Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera company is celebrating its thirteenth year in operation by providing two productions in 2014, rather than just the one in December. One is the work reviewed here, Salieri’s The Chimney Sweep, the other will be Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride in December. Followers of Pinchgut will have noticed another possibly challenging fact, that neither of these is a Baroque opera, which is Pinchgut’s usual (but not exclusive) fare. In 2006, they tackled Mozart’s Idomeneo, and in 2010, Haydn’s L’anima del filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice. In the latter case, I observed that “the production is as good as it can be, possibly better than the work deserves”, and I have the same, indeed more insistent, feeling about The Chimney Sweep. Sometimes obscure works are obscure for good reason.
When opera-goers hear the term Singspiel these days, they probably get a warm glow, thinking of Die Zauberflöte. While no-one seriously thinks that Salieri did any particular harm to Mozart, this work makes it clear that he was nothing like in the same league musically or dramatically. The significant characteristic of the Singspiel is that it contains quantities of spoken dialogue, and in this respect, and in its lightness of spirit, is probably better compared to modern music theatre than opera. Mozart’s contribution to the genre raised it to a sublime level which has ensured the ongoing survival of his work, but it seems probable that the usual run of Singspiele was farcical romps like The Chimney Sweep with attractive but utterly superficial scores. Only once, during a beautifully sung trio in Act II, did I feel like I was actually attending an opera. The plot, in which the chimney sweep of the title manipulates his employers Mrs and Miss Hawk and their admirers Mr Bear and Mr Wolf, is convoluted and ridiculous and hardly bears describing. Not that idiotic plots are rare in far greater operas.
But, as intimated above, Pinchgut has adorned this silly thing with a most gorgeous carapace, courtesy director Mark Gaal, designer Emma Kingsbury and costumier Christie Milton. Troy Honeysett, who appeared in the non-singing role of Peter, was also responsible for the choreography. The set was a simple backdrop (City Recital Hall lacks a proscenium stage) with a cavernous fireplace, where the eponymous Volpino spent much of his time, and the props consisted of simple tables and chairs, with a harpsichord sufficiently realistic to make me worry when some grubby little chimney sweeps were sitting on it. The costumes were reasonably accurate facsimiles of later eighteenth dress, appropriate to the various situations and stations of the characters, and provided a feast for the eyes. It did seem a little unlikely that the younger lady, Miss Hawk, would appear in her underwear, however chaste, before two strange men. The settings of each scene (“In the kitchen of the Hawk House”) were announced on a placard carried by the house valet, Hansel. Adding to the visual attractions were very nicely arrayed scenes. The dialogue was spoken in English and the German arias were sung in English with English surtitles, while the Italian arias were sung in Italian. A play within the play (“The Abduction of Ganymede”) was all in German with English titles.
Whatever the shortcomings of the basic score, it was treated with respect by the talented Orchestra of the Antipodes, under Erin Helyard, last seen at Hobart’s Baroque Festival. His conducting spurred the music into energetic life, while not really managing to disguise its utter banality. The orchestra was a large one for a Pinchgut outing, with two horns and two trumpets contributing rather more than the occasional foray as in Baroque operas. The instruments were of the period, with classical bows and continuo provided by fortepiano, and the pitch was A=430. A chorus of tiny chimney sweeps was provided by the Sydney Children’s Choir, who sang well and fulfilled their duties with theatrical discipline.
Of the singers, the women stood out over the men, certainly in terms of audibility. To what extent this was due to the rather large instrumental forces in this particular venue, where the musicians sit on the floor of the auditorium in front of the stage, is hard to say. In any case, they all threw themselves into the action with great spirit and, like the orchestra, breathed quite a bit of life into this nonsense. Amelia Farrugia, a well known Australian operatic singer, not only sang well but demonstrated an excellent sense of comic timing and all round fun in the role of Mrs Hawk. In the mock Italian aria “Se più felice”, she deployed her traditional rather 19th century soprano for laughs, allowing some nice natural top notes to be interspersed with intentional boiler whistle shrillness (think latter day Gruberova). The part of her daughter was sung by up-and-coming soprano Janet Todd, also relished her role, slithering around seductively on the harpsichord during her Italian aria. She has rather a heavy vibrato but sang pleasingly if less confidently than Farrugia; she had however no problems with projecting her voice over some heavily timpanic passages. Perhaps the most straightforwardly attractive singing came from another youngster, Alexandra Oomens, whose silvery clear soprano, with a pleasant light vibrato, also had no problems being heard.
None of the men made a great impression, including the usually excellent tenor Christopher Saunders as Mr Wolf. His usual ringing high notes could barely be heard, and one can only assume he was having a bad night. One can also only assume the others were chosen for their acting talents. In the title role Stuart Haycock, also a tenor, was personable and amusing, but also could hardly be heard in his arias. Mr Bear is, not surprisingly, a bass role, taken by another young singer David Woloszko, who managed to get on top of the orchestra rather more successfully, with quite resonant low notes and entertaining singing. One of the highlights, actually the highlight musically, was the trio mentioned above, persuasively sung by Oomens, Saunders and Woloszko. Nicholas Hiatt was perversely amusing in the virtually non-singing role of Fränzl, a bearded maidservant in full-skirted dirndl.
I can’t imagine anyone wanting to ever listen to this more than once, but it must be admitted the audience seemed to enjoy it quite a lot. That I think is a tribute to the musical and production values of Pinchgut rather than the work itself.