectively in Les plaisirs de Versailles. For it, costumes cleverly and subtlety alluded to the idle rich of the 1930s or thereabouts.
La Musique tries to sing but is forever being interrupted by the chatterbox, La Conversation. What ensues is a comic argument that encompasses the various pleasures enjoyed at court.
Michael Petruccelli’s warm tenor resonated handsomely as Le Jeu (The Game). David Greco, as the God of Feasts, served up hot chocolate to everyone’s joy accompanied by his solid and secure baritone and colourful mezzo-soprano Hannah Fraser joined in to the singing of pleasures with a little diplomacy.
Which was better, music, dancing, conversation, eating, drinking, gambling, or games? It didn’t really matter. The whole point was to lavish praise upon their king – momentarily depicted in animated form in hilarious toe-tapping form in all his regalia – with the whole affair ending in a humorous staccato chorus of laughter.
As the first bars of Amor vince ogni cosa got underway, the singers made minor costume adjustments for a quaint and ludicrous episode in which two shepherdesses, Filli and Eurilla, unconvinced by the need for lovers, have an abrupt change of mind when their suitors, Linco and Silvo, save their flocks.
It’s no surprise how it turns out as the title clearly spells the outcome out. An obliging Pan, god of shepherds and flocks, is there to assist, sung with authority by Greco who disappointingly acted with the score in hand.
Nevertheless, the rippling energy of Charpentier’s score was vibrantly brought to life with Lodge-Campbell, as Filli, providing an especially irresistible and angelic-voiced highlight with Andante, cercate la vostra ventura, pecorine, miei meschine! (Go, roam free to seek your fortune, my poor sheep!) as two cut-out lambs are wafted about her.
Zhang’s lithe and richly voiced Eurilla, Petrucelli’s ardent Silvo and Fraser’s soldierly Linco made up the quartet of lovers, enacting the generously thoughtful and brisk direction from movement director Shannon Burns.
All in all, showcasing a rare glimpse into the theatrical pleasures enjoyed by the Sun King, Pinchgut Opera, once again, have built on their repertoire and reputation as baroque specialists.
On this fun and fine occasion, bang on 70 minutes when the performance was over, an entertained audience could retire for dinner – most of us in comparatively less hoity-toity company and surroundings.
Pleasures of Versailles
Elisabeth Murdoch Hall – Melbourne Recital Centre, Sturt Street, Southbank
Performance: Thursday 14 September 2023
Images: The Pleasures of Versailles – photos by Cassandra Hannagan
Review: Paul Selar