Sydney’s City Recital Hall hosted the opening night to a fresh opera production from Pinchgut Opera last night. The opera is “Giustino” (pronounced Joo-STEEN-orh) by Giovanni Legrenzi. Have you heard of Legrenzi before? Maybe not. Yet, through the late 1600’s he was a major force in the music world of Venice. His students included Vivaldi, Antonio Lotti and possibly Antonio Caldara.
Legrenzi was innovative in giving formal structure to sonatas where the movements were distinct from one another and naming them by their tempi to help guide musicians in their interpretation. His guidance in this matter has since been followed for four hundred years. He was a major influence on Alessandro Scarlatti, referred to by George Frideric Handel and even Bach senior. The title of his work BWV 574 is “Thema Legrenzianum. Elaboratum per Joan [sic] Seb. Bach.” Legrenzi was legendary enough to have his name as an adjective.
Much of his career revolved around church music and he had 7 years working for the type of “hospital” that is more like the orphanage for young ladies in Vivaldi’s career. Opera composing really only began when Legrenzi was in his mid 50’s so there are not a lot of them, however, what remains today includes “Giustino” which is filled with catchy tunes, fugues, plot twists, fierce monsters and a fast paced storyline. The cast is small with no singing chorus and the orchestra is limited to nine strings and a trumpet. This makes it ideal in the Baroque period to be performed in small theatres or private mansions plus, it’s the perfect size for City Recital Hall.
Pinchgut’s production is superb. They really set the ultimate example of what can be achieved on a limited budget. Using a hand painted backdrop they use lighting to change the image dramatically from one scene to the next. Scallop shell footlights create that old time feel of watching performers on an original stage. There’s a well designed block of basic geometric shapes and steps that is revolved by hand, each angle representing a new scene. The shapes are clear enough such that when the block is turned back to an angle you’ve seen before, you already know where the scene is set – just brilliant. The performers, lean against it, hide behind it, climb over it, get chained to it, throw things over it and create a political hierarchy using the steps.
Joining the singers on stage are four dance based ensemble players who add large scale puppetry, play courtiers, infantry and whatever else is required to enhance the scenes. Movement director Shannon Burns has created choreography which is easily executed by ensemble and singers alike. Director Dean Bryant has created a whole new culture for this fantasy kingdom complete with unique ways to greet, dance and pay homage to leaders. The story easily and cohesively flows from one scene to the next. Even in Italian with classy sur-titles in English curving around the top edge of the scenery, it is very easy to follow the story. The flow of emotions is also clear and relatable including passion, ambition, new found love, greed and not only jealousy, but fear jealousy is taking hold. These multi layers of emotion, written into the libretto, provide a sophisticated framework and Bryant’s direction picks up on all the detail giving you plenty more to catch if you choose to see this production a second time.
Who is in the cast? In the self titled role stands Internationally renowned male alto, Nicholas Tamagna (The Met, Handel Festivals in Halle and Göttingen, Bayreuth Baroque). He fully immersed himself in the character making it very easy to relate to his dreams of greatness and his astonishment at the opportunities which lead him far beyond what he’d hoped for. Tamagna’s acting was very natural. A clear, well controlled, powerful voice and a good dollop of humour made him popular with both cast and audience. A number of times, when the cast were all on stage, his aura grew to star size capturing the attention of all and sundry. Excellent work. We hope to see him in Sydney again some time soon.
Leading soprano was award winning kiwi Madeleine Pierard (Royal Opera Covent Garden, London Coliseum, English Touring Opera and concert halls all around Europe and Oceania). The role of Empress requires a highly advanced vocalist with power and accuracy plus a noble countenance. Pierard easily coped with all requirements and her dramatic abilities kept the audience attention held throughout her adventures. We loved her Tarot card inspired costumes (Designer Melanie Liertz) but found that sitting her right in front of a bright footlights was not the most flattering lighting for our diva of the night. Hopefully this direction can be adjusted.
Tenor Jacob Lawrence, an Australian now based in Basel, played her Emperor Anastasio. With height and charm in his favour, he played a very relatable character and his love for historic music and stagecraft served him well.
Pinchgut regular Chloe Lankshear nabbed the most sensual character of the night, goddess Fortuna. Wearing a sheer black and gold flowing gown she let herself fly free in this role dancing and floating between the scenes, observing and often amused at the human drama on terra firma. The role was beautifully suited to her and her singing was outstanding enough to have the audience still talking about it after the performance. Brava, Chloe.
Two counter tenors played brothers. Owen Willetts from England has performed across Europe, in Moscow, Scandinavia and America and played the voice of Farinelli on London’s West End. In the role of Vitaliano he delighted the audience with his classic Baddie intentions, easily pivoting in a totally different direction following the great plot twist. He is a wonderful voice and fun actor. Local Russell Harcourt played Andronico, Vitaliano’s love struck little brother. The scene between them when it is time to escape the prison had the audience laughing. Composer Legrenzi must have had a soft spot for whomever played the original Andronico because he has some of the most beautiful tunes in the whole opera. The diamond strength of Willett’s voice was a lovely contrast to Harcourt’s more velvety tones.
Lauren Lodge-Campbell played Eufemia and was well suited to the role playing the coquette, consistent, reliable and sweet. Her voice was lovely. There is room to develop this character further through the season with multiple opportunities offered in a diverse emotional landscape.
Louis Hurley was impressive as Amanzio, literally the best singing we’ve heard from him compared to past Pinchgut performances. Great work, Louis! It’s a fun character which could be extended further as well so, we encourage him to be bold!
Another Pinchgut regular Andrew O’Connor played Polimante and the Ghost who brings astonishing news. He’s the only one that got to do the classic Baddie laugh which delighted the audience. Again, both these character roles could be expanded further to match with the large scale drama of the storyline.
Last but certainly not least, special mention must be made to Musical Director Erin Helyard who was kept busy playing pipe organ, harpsichord, leading the orchestra and cuing the cast. The music is ever changing. For such a long opera of almost 3 hours, there was never a dull moment and Helyard’s leadership shines forth as a vital component to holding the production together and driving it forward. The superb Orchestra of the Antipodes, lead by Matthew Greco, looked like they were having fun. Their interpretation and unity cannot be beaten. They effortlessly merged with cast and crew to present a solid production where no one component stands out of alignment.
We recommend you put the effort into seeing this production of Giustino. It is well worth your while.
Giustino runs until 31 May 2023. Reserve your tickets at the Pinchgut Opera website: https://www.pinchgutopera.com.au/giustino-1
Nicholas Tamagna – Giustino
Madeleine Pierard – Empress Arianna
Jacob Lawrence – Regent Anastasio
Lauren Lodge-Campbell – Eufemia, the Empress’ sister
Owen Willetts – Vitaliano, the tyrant
Russell Harcourt – Andronico, Vitaliano’s brother
Louis Hurley – Amanzio, Anastasio’s jealous General
Andrew O’Connor – Polimante, Vitaliano’s captain
Chloe Lankshear – Fortuna, the goddess
Ensemble – Bridgette Coach, Kiana Gallop-Angeles, Dohoon Kwon, Thomas Remaili
Orchestra of the Antipodes
Conductor – Erin Helyard
Director – Dean Bryant
Sets – Jeremy Allen
Costumes – Melanie Liertz
Lighting – Damien Cooper
Movement – Shannon Burns
What’s on at City Recital Hall? https://www.cityrecitalhall.com/whats-on?range=upcoming
Counter Tenor Nicholas Tamagna on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/ntamagna
Learn more about composer Giovanni Legrenzi: https://operawire.com/composer-profile-giovanni-legrenzi-a-major-venetian-composer-of-the-late-barque-era/