Sunday, June 26, 2016

Pinchgut Opera bestows marvellous musicality on Haydn's Armida in Sydney

Pinchgut Opera's penchant for presenting rarely performed works never seems to disappoint in bringing to life the stories and music audiences encountered long, long ago.

For its current offering, Joseph Haydn's Armida stands tall within the generous height of Sydney's City Recital Hall, a venue in which limitations for theatrical staging appear unnoticeable with the reliably intelligent and creative work we've become accustomed to from them. On this occasion, first impressions reveal a strikingly handsome production from U.S. director Crystal Manich.

Rachelle Durkin as Armida
Armida is the last of Haydn's dozen or so operas he composed in the isolated but culturally vibrant palatial Eszterháza Estate in Hungary, where he resided from 1766 to 1790. First performed in 1784, Haydn considered Armida his finest opera and, despite protruded vacillations from the protagonists and gaps in narrative flow, it is never short on musical richness and pleasure which conductor and outgoing Artistic Director Antony Walker shaped with virtuosity and understanding. From the 27-member Orchestra of the Antipodes, on period instruments, a crisp and fulsome music emanated from the strings, a natural charm from the woodwind and a detached splendour from the percussion. Only the brass seemed to tire in this battleground where love proves to be a thornier issue than politics, a small quibble for what was endlessly marvellous music-making.

Based on Torquato Tasso's poem Gerusalemme liberata of 1581, Armida is sorceress, seductress and, with magical powers to ensnare the enemy warriors with her charm, a weapon in the torrid fight against the Frankish Crusaders. She is also jilted lover, as well as symbolising distractions and the seemingly strategic bluff which can turn a situation upside down with unexpected chaos we never see coming - in light of modern day relevance, Armida is a symbol of many a fresh counterpart.

In this operatic version, the story begins with Armida already having captured the heroic knight, Rinaldo, who has fallen under her spell but whom she has now devilishly fallen in love with.

Originally, the story is set in various locations around the royal palace of Damascus. Here, Alicia Clements's set design achieves a remarkable sense of spatial diversity and interest in allowing the story to breath. While it all begins with a sense of dramatic aptness and a non-specific period, a lack of distillation of the copious details and trimmings thrown at it, however, messes things up a little. On top of that, while making many excellent choices to navigate the story across punctuated scenes, director Crystal Manich doesn't always succeed in finding focus within this creative jigsaw.

A monumental staircase without balustrade turns impressively up from the side to a cantilevered platform on the back of which an anomalous fenestrated window is curtained and which the blooming myrtle tree (host to Armida's powerful magic) looks imprisoned when it appears in Act 3. Flat cutouts are stuck on here and there to evoke mountainous terrain and below, a crumbling wall provides occasional stage access. At its best, a spindly grove of leafless branches provides a space for the enemy camp.

Rachelle Durkin as Armida and Leif Aruhn-Solén as Rinaldo
Everyone is adorned with either cape or long-coat, some glitteringly gorgeous, in an eclectic confusion from costume designer Christie Milton. Even Matthew Marshall's lighting design, which engulfs and sharpens the setting in swathes of evocative artistry, exudes restlessness. But as a whole, striking as they are, the creative results bite with a niggling sense of overkill. What really elevates the production, aside from Haydn's resplendently spun music, is the solid vocal work from the two leads.

Soprano Rachelle Durkin gives a ferociously fine performance as the volcano-hearted Armida and aligns her luscious and commanding technique to her character's ranging emotional and behavioural shifts from agitation and rage to supplication and introspection. Strong and competent in turning recitative into exceptional theatrical and vocal strands, then breathing with ease in arias of compelling liquidity, Durkin appears to never waver as she heads towards her vengeful end. Untiringly, Durkin impressed further as if concocting her own ornamentations of entrancing twists and curls.

As the Frankish knight Rinaldo, tenor Leif Aruhn-Solén layers his performance thoughtfully. Assigned the opera's first aria, in which Aruhn-Solén displays sensitive warmth, a light top and soothing coloratura, his Rinaldo appears oddly unconvincing in his love for Armida, instead portraying the unnatural character of a man under a spell. That persona gradually cracks when his comrades Ubaldo and Clotarco arrive to retrieve their hero, after which Rinaldo's vacillations eventually reveal the fearless warrior within. Aruhn-Solén paces these tides with aplomb and the voice's hot-blooded vigour illuminates manifestly. The turmoil that Rinaldo feels is completely fired up in a Aruhn-Solén's magnificent display of vocal capability in Act 2's "Cara, è vero, io sono tiranno - Darling, it is true I am a tyrant".

Jacob Lawrence as Ubaldo and the three Nymphs
As the scowling King of Damascus, Idreno, Christopher Richardson's light and dusky-toned bass is effective but could benefit from more power, as could Jacob Lawrence in the role of Ubaldo. Lawrence sings with steady lyrical warmth but his inattentive recitative disappoints. Tenor Benton Spiteri is appropriately gallant and vocally alluring in the smaller role of Clotarco as he is wooed by Armida's attendant Zelmira, who Haydn bestows with three thrilling arias and who mezzo-soprano Janet Todd gives star quality. Todd's radiant, effortlessly crafted and prismatic vocal beauty is a delight and the audience knowingly savoured her performance.

Eastern inspired dance characterised the veiled nymphs Rebecca Casey, Mariya Tkachenko and Tabitha Wo, adding to the supernatural background of Armida's sorcery but their charades become wearying on the cramped platform in Act 3.

In the end, a handsomeness prevailed throughout the staging despite the busyness and restlessness, but it was Haydn's superbly interpreted music and vocal writing that Pinchgut Opera gives a time-gone rare jewel prowess to - something they are damnably good at - and in the same stroke, applauding Haydn as a composer of opera.

Pinchgut Opera
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Until 28th June, 2016

Production photographs: Brett Boardman

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