City Recital Hall, Sydney, December 5

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

Pinchgut Opera adds immeasurably to Sydney’s operatic life with its annual (and next year, two) productions of a baroque opera.

This year it is staging Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone, first performed in Venice in 1649. Hugely popular in its day, it was revived all over Italy for 40 years.

You can see why. Though the paper-thin plot is somewhat ridiculous, it’s rollicking good fun as well as downright steamy at times – with passion and tragic poignancy too. And the music is glorious.

The story of the opera is loosely based on the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts and the search for the Golden Fleece. In a nutshell, during his quest Jason has seduced and then abandoned Isifile, Queen of Lemnos, despite fathering twin boys with her.

He is now passionately involved with Medea, Queen of Colchis (though he doesn’t know her identity), who uses magic to help him capture the Fleece. When Isifile reappears, Giasone plots her murder but the wrong queen goes over the cliff (leading to one of the funniest lines of the night from Giasone’s personal servant Ercole, “I only kill one queen per day.”)

Medea survives her plunge into the sea and all ends happily (Cavalli doesn’t include her murder of her children with Jason) with Medea returning to former lover Egeo and Jason to Isifile.

Unlike his colleague Monteverdi, Cavalli happily combines grand drama and low comedy in robust fashion, while the music has a dance-like vitality at times as well as a languorous, haunting beauty at others.

The opera originally ran around four hours but conductor Erin Helyard has here trimmed it back to a more manageable two-and-a-half hours including interval. Helyard’s passion for the music is palpable and infectious. He is in constant motion as he conducts, almost dancing as he channels the score while mouthing the words. He’s a joy to watch.

Chas Rader-Shieber who directs and co-designs with Katren Wood helms a deliciously tongue-in-cheek production that makes the most of the comedy while managing to balance it with the underlying passion.

The only moment that doesn’t quite work is when Isifile, expecting to be murdered by Giasone, asks that he kills her slowly but begs that her breasts not be mutilated so that her babies can suckle cold milk at her breast one last time – a gruesome image, but a line that it would be hard to pull off in this day and age. On opening night there was laughter.

The staging is economical but effective with an in-built proscenium, two gauzy curtains, a couple of doors in a back wall, and a few well chosen props. The contemporary costumes work extremely well too.

David Hansen is superb as incorrigible love-rat Giasone. Making an unforgettable, wonderfully camp entrance in a pink bath, naked apart from a few bubbles, he makes a dashingly handsome, charismatic Giasone whether in white naval suit or itty-bitty pink towel.

But even more beautiful is his rich, soaring, shining countertenor: a gorgeous instrument that he uses with great skill and an innate sense of drama. He is also a fine actor and whatever the vicissitudes of the plot, he manages to make them convincing.

Celeste Lazarenko is also in fine, versatile voice as the spirited Medea, well matched with Hansen in their duets. Sexy in her long red gown, she gives a strong performance dramatically, while Miriam Allan brings dignity and stillness to Isifile, singing with a pure, true voice.

The rest of the cast all create vividly drawn, well-sung characters: Andrew Goodwin as Egeo, Medea’s faithful, noble lover, Nicholas Dinopoulos as Giasone’s disapproving servant Ercole, and David Greco as Isifile’s servant Oreste.

In the buffo roles, tenor Adrian McEniery is very funny as the nurse, cross-dressed in a smart two-piece suit with a comically unflattering wig, handbag and hairy legs, while Christopher Saunders does his best with Demo, Egeo’s stammering, hunchback servant, here given a leg calliper – the one character that feels dated.

As the young, lithesome servant Alinda, Alexandra Oomens, who is still studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, shows great promise with a lovely voice.

All in all, it’s a stunning production and another feather in Pinchgut’s already well-covered cap.

There’s one more performance today. Opera lovers shouldn’t miss it.

Giasone plays at City Recital until December 9. Bookings: 02 8256 2222

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