Sunday, April 7, 2019

Pinchgut Opera return south for a rousing night of Bach and Telemann at Melbourne Recital Centre

After more than 15 years of building a strong identity in the world of baroque opera, Sydney-based Pinchgut Opera finally have their eye on Melbourne. Last December the company’s first step into the city came with American coloratura mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux in concert. For their second trip south on Saturday night, another highly enthusiastic audience had the good fortune of witnessing the exciting sound Artistic Director Erin Helyard never fails to extract from the Orchestra of the Antipodes and the period instruments they perform on. 

Erin Helyard conducting the Orchestra of the Antipodes at
in Bach and Telemann at Melbourne Recital Centre
The program consisted of two works. J. S. Bach’s more commonly performed Easter Oratorio from 1725 took the second half to an uplifting close but it was the Australian premiere of Georg Philipp Telemann’s Thunder Ode of 1756/1760 that not only stimulated with its wide-ranging colours, moods and tempos but from which Helyard - conducting from harpsichord and chamber organ - especially uncovered layers of musical spice that made it the more rousing of the two.

Opening with a majestic hymn and followed by a succession of arias, Telemann’s two-part Thunder Ode, written in response to Lisbon’s devastating earthquake on All Saints’ Day 1755, showcased just how inventive baroque music could be. Five soloists - Alexandra Oomens, Anna Dowsley, Richard Butler, David Greco and Andrew O’Connor - worked divinely as a chorus, having the ability to both shine with individual clarity and showing attentiveness to the balance they created with each of their colleagues. 

Oomens was the first soloist to take centre stage as the others sat two aside, her angelic and breezy soprano filtering the air with "Bringt her, ihr Helden”. It was the second part’s “Schönster von allen Geschlechten” that Oomens branded excellence on every aspect of her performance with daintily pure tones and inviting innocent gazes with Melissa Farrow and Mikaela Oberg surrounding her with mellifluous flute obbligato. 

Soprano Alexandra Oomens and mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley
Dowsley assuredly established her command of “Fallt vor ihm hin”’s doleful strains with her full and rich mezzo-soprano, effortlessly gliding through her broad range with cleanly produced notes. Butler’s light and sunny tenor seemed a misjudged match for the short and frantic “Die Stimme Gottes erschüttert die Meere”. Muscular and plentiful in rugged bass voice, Greco impressed with his opening, “Die Stimme Gottes zerschmettert die Zedern” as did O’Connor in “Sie Stürzt Die Stolzen Gebirge Zusammen” with his smoky timbre and contrasting smooth, lyrical style. Greco and O’Connor’s ricocheting duet, “Er donnert, daß er verherrlichet werde”, highlighted the panache of a maverick with its wowing, earth-shattering display of the action and reaction of lighting and thunder, sung with Brian Nixon’s rumbling timpani. 

The second part soared with equal magnificence, including O’Connor’s flexible agitations in “Scharf Sind Deine Geschosse” to Carla Blackwood’s expert horn playing. Greco delivered a strident “Gürt An Dein Schwert!” and a reprise of the opening hymn, “Wie Ist Dein Name So Groß” concluded the second part in a euphoric blend of orchestral and vocal beauty you might have wished had no ending. And when thoughts were deflected from the actual splendour of the music, the large-titled translated text directed them no end to how great Thy Lord and God is. Telemann not only represented the symbolism of nature’s forces at work, but rallied Christians to a blameless God who could alleviate suffering - not such an easy sell today.

Erin Helyard, Orchestra of the Antipodes and soloists at
Melbourne Recital Centre in Bach and Telemann
In the second half, despite its nobility, its strengths and a timely presentation as Christians approach Holy Week, Bach’s Easter Oratorio sat in the shadow of Telemann’s work. An opening sinfonia and adagio showcased the warm string playing but the recorders and trumpets occasionally dithered. The chorus and duet of tenor and bass - Butler’s Peter and Greco’s John - followed with accomplished luminosity in “Kommt, eilet und laufet”. Though the aria overstays its welcome, Oomens returned with a stunningly beautiful and atmospheric “Seele, deine Spezereien” as Mary, daughter of James. Butler lost audibility in the bottom of the voice in an otherwise fluidly sung “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” and Dowsley’s treasurable fertile vocals resounded in “Saget, saget mir geschwinde” as Mary Magdalene after combining with Oomens in a superb recitative. So too was Greco’s robust recitative that followed. And in a marvellously sung final chorus of “Preis und Dank” Christ’s resurrection was celebrated while Hell and the devil are overcome. 

Oddly, I couldn’t help thinking how the celebrated J.S. Bach was outshone by Telemann. Was Bach’s work considered an appropriate accompaniment to an Australian premiere because Easter is upon us? Was it going to sell more tickets? Personally, I would have savoured a night full of Telemann. Still, it’s easy to bask in Pinchgut Opera’s glorious work.

Perhaps it’s simply my optimism at work but I’m putting it out there and saying it won’t be long before the company presents a short season of staged opera in Melbourne as they do at Sydney’s City Recital Hall twice a year. The city’s healthy helpings of opera are noticeably missing the baroque gems that Pinchgut Opera are winning awards for. 

Bach and Telemann
Pinchgut Opera
Melbourne Recital Centre, 6th April 2019
Sydney Recital Hall, 7th April 2019

Production Photos: Albert Comper

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