The Chimney Sweep | Pinchgut OperaLeft – Stuart Haycock and Amelia Farrugia. Cover – Alexandra Oomens. Photos – Keith Saunders

Upon sitting down to a rare modern production of Antonio Salieri’s opera Der Rauchfangkehrer – indeed, there have been precious few performances in over a century – one cannot help but nod one’s head in wry appreciation at the following cheeky little note, which flashed up in the surtitles during the pre-show sponsors’ acknowledgements:

“Salieri’s reputation brought to you by Peter Shaffer.”

Without going into a long history of Salieri’s waning and distortedly waxing historical reputation, there is a certain irony that it is perhaps very largely due to English playwright Shaffer’s (knowingly ahistorical) dramatisation of a libellous old conspiracy theory that he is remembered today at all. Shaffer bestowed new infamy upon this once-famous Italian composer, Kapellmeister to the Hapsburg court, and teacher to Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt, bestowing upon him an insane jealousy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and a would-be involvement in the premature death of this more enduring composer. Much like King Richard III of England, Antonio Salieri has been indelibly framed in the popular consciousness far less for his real life and actual achievements, than by the fictitious villainy which propaganda and a subsequent great work of theatre has bestowed upon him.

It may be a disservice to serious classical music aficionados to suggest that the sum-total of all revival of interest in Salieri’s largely forgotten career can be squarely attributed to Shaffer’s celebrated play and film, but it would be disingenuous to suggest there is not a very significant correlation. However, aside from that winking surtitle and the titter from the audience raised by a character tinkling a couple of bars of Eine kleine Nachtmusik on a harpsichord, the production wisely avoids any other Amadeus references and instead makes an excellent job of achieving its evident purpose – to let Salieri’s long neglected work speak for itself.

The Chimney Sweep is a lively romp, an amusing domestic farce with servants in disguise bamboozling their capricious and vain masters both for their own ends and to teach them a lesson in the process. Being a singspiel or kind of light opera, for those less accustomed to the subgenre, its plot is of a familiar style as some of Shakespeare’s more frivolous comedies or Molière’s less biting satires. Staged in the almost intimate space of the City Recital Hall, this is a relatively simple production, yet one which has all it needs, from an Elizabethan-style two door and central alcove backdrop, some minimal props and a decent array of costumes. This is a tight production, with essentially six leads and an emphasis on situational and character-driven comedy.

Andrew Johnston’s English translation of Leopold Auenbrugger’s libretto is lively and droll, although given the period setting, the occasional modern colloquialisms such as “klutz”, “go ballistic”, and “Mr. Right”, may grate a little for some. The multi-lingual aspect is enjoyable as well, as the central conceit of the story involves the titular chimney sweep Volpino posing as a music-teacher to a rich young widow and her daughter who vie for his affections, resulting in some arias also being sung in Italian and German. Indeed, with the lusty widow being a retired opera singer and a major set piece with all the key characters involved in staging an impromptu performance of The Abduction of Ganymede, this opera-within-an-opera aspect is an entertainingly metatheatrical device.

All of the principal cast are excellent, with Amelia Farrugia and Janet Todd as mother and daughter, Mrs and Miss Hawk respectively, with the latter displaying especially sharp comic timing, and the former’s impressive vocal range almost overwhelming at times in the resonance of the comparatively small Recital Hall. Alexandra Oomens is beguiling and sassy as Lisel the scheming cook, and her lover the trickster Volpino is brought to life with great gusto and an ever-present glimmer of mischief in his eye by Stuart Haycock. The rest of the company is also very fine, with the aptly-cast David Woloszko as Mr Bear and the diminutive Christopher Saunders as Mr Wolf, the somewhat dimwitted suitors to the ambitious ladies, having many good comic moments between them.

It is literally a rare privilege to see a Salieri opera, and Pinchgut’s robust, enthusiastic production does great credit to the neglected composer’s charming little comedy. Strongly recommended, not just as a rarity or curio, but as a truly fun night at the opera, and one not to be missed.

Pinchgut Opera presents
by Antonio Salieri | libretto by Leopold Auenbrugger

Director Mark Gaal

Venue: City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney NSW
Dates: 5, 6 & 7 July 2014
Tickets: Adult $80 - $125

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