There was a rather noticeable decrease in serious music at this year’s Perth International Arts Festival, with, some of us might think, an extravagant helping of pop music. There was also an exponentially larger Fringe Festival this year, with a vast variety of short shows, which seemed heavily patronized. Not so much in the operatic line – only new local children’s opera The Rabbits, and an imported production of Madama Butterfly. Other classical vocal offerings included excellent performances by English choral group The Sixteen, and France’s Les arts florissants. Instrumental items included performances by the Australian String Quartet, Canada’s Tafelmusik and the Mark Morris Dance Group performing to Mozart accompanied by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

To get the non-vocal out of the way first, the last mentioned (14th February) was not entirely successful. The dancing seemed rather limited in scope, and, for the more musically attuned, served as something of a distraction from the music – piano concerti numbers 11 and 27 (K413, K595) divided by a Sonata for two pianos (K448) – especially as the pianists were down in the rather cramped pit of His Majesty’s theatre. Australian pianist Amir Farid offered a sprightly interpretation of the two concerti. The WASO was conducted by Mark Morris music director Colin Fowler, who joined Farid for the two piano sonata; a musically enjoyable performance less than enhanced by the dancing (3 stars).

The Tafelmusik offering House of Dreams in the Perth Concert Hall (19th February) on the other hand was highly enjoyable, despite consisting of bits and pieces of baroque works. A large screen behind the players depicted various 18th century homes and works of art relevant to the features composers: Handel House in London and Handel (bit of a no-brainer, that), a house in Venice and Vivaldi, a house in Delft and Sweelinck and Purcell (less obvious but with a very interesting explanation of that connection), Paris and Marais, Leipzig and Bach and Telemann. There was a quite engrossing narration by Canadian actor Blair Williams. The players, under Jeanne Lamon played immaculately without scores and while weaving their way about the stage (those that could, obviously). Apparently this is one stop in a year-long, round the world schedule (4 stars).

The Australian String Quartet, in the lovely venue of the Government House Ballroom (20th February) premiered a new work by Ross Edwards, the topical Gallipoli; while one was relieved that it did not entail any triumphal militarism or nationalism, it was a very subdued work which did not make a great impression on a first hearing. After the break, it was totally overshadowed by a gut-ripping performance of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 3 (Op 73). As with the best chamber ensembles, the emphasis was on the latter word, but mention must be made of impressive guest violinist Wilma Smith, latterly concert master of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (3.5 stars).

Two of the Fringe performances featuring local operatic luminaries in tiny pop-up venues (both seen on the same night, 17th February) were immensely enjoyable in different ways. Quo Tardis featured gorgeous mezzo Fiona Campbell in a round the world – through the decades – in and out of the genres program ranging from Amy Winehouse to Handel, all beautifully sung and suavely presented, accompanied by Rimon Raviss-Herrman on guitar. Less of your suave and more of your out and out outrageous was Robert Hoffman, well-known baritone with the WA Opera, presenting us with numerous personae in It Ain’t Vot You Do It’s Ze Vay Zat You Do It. Sell-out audiences were introduced inter alia to Helmut Wunderlicher, singer and psychologist, sporting bright yellow hair (and that means bright) and Dr Kay Overit, terrifyingly tall in stillies and a red sequin dress (and that means red). Dr Overit wishes to submit her academic research in song form … Wonderful keyboard accompaniment by Tommaso Pollio.

Sometimes one does wonder why festival directors, in Australia particularly, want to spend large sums to import shows that really do not bring us anything very new. Madama Butterfly is not in itself much of a novelty to Perth, as it’s performed here every two years at least. Even a new production doesn’t bring much lustre, when it’s as flawed as this one (His Majesty’s theatre, 26th February). Originally directed by the late Anthony Minghella, it’s already been seen all over the western world. It’s possible it was chosen because of the use of puppets, in keeping with what seems to be a prevailing theme of the Festival, although some of us found them pretty annoying. Sorrow in particular resembled an alien, and his manipulation by three adults in black was positively creepy. The costumes were very nice, it must be said (courtesy of Han Feng), and there were some very visually attractive scenes (set designer Michael Levine).

Unfortunately it is one of those occasions when the producer obviously knows better than boring old Puccini. In a great piece of theatre, the original has the trio of Butterfly, Suzuki and Sorrow prepare themselves for Pinkerton’s return and settle down for the wait, with the humming chorus accompanying them overnight; they awaken in the morning to the sound of the sailors. No quiet night for them here though; between the end of part one and the beginning of part two of the second act, we are subjected to a dance by a tall human Pinkerton clutching a tiny puppet Cio Cio San; why, one can only ask?

The best of the night’s singing came from American Adam Diegel as Pinkerton. Tall, well built and handsome, his robust penetrating tenor made the most of the role, and his acting also impressed, ranging from the insouciant louche American in a culture he doesn’t understand, to true mortification at the end of the drama. The only problem with him is that he looks distinctly east Asian, and while one is in favour of colour-blind casting wherever possible, this opera is so bound to a specific time and place that having a Pinkerton as the only Asian-looking person on the stage is somewhat distracting. English soprano Mary Plazas apparently originated the role for this production some ten years ago; she has the right diminutive build for the part but is some way from convincing as a fifteen year old. Her singing was technically fine but lacking in freshness; “Un bel di” was beautifully phrased and timed, but somehow lacked romantic passion. Sharpless was sung by Australian stalwart Jonathan Summers, who still musters a fine resonant baritone. Maria Zifchak was a competent Suzuki, but not sufficiently outstanding to stop one from wondering why she needed to be imported from the States. Local baritone Andrew Foote on the other hand always manages to enliven whatever role he is given, and in this case made the most of Yamadori. The WASO seemed unduly heavy handed on the night under English conductor David Parry. (3 stars)

That very fine English choir The Sixteen (although there were more of them) conducted by their regular leader Harry Christophers performed a concert of 17th century music by Palestrina and Allegri intermingled with some by contemporary composer James MacMillan (3rd March). The program, entitled The Queen of Heaven was largely comprise of Marian offerings, with the key pieces being a newly edited version of Allegri’s Miserere mirrored by a similarly named work by MacMillan. As far as the actual performance went, it was a miracle of discipline, articulation, collective breath control and finely tailored sound and colour. There was however a slight sameness to the repertoire, with MacMillan providing the odd discordant moments but otherwise practically indistinguishable from his precursors. Nice touches were provided by exploiting the venue – appropriately, St Mary’s Cathedral – with the choir processing in and out, and breaking up with small groups appearing in different parts of the cathedral. (4 stars)

Possibly the most purely enjoyable concert, In An Italian Garden, was provided by French ensemble Les Arts Florissants under their long time conductor William Christie, appearing in the Perth Concert Hall (3rd March 2015). Christie and LAF are known for their young artists’ program, and the latest crop of six are, on the merits of their performances here, exemplary. The program was almost entirely vocal and 18th century, featuring Baroque composers Banchieri, Stradella, Vecchi, Handel. De Wert, Vivaldi before the interval, and after it there were mostly but not all early classical ones: Cimarosa, Haydn, Sarro, Mozart, Porpora. While most of the arias and songs were about love, there was also an Orlando theme, with arias from Handel’s opera of that name, Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso and Haydn’s Orlando paladino, all derived from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso. The concert featured the singers in different vocal and physical formations; the very pleasing maneuverings around the stage being coordinated by directors Paul Agnew and Sophie Daneman, both of course seasoned singers themselves.

Apart from excellent ensemble singing, both a capella and accompanied, there were many solo highlights. To single some out: soprano Lucía Martín-Cartón’s rendition of Handel’s “Lascia la spina” (from Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno) was exquisite, with excellent coloratura and dramatic intensity. “Gelosia, tu giàrendi l’alma mia” (Vivaldi, Ottone in villa) displayed mezzo Lea Desandre’s burnished bronze tones, especially in her lower range to great effect, she also possesses flexibility and a fine sense of drama. The lovely firm bass of tall skinny American John Taylor Ward in Stradella’s aria “Si guardi dai dardi d’Amor” was wonderfully expressive. Only near the end did countertenor Carlo Vistoli really get to strut his stuff, but it was certainly worth it; his rendition of Porpora’s cantata aria “O se fosse il mio core” delighted with a well-modulated, quite uncovered voice with a lovely bloom when warmed up. Tenor Nicholas Scott got to do a fine comic turn with a white hanky while singing Haydn aria “Che mai far deggio?”, and baritone Renato Dolcini displayed an elegant flexibility and dramatic instinct in Vivaldi’s “Ah sleale, ah spergiura” (Orlando furioso). An unexpected, but immaculately sung, Rossini sextet – “Questo è nodo avviluppato” from the finale of La Cenerentola – had everyone’s toes tapping. (4.5 stars).

Sandra Bowdler