Some years ago I attended a performance of Schubert’s “Die Winterreise”, sung by Matthias Goerne, with a backdrop of wintry images by Willian Kentridge. Despite the vividness, the appropriateness, and the deep connection between image and music in Kentridge’s design, I felt in the end that Schubert’s music, working as it does on the inner essence of the emotions, was not enhanced by the backdrop, which instead worked on me as a distraction. Like Bruckner attending Die Walküre, I didn’t want to open my eyes.

So it was with a certain trepidation that I entered the City Recital Hall to attend the collaboration between two very specialised and very accomplished Australian ensembles, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and the Brisbane-born circus company, Circa, last night. I asked myself, what will Circa contribute to enhance my reception of Italian baroque music? Circa came onstage, dressed in slightly caricatured Italian dress, and performed some of their remarkable repertoire of solo swings, tissu, and trapeze, three-highs and impossible balancing acts to the background of brilliantly performed but essentially unremarkable Neapolitan baroque music. (I have heard enough baroque chaconnes and pasamezzo basses to last me well into my next lifetime.) There were two tarantellas and a St Vitus Dance among the first set of pieces, and the manic velocity of that music was a fine complement to the virtuosity of Circa’s acrobatics.

But it was when Renato Dolcini, with his gorgeous baritone , sang “Ombre oscure’ by Porpora, that I began to be drawn into the various ways in which these two disparate performing ensembles connected themselves. I found myself admiring the beauty of the trapeze act rather than its virtuosity, Circa having slowed down the hair-raising pace of their acts for this aria. Dolcini was dressed in white, with a bit of black, an inverse of the Circa acrobats’ theatre black with a splash of white, and he moved casually among the acrobats as if on an Italian evening passeggiata. This particular act evinced a natural integration the discourses of Baroque music and contemporary acrobatics, and I began to realise that the whole evening was not, like “Winterreise”, a musical performance with acrobatics as a side-show, but an acrobatic display with a musical backdrop far superior to that which accompanies standard circus shows. Perhaps it should have been billed, not as Italian baroque with Circa, but as Circa in Italian Baroque. This way round, it became delightful to hear music from 17th and 18th century Italy, so beautifully played on period instruments, behind the fantastically creative circus acts of Circa. And I could accept what had at first irritated me, the clapping during the music at the end of particularly spectacular feats of acrobatic display. This in any case reflected a practice in the Baroque era of audiences doing likewise at the end of displays of vocal bravura in operas, and indeed what happens routinely in today’s jazz performances after a solo break). So it was no surprise to hear Dolcini’s performance of a particularly mad virtuosic piece, “Sparga il sense” by Caldera, as a backdrop to a crazily bravura hula-hoop act from one of the women in Circa.

There were two moments, however, when Circa retreated from the stage and the music was everything. One of these was a Concerto Grosso where two solo violinists dominated the textures with their own acrobatics; but the most touching was Dolcini’s intimate rendering of the sublime aria from Vivaldi’s Farnace (whose performance by Pinchgut Opera I heard a few years ago), “Gelido di ogni vena”. It was a great moment of stillness amongst the bravura.

Other memorable moments included the business with the blocks during Dolcini’s singing of Landi’s Passacaglia della vita while reading the newspaper, and the extraordinarily gorgeous blue fabric within which a woman rose up and appeared to be dressed in an vast 18th century ballgown. Each member of Circa has his or her own speciality, and one of them is a clown. He combined the amazing body control shown by every member of Circa with a truly funny comic flair, yet I felt a little uneasy at what he chose to parody. He deliberately fell over in doing acrobatic feats that everyone in the company (including him) could do flawlessly if they wanted to, and it was like being shown backstage into a rehearsal. I didn’t need reminding that what the acrobats were doing was altogether extraordinary. And, as part of the enterprise of connecting the music with the acrobatics, he also parodied conducting, helping to confirm the view of perhaps some in the audience who thought that musicians don’t need a conductor. This connection was taken up by the actual conductor, Paul Dyer, whose occasionally exaggerated gestures did seem oddly similar to the clown’s, and who entered into the Italian spirit of the evening by conducting himself like a combination of Liberace and an Italian waiter.

All good fun. But much more than good fun, Italian baroque with Circa is an inventive attempt to relate the unrelateable, by two Australian ensembles at the height of their powers. Far from being a distraction, like Kentridge’s Images for “Winterreise”, Circa became the centre of a fascinating, magical evening.

Event details

Sydney Festival 2022
Italian Baroque with Circa

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Venue: City Recital Hall | Sydney NSW
Dates: 19 – 27 January 2022

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