Hobart’s second Baroque Festival took place between 28th March and 5th April 2014, and has been a resounding success. I did not attend the first such event last year, due to its featuring a non-baroque opera by Haydn, but Orlando was a powerful drawcard, not just for me, but for many others. Overall there was a busy schedule of events, across a number of venues, including the 1863 Hobart Town Hall, and the 2000 Federation Concert Hall. Orlando was staged in the charming 1837 Theatre Royal, said to be the oldest continually performing theatre in Australia, and boasting a resident ghost, Fred.
The concerts themselves ranged from a series of 5 x $5 x 5pm one-hour events, through more substantial 8pm offerings, a couple of gala “star” concerts and the opera, culminating in an “Ottoman feast” at the celebrated art gallery MONA (Museum of Old and New Art). There were also public talks at noon Monday to Friday on relevant topics to keep punters entertained throughout. As well as all that, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery had a special exhibit borrowed from the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney) of Delacroix’s Angelica and the wounded Medoro. The success of attracting an audience may be gauged by the fact that the first 5pm concert (“D’Entrecasteaux Strings”, soloists from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (TSO) playing trio sonatas) enticed 500 people to queue up for a venue with a capacity of 300.
And the music? In terms of baroque-ness, of the 13 concerts, nine comprised all baroque items, and seven were played on period instruments. A quite compelling performance of the Goldberg Variations by Jennifer Martin-Smith on piano was rather undermined by the harpsichord lurking forlornly at the side of the stage. Most of the music was by well-known composers, with some unusual repertoire coming from the trio Latitude 37, with an attractive Sonata by Erlebach in their “Encore” concert, and a swathe of Turkish Baroque music at the Ottoman Feast.
The two gala vocal concerts featured firstly rising countertenor Xavier Sabata in a program of Handel and Vivaldi accompanied by the Orchestra of the Antipodes on original instruments, led by Erin Helyard from the harpsichord. The program echoed his recent solo CD release, Bad Guys, Sabata has an affable stage presence, and threw himself into each item, executing little dance steps now and again. His voice has lovely tone and a feel for Baroque phrasing, but is not that powerful; occasionally it blurred into the orchestra. Perhaps the modern Federation Hall is not the right venue for him; while its capacity is only 1100, it is built for modern symphony performances and its acoustics have had their problems. His voice was definitely easier to hear in items with lighter orchestration, such as “Vibra cortesa amor” from Handel’s Alessandro, when his pleasantly even voice, mostly excellent intonation and some lovely rounded tones in the slow passages compelled a hushed audience. It must be said that his coloratura is not always cleanly articulated, and “Domerò” from Giulio Cesare had a bit of a Kasarovan yodel. Still, this is a young artist with the potential for an exciting career to come.
Even younger, and positively rocketing to fame, is Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva. It is clear that she is a star designate among the cognoscenti, and her appearance in Hobart is something of a coup. She was also in Melbourne, but only with a piano accompaniment. Here she was supported by the TSO with their modern instruments under Oliver Gooch, also in Federation Hall. The program was entitled “The evolution of Baroque”, which meant that the first half comprised music from the Baroque era and the second half didn’t, although Exsultate jubilate can be said to be in Baroque style. The first half began with a Vivaldi orchestral piece (Concerto ripieno RV 158), with not much regard for HIPractice. Lezhneva made a dramatic entrance with the same composer’s “Agitata a due venti” (from Griselda). She has said in interviews that she learnt Baroque singing from recordings; one would certainly like to know whose. In some respects she follows earlier 18th century style, for example singing in straight tone with vibrato used to ornament long-held notes. On the other hand, her melismas are delivered in very legato style, with little obvious attempt at articulation. The voice itself has good penetration, with pretty good low notes, but sometimes a little shrill at the top. There is a basic Slavic metallic quality, highly polished and generally accurate but with occasional small intonation problems.
More Vivaldi, with “Zeffiretti, che sussurrate” (from Ercole sul Termadonte), found a quieter mood, with very light orchestration allowing the voice to float very fetchingly across the auditorium. The Handel items, “Aure, fonti” and “Brilla nel’alma” (both from Alessandro) displayed the same properties, with what might have been a spectacular cadenza in the latter somewhat compromised by the lack of articulation. After the interval, a Haydn symphony (No 49) sigh. Then Lezhneva reappeared in a purple frock, nicely cut, and identical in every way to the red one in the first half. Exsultate shared the same issues with heavily legato-ised coloratura as in the first half except for a pretty little cadenza, and she ducked the penultimate high note. Encores by Handel (“Lascia la spina”, Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno) and Riccardo Broschi (“Son qual nave ch’atata”, Artaserse) were well received with a majority if not unanimous standing ovation at the end. Lezhneva is a very attractive performer, sweetly applauding the orchestra after every piece, and is clearly bound for stardom, if not necessarily in the Baroque repertoire.
So to Orlando, one of Handel’s Second Academy operas, premiered in 1733 at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket. The great and popular castrato Senesino featured in the name role, with two other Handel favourites, Anna Strada del Po’ in the prima donna role of Angelica, and bass Antonio Montagnana as Zoroastro. The plot is one of the many opera libretti of the time derived from Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso; others include two by Handel (Alcina and Ariodante). The looseness of the adaptations can be suggested by the fact that Zoroastro appears in one line in the original poem, out of 46 cantos of about 100 lines each. Nevertheless this is one of Handel’s best plots, focusing on the character development of the central figure, who has to go through a state of madness to realise he is meant to be a fighter, not a lover.
The production, an original from Glimmerglass (director Chas Rader-Shieber) but much reduced for the small Theatre Royal stage, is of the sort that general audiences love and Handel/Baroque specialists/purists grin and bear. On the positive side, the production respects the music and what it is telling us, unlike the annoying Opera Australia version seen in 2008. On the other, there is a lot of stage business which is not specified by the libretto, and which is occasionally quite distracting. The setting is a pleasing evocation of a forest, within which Dorinda seems to have established a field hospital for wounded heroes. The allusion to Hercules in “Lascia amor” produces a series of busts of heroes (Hercules, Achilles and Theseus) which reappear now and again. Much loved by the audience, but hardly essential, was an apparition of Amor, well played by Hobart lad Tom Hawkey. The candle-lit Act II was a nice touch. At the climax, when the text specifies four genii with an eagle descending with a golden vessel in his beak, we have the dramatic appearance from the wings of a single genie with huge golden wings, not a bad substitute. The lush costumes for the cast were Baroque-ish, rather than being actual replicas (set and costume credit to David Zinn).
One always hopes, especially in festival settings, for uncut versions of longish Baroque operas. Alas, here apparently (and for the usual reasons) the opera had to come in under three hours; this meant the dispatch of four arias, in an opera in which nearly every aria is of the first rank musically and expressively. “Se mi rivolgo” of Dorinda and “Gia lo stringo” of Orlando are not strictly essential, and Angelica’s “Verdi piante” is positively redundant in the wake of Medoro’s “Verdi allori”. But “Finchè prendi ancora il sangue”? This is the climactic duet between Orlando and Angelica which represents the pinnacle and culmination of Orlando’s madness, after which he is susceptible to his rehabilitation. This is a particularly infelicitous cut in terms of the dramatic arc of the opera’s finale.
The period orchestra was as for the Xavier Sabata concert, with conductor Erin Helyard and concert master the very hard-working Baroque specialist Julia Freddersdorf (also violin with trio Latitude 37). While seeming to find their feet in the overture (and on the first night), particularly with respect to articulation, thereafter they played with Baroque virtuosity and provided excellent support for the singers.
The vocal cast comprised young American singers of varying Baroque chops, Orlando being sung by countertenor Randall Scotting. His stage presence was excellent, being tall and well-built as well as assertive of personality. He has a nice open sound, but lacks a really heroic tone and cleanly sung coloratura. He did however manage some impressive ringing high notes and resonant deep ones, and delivered some exciting cadenzas, especially in “Cielo! Se tu il consenti”. Kathryn Lewek as Angelica was a crowd favourite, and while she has a lovely operatic voice as well as a strong stage presence, she is essentially a nineteenth century singer with quite a heavy vibrato. More stylistically Baroque was Anna Davidson as Dorinda, a part originally written for comic intermezzo soubrette Celeste Gismondi. Davidson has a pretty voice, much as one might imagine Gismondi’s to have been, without excessive vibrato and a lively stage presence. It is not often that Hobart can have been exposed to two countertenors on one night (and three in a week); Daniel Bubeck sang the secondo uomo role of Medoro with strong clear tone and a feel for Baroque ornamentation, and a nicely rounded cadenza in “Vorrei poterti amar”. Bass roles in Handel are usually one-hit wonders, fathers or comic servants, but Zoroastro is a significant player in the drama. Bass Tom Corbeil had the appropriate commanding presence, and rolling deep voice; there were occasional small intonational waverings, and again a lack of clear articulation detracted from his passage work.
Despite the reservations on matters of style, this was a well-acted and well-sung performance. Without wishing to be overly parochial, however, one wonders why the production and vocal cast all had to be imported from the US. The Australian Baroque musicians comprising the Orchestra of the Antipodes and Latitude 37 can be equally matched by opera directors and technical staff on the one hand, and first class singers on the other, as Pinchgut Opera in Sydney has demonstrated.
There is no doubt that the Festival overall was hugely successful. During its last days, the local press suggested it was in danger of being poached by Brisbane. One hopes not. Artistic Director Leo Schofield chose Hobart specifically, not just because he lives there, but because it is a small city like many of the locales of European festivals, and it has a range of charming and appropriate venues. Brisbane has an entirely different ambience and historical context from Hobart, and already the Southern Outpost has taken this festival to its heart