Pinchgut Opera has this year eschewed a baroque opera in favour of even more unusual repertoire. Salieri’s The Chimney Sweep (July this year) would have been better left to moulder in obscurity (according to this humble reviewer), but achieved a simulacrum of respectability by the care lavished on it. Iphigénie en Tauride by Gluck is a far superior work musically and has received a similarly Rolls Royce treatment, greeted with acclaim by its opening night audience. Gluck’s appeal today is something of an unknown quality, and his location in the cannon still seems a little tenuous. Coming as he does between the Baroque and Mozart, and purporting to reform the excesses of the former genre, he doesn’t quite seem to lead naturally to the glories of Mozart’s operas, but perhaps nothing could. The present opera is extremely grim, with no lightness of touch in the work itself, but perhaps that is appropriate for today’s audiences who may have a predilection for the intensity and austerity of it all. And it does have a happy ending.

It has been interesting to observe the refinement of Pinchgut Opera’s production values over the years, since its inception in 2002. While still on a shoestring budget compared with Opera Australia, and limited to the small and proscenium arch-lacking stage of the Sydney City Recital Hall, the company is now adept at exploiting that environment and putting a gloss on its productions. It also maintains a very high quality of musicianship and casting.

Director Lindy Hume is a familiar name now on the Australian operatic and wider theatrical scene with major Arts Festival directorships under her belt. While one may not always agree with her interpretations (although no quibbles here), she is extremely adept at stagecraft, and really knows how to get people around on a stage, no matter the size. Here she is aided and abetted by well known fashion designer Alistair Trung with set designer Tony Assness and lighting designer Matthew Marshall bringing to life a coherent if abstract vision of the Temple of Diana in Tauris. Lacking a curtain, the stage is enclosed on three sides by high light coloured walls. Somewhat off-centre, a pile of apparently marble slabs rises to an apex; the action takes place on and around this rock pile. Above, rows of grey “clouds” hang over the scene.

Before the opera begins, the small female chorus of priestesses, frocked in deep red, enter and lie down on the uppermost slab. The work opens, not with an overture, but a sort of extended ritornello, the start of which is marked “Le calme”, followed by “Tempête”. On the night, an actual storm raged outside in Sydney, and the action inside the hall was an exciting extension. In the theatre, lightning appeared to flash through the clouds. After “La tempete cesse”, the priestesses, including Iphegénie awaken, and the latter begins her plea for a release from suffering.

More or less following Euripides (rather than Homer), the plot involves Iphegénie having been saved from being sacrificed in Aulis to be then removed to Tauris by the goddess Diana. Here she is obliged to take part in bloody barbarian sacrifices. Her brother Oreste and his friend Pylade wash up on the shores of Tauris and are thus deemed sacrificial victims. The main plot points thereafter are, on the one hand the struggle of each man to be himself the sacrifice and spare the other, and on the other, the eventual mutual recognition of brother and sister. Great dramatic commitment is called for from the principals, and the artists more than obliged.

The Orchestra of the Antipodes, on period instruments, was conducted by Antony Walker, with concert master Brendan Joyce, and Erin Helyard on harpsichord. As ever, Walker led a nuanced and virtuosic performance. The chorus, Cantillation, were equally disciplined both vocally and physically.

Mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup, originally from Perth (Western Australia), is now enjoying an international career, and no wonder. Her performance here was exemplary in terms of both singing and dramatics. She has brilliant high notes and compelling low ones and sings evenly across her range. Her intensity in the role was utterly convincing. She was almost perfectly matched by another Australian expatriate singer, Grant Doyle as Oreste. His powerful and resonant baritone merged well with the tenor voice of Christopher Richardson, happily in good form after a slightly problematic turn in Pinchgut’s other opera this year. In the dea ex machina role of Diana, Sydney soprano Margaret Plummer’s big rich voice conveyed the right sort of benign authority, while she appeared in a floaty blue outfit with what looked like a purple Esther Williams style bathing cap. Scythian king Thoas, resplendent in shaggy gothic black, was sung by emerging bass-bariton Christopher Saunders who made his commanding mark, just as he did as Ptolemy in Alexander Balus (Canberra, September this year).

4 stars

Sandra Bowdler