The wonderful thing about Pinchgut Opera is that mediocrity just isn't an option. The success of a company like Opera Australia rises and falls on variables — singers, directors, conductors and so on, who change with every show. With Pinchgut it's all about the constants. We know they'll choose intriguing repertoire, and we know roughly from which era it will come. We know the fabulous Orchestra of the Antipodes will be involved, and that if there's a chorus, it will be Cantillation. We know they'll cast singers who are completely at ease with the opera's stylistic demands. And we know that all the above will be shown off beautifully by the City Recital Hall acoustic. So long before we arrive at the performance — in fact, before we even know what that performance will actually be — the foundations of excellence are already set, and all the company has to do to make us happy is just be itself. The rest is so many cherries on top.
Thus we come to Pinchgut's 2009 production, Cavalli's L'Ormindo, and right near the top of my personal list of cherries is director Talya Masel. This was Pinchgut's first comedy in a while — all I've ever seen them do previously is military drama — and it could hardly have been placed in better hands. I interviewed Talya for Fine Music a couple of months ago, and her passion for the art form (and for life in general) was utterly infectious; I could happily have chatted to her for hours. That same exuberance burst forth in her production of L'Ormindo, which embraced both absurdity and plain humanity with equal affection. The tumultuousness of this opera might be over the top, but the fundamental emotional crises behind it aren't actually very far from normal life. Masel's production reflected this nicely, having enormous fun with the show, indulging in its excesss, but maintaining just enough dignity to make the serious bits as engaging as the farcical ones. Adam Gardnir's colourful costumes (Arabian Nights for the women, Casablanca for the men) and cartoonish sand dune set — from which I expected Morocco Mole to materialise at any moment — were thoroughly charming, and the whole thing was lit astutely by Bernie Tan-Hayes, who was clearly in on the joke. (Serious kudos is also due to Mark Gaal and Sean Hall, who stepped in at very short notice to complete rehearsals after Masel was obliged to return urgently to Melbourne. The result was laudably seamless.)
Pinchgut casts are always good, but with this one I think they outdid themselves. In the four years I've been Pinchgutting, this was the strongest set of singers I've heard, and all the more impressive for the fact that only one of them was imported — Australia seems to have a real knack for producing first rate early music singers. That single import was of course our Ormindo: the very welcome and very talented David Walker. He isn't exactly the most ardent lover ever to grace a stage, but there's a sort of dry wit and open, easygoing spirit to his stage presence which I really rather like. And his voice, especially once it hits its stride, is just lovely: pure and clear, with an expressive strength winningly clothed in airy sweetness. His rival for the Queen's affections was not quite so convincing; Trevor Pichanick's singing was attractive and increasingly confident, but his awkward stage presence on opening night was difficult to really engage with — more schoolboy than military hero, although he seemed more at ease once he was restored to his true love.
Ormindo might be the title role, but there's no question that the show belongs to the object of his affections, the Moroccan queen, Erisbe — especially when the Erisbe in question is the magnificent Fiona Campbell, for once given the chance to play a girly part instead of a pants role. Her radiant, pliable voice wrapped itself around this wide-ranging role with silky expressivity and exquisite dynamic control. Hers was a curiously adorable adultress, one so completely sincere even at her most scandalous that to reproach her misbehaviour seemed unthinkable. No wonder her elderly husband ended up indulging her roving eye so completely. How could anybody resist?
Ah, but if it's irresistibility we're talking about, then I must talk about Taryn Fiebig. I've expressed reservations — sometimes quite serious reservations — about Taryn in other roles, but I had no such qualms about her performance here, as the princess Sicle. Cavalli is home territory for Taryn, the kind of repertoire in which she first made a splash, and it absolutely showed, in idiomatic, imaginative and glitteringly gorgeous singing which was far and away the best I've heard from her. Her acting was no less engaging — she seemed to be having the time of her life up there, and her glee was infectious. I can't deny that I've had a troubled relationship with Taryn's singing; but if her subsequent performances live up to this one, well, things might just get a whole lot simpler.
Of course, it wouldn't be opera without a little bit of cross dressing and Cavalli and his librettists provide us with both varieties. There's a breeches role in the form of Nerillo, Amida's page (sung very cutely by a gamine Jane Sheldon) and then, much more prominently, a female role written for a male voice — Sicle's nurse Erice, sung by Kanen Breen. What better role to show off Kanen's gift for contortive travesti insanity? He was a total show-stealer as the lascivious old nurse, camping it up something atrocious, while twisting both his voice and his body (let's not forget he's a dancer too) into outrageous knots. His delivery of Erice's "Verginella infelice" — a sort of (rather more graphic) seventeenth-century version of Zerbinetta's "Als ein Gott" — more or less brought down the house. And amidst all of these high, high voices, Richard Anderson's stern Ariadeno (the King, you know) was, I have to admit, welcome relief. He made much of a pretty limited role, his reasonably dignified presence balancing Erisbe's mockery of his impotence.
L'Ormindo doesn't include a chorus, so there was no job for Cantillation this year. They did, however, supply a couple of soloists. As the captain Osmano, Andrei Laptev didn't have much to sing until the latter part of the opera, but when the chance came, his bright tenor was quite a revelation. Anna Fraser was even more remarkable. In last year's David et Jonathas all she had was a couple of lines; here she sang not one, but two roles, playing both Melide (Sicle's lady-in-waiting) and Mirinda (Erisbe's companion). It was really quite a tour de force. Her singing was elegant and delicately shaded, easily holding its own against that of her more experienced colleagues, and her fabulous rendition of Mirinda's "Vecchi, insensati" (a hilarious diatribe against the folly of May-December romances) proved she's as stylish a comedienne as she is a singer.
All this energy and fabulousness is nothing less than Cavalli's mercurial melodrama deserves. The libretto covers a vast deal of emotional territory — the music is similarly wide-ranging — and it all happens at a pretty cracking pace, especially in the first two acts. In the sublimely capable hands of the Orchestra of the Antipodes, Cavalli's sparse scoring came to life with astonishing colour and expressivity. The vocal writing is continuous and conversational, but the recitative, copious as it is, is appealingly varied, and, when delivered with as much nuance as it was here, it's as vivid as any aria. Conductor Erin Helyard (co-artistic director the company) led from the harpsichord, and his energetic, sensitive and very mobile leadership was enchanting to hear and a delight to watch — Helyard conducts, it seems, with his whole body, his movements so intertwined with the music that it's difficult to know who's controlling whom. This is the first time he's conducted a Pinchgut production; I really, really hope he'll do it again soon.
Two days after closing night, the moment for saying You Should Go has obviously passed, so I shall have to settle for I Hope You Went. As consistently excellent as Pinchgut's productions are, I think this one might just have topped the lot. It was certainly my favourite of the four I've seen, and not just because it was so funny — although that did help. But above all, this was Pinchgut doing what it does best, and doing it even better than last time, with an inspired choice of repertoire brought to the stage by a seriously gifted creative team. Jokes or no jokes, that's a pretty irresistible combination.