Pinchgut Opera: The Spiritual Forest

Pinchgut-Opera-The-Spiritual-ForestIt is always rewarding to see our friends up north at Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera make a visit to Melbourne, bringing their beautifully curated Baroque selections and excellent artists to adorn the city’s rich cultural scene.

On this occasion, a superb and thoroughly captivating concert revealed ten selections from Claudio Monteverdi’s extensive 1641 opus, Selva morale e spirituale, in a performance entitled The Spiritual Forest.

In a mammoth publishing effort containing some forty different works of sacred music, Selva morale e spirituale reflects not only Monteverdi’s productive decades as maestro di cappella at Venice’s St Mark’s Basilica, but the diversity, inventiveness, dramatic sensibility and innate appeal of his music.

It was the last collection of the composer’s music published in his lifetime. Monteverdi died just two years later in 1643 at the age of 76 years.

Composed for eight voices in varying configurations with instrumental ensemble, the collection contains various forms of sacred music, comprising madrigals in Italian, a prominent anthology of psalms in Latin, hymns to the Virgin Mary and a complete Mass.

Nearly 380 years later, released from their liturgical setting, there is much to bask in for a contemporary ear and an open heart.

Artistic Director Erin Helyard’s compilations concentrate on the Latin works, consisting predominantly of psalms such as Dixit Dominus, Laudate Dominum and Beatus Vir.

Helyard’s selection did not however come without exceptional research, seasoned and intuitive expertise as well as meticulous reconstruction of many parts open to the director’s interpretation.

Along with Monteverdi’s works, the fruits of Helyard’s achievement dappled the hall divinely with vivid and uplifting orchestral foundations and intoxicating vocal harmonies.

For the evening’s 75-minute duration, keenly on show was Monteverdi’s ever-shifting moods and contrasts between music that both reverentially touches the earth and soars with humility and divinity to the heavens.

It could not have been better conveyed under Helyard’s embracing command of the eight singers and ten members of the Orchestra of the Antipodes as well as his nimble employment of the many colourful tempi and ornamentations.

A satisfying sense of camaraderie prevailed amongst the artists. The eight singers – sopranos Chloe Lankshear and Amy Moore, mezzo-sopranos Hannah Fraser and Anna Fraser, tenors Louis Hurley and Richard Butler, and basses David Greco and Andrew O’Connor – presented at the rear of the stage with musicians forward of them and Helyard presiding from the curious looking claviorgan (a compact combination of a keyboard instrument and an organ).

Apart from the benefit to patrons if the singers were raised just one of two steps to give those seated closer to the stage better visual connection, the music was otherwise set with well-balanced form.

Peter Rubie’s lighting design punctured and bathed the stage with subtle artistry with an occasional projection of fern blades and the hall’s own contouring timber relief walls adding to the effect.

Each of the ten selections was preceded by well-considered solo instrumentation that gently bound the pieces. Following a short prelude by Helyard at the claviorgan, Dixit Dominus à 8, SV264 introduced the eight singers with splendid results, their undulating harmonies and rhythmic vitality spun with sublime power and beauty and ending with the translucent purity of sopranos Chloe Lankshear and Amy Moore.

Harpist Hannah Lane plucked expertly away in the first of three tenderly felt harp insertions before sopranos Lankshear and Moore brought melting emotion to Salve Regina à 2, SV284.

Less one tenor (Hurley) and one bass (O’Connor), startling expression was given to the buoyant musical pleasure abounding in Beatus Vir à 6, SV268. Katrina Schmitz and Simone Slattery highlighted the violins heartily within, while a bucolic folk-like joy emanated from the vocal writing either side of a more solemnly depicted passage and ending in a long and resonant ‘Amen’. Thoughtfully performed, it held a special place on the night’s pedestal.

An introspective turn accompanied Simon Martyn-Ellis’ fine playing on theorbo, opening onto the excellent instrumental ensemble playing in a moderately paced depiction of Credidi del Quarto Tuono à 8, SV275.

Fluency and polish continued from all eight singers in Laudate Dominum Secondo à 8, SV273, Monteverdi seemingly unafraid to splash a little humour in its affecting soundscape.

In the only solo selection, Lankshear, a current Taryn Fiebig Scholar, sang Laudate Dominum in sanctis, SV287 with characterful expertise, her agile soprano dancing effortlessly on the notes, including moments of echoing her own music delightfully.

An impressively entwined cavernous, golden and radiant beauty accompanied bass (O’Connor), tenor (Butler) and mezzo-soprano (Fraser) in the confessional Confitebor Primo à 3 con 5 in ripieno, SV265.

A joyful atmosphere of praise to the Lord returned in Laudate Dominum Primo à 5 con stromenti (à 4), SV272, a piece for 5 singers and full instrumental accompaniment with Greco’s magnificent bass a fine asset to the picture.

The penultimate Laudate Pueri Primo à 5 con stromenti, SV270 opened and closed with tenors Hurley and Butler singing in bright parallel with sopranos Moore and Lankshear following the opening and O’Connor’s imposing smooth and deeply cut bass carrying forward.

A second setting of Dixit Dominus à 8, SV263 concluded the performance. Harnessing all artistic resources, the piece was energised with palpable motion and spilling with great emotion and included the excellent work of Nigel Crocker and Brett Page on sackbut in a lovely accompaniment to tenors Butler and Hurley.

Gloria, Alleluia and Amen! The words featured large in The Spiritual Forest and, beyond that, little grasp of Latin was required to savour Monteverdi’s compositional prowess and enlightening drama while not forgetting Helyard’s magnificent contribution to art’s purpose.

Melbourne audiences are fortunate to see a return of Pinchgut Opera in September with Vivaldi’s Women of the Pietà. Add that to the diary!

The Spiritual Forest
Elizabeth Murdoch Hall – Melbourne Recital Centre, Southbank Boulevard, Southbank
Performance: Tuesday 5 April 2022

Image: Pinchgut Opera presents The Spiritual Forest at the Melbourne Recital Centre (supplied)

Review: Paul Selar