The Women of the Pietà 

Pinchgut Opera presents The Women of the Pietà photo by Albert ComperWhile even the beauty and divinity alone of The Women of the Pietà was enough to bring immense satisfaction at Thursday’s concert at Melbourne Recital Hall presented by Sydney-based Pinchgut Opera, it was the source of its curated works of sacred music that lent special poignancy to the evening.

For behind the vocal elegance and finesse of featured Australian soprano Miriam Allan, the 11 female voices of Cantillation and the 15 musicians of Orchestra of the Antipodes with Artistic Director Erin Helyard conducting from harpsichord, fascinating music history existed.

Dating from the 14th century, the Ospedale della Pietà was a convent orphanage in Venice, established as a charitable institution for orphans and deserted girls. Life at the orphanage could begin as an infant deposited at a window only big enough to admit them but their future could make them singers and musicians of virtuosic class.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, the Pietà, along with several other Venetian ospedali, became renowned. They attracted tourists and patrons from around Europe, including many well-known composers who served as music educators.

Among them was Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), beginning as a violin teacher in 1703 and appointed in a variety of positions through 1715, and again from 1723 to 1740.

Predominantly focused on a selection of Vivaldi’s music written within his years in the institution’s service, The Women of the Pietà felt just as much a tribute to the centuries of young females who performed from behind a metal grill, satiating their audience’s appetite for beauty and reflection.

On stage, Trent Suidgeest’s alluring lighting design achieved much in its evocation of the music’s past sacred space, employing shifts of softly bathed light and a scattered arrangement of electric candles and bulbs positioned around the musicians.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Horns in F Major (RV 539) headed the program, an ornate and colourful work spotlighting soloists Carla Blackwood and Dorée Dixon. The duo’s mastery of the valveless baroque horn was evident, charming too, as they separated their coveted instruments in two parts like magician rings between movements.

The first movement, triumphantly heraldic with one horn often delightfully trailing the other, suffered from a little wobbly nervousness. But the second velvety larghetto and joyous concluding allegro, in which the horns marvellously punctuate a net of warm rhythmic strings, were executed impressively. 

The first of two motets for solo voice, Vivaldi’s In furore iustissimae irae (RV 626), followed. Miriam Allan, widely known for singing at HRH Prince Philip’s funeral service in 2021, stood firmly, if somewhat sternly, and offered precious voice to the short work’s invocation to a forgiving God. 

An opening allegro particularly showcased the fine porcelain quality of Allan’s soprano – a most delicate and affecting sound – as well as rich vocal textures and fragile ornamentation. After a largo of particularly refined beauty, a jubilant and dexterous Alleluia likewise left its indelible mark.

When the 11 Cantillation singers filed in to take their positions at the rear of the stage with Allan joining them, it was as if the main course had arrived for Vivaldi’s grandiloquent Magnificat (RV 610).

Moving, meditative and treasurable, this Biblical canticle of the Virgin Mary – as a prayer of humility to the greatness of God – soared with divinely expressive feeling from ethereal to fleshy and layered with exquisitely textured harmonies.

An embedded highlight included a memorable rendering of the Esurientes, with Allan and lush soprano Chloe Lankshear exchanging warmly contrasting vocals and the concluding Gloria Patri made up of complex layers of sound in which distinctive parts rang out with unbound jubilation.

After interval, Allan returned for the second motet, Vivaldi’s Laudate pueri Dominum (RV 601), a similar prayer of praise to the Lord which included passages for flute accompaniment, mellifluously played by Mikaela Oberg.

It was here that Allan appeared at her most relaxed and navigated the variety of moods with exceptional dynamism and aplomb. The quivering breeziness of Sit nomen Domini, a dreamy and elegant A solis ortu and a Gloria Patri and Amen of striking ebullience displaying pure and rapid-fire coloratura showcased the breadth of Allan’s vocal appeal.

For the final piece, an overlapping generation of work was represented by composer Baldassare Galuppi (1706-85) with an Australian premiere of his Dixit Dominus. 

That Galuppi had become internationally known as an operatic composer seemed unsurprising given the rich theatrical drama and gem-studded nature of the work. Composed for a competing ospedale – the Incurabili, where he worked between the 1660s and 1670s – it brought a lush and fitting conclusion to a performance with women at its core. 

The baroque horns returned in celebratory support of the jollity and spaciousness of the opening allegro. Mezzo-soprano Keara Donohoe brought affecting restraint and beauty to Tecum principium.

There was also the strident and sequential bursts and rhythms of Dominis a dextris tuis, given exciting life by Allan and mezzo-soprano Hannah Fraser, the marvellous sculptured phrasing and shifting tempi afforded by all voices in Judicabit in nationibus and, to conclude, a brilliant no-stops Gloria Patri and Amen. 

When it was all done, smiles of pride beamed from the stage, Allan sang a gleaning encore – Purcell’s Now that the Sun hath veil’d his light with Helyard at the chamber organ – and an evening of glorious music touchingly brought the young women of the Pietà to light. 

The Women of the Pietà
Elisabeth Murdoch Hall – Melbourne Recital Centre, Corner Southbank Boulevard and Sturt Street, Southbank
Performance: Thursday 15 September 2022

Image: Pinchgut Opera presents The Women of the Pietà – photo by Albert Comper

Review: Paul Selar