Above – the cast. Cover – Adrian Tamburini. Photos – Cassandra Hannagan

What a sumptuous score this is! It is amazing how Charpentier uses the relatively limited harmonic palette of late 17th century French music, liberally laced with suspensions and appoggiaturas, to create a musical language which supports so many aspects of this disturbingly complex play.

And a complex play it is. Charpentier's libretto is by Thomas Corneille, who adapted his brother Pierre's play of the same name, and both derive from Euripedes via Ovid and Seneca. Its subject is the desperation of a foreign woman whose lover is planning to leave her for one of his own culture; a foreign woman who has fled her homeland in violent circumstances in order to follow the hero Jason with whom she has fallen in love. Médée, with her foreign ways and strange powers, is not welcome in her new country, whose ruler Creon exiles her (this act resonates strongly in Australia, where our xenophobic previous government exiled thousands of foreigners, many of whom had come here in violent circumstances, to Manus Island and Nauru). Realising that with the decree of exile Médée has lost her new homeland in addition to the one she left, and now has absolutely nothing more to lose, she enacts a terrible revenge, killing not only Creon and his daughter Creuse, the woman Jason wants to leave her for, but also the children she has had with Jason.

The entire team of Pinchgut Opera, cast, orchestra, chorus and production crew, have created a spell-binding performance of this troubling work. This is Pinchgut's 24th production, and with each one they have mined ever deeper into the lost traditions of the baroque era. Erin Helyard, who not only directs but researches these operas, imbues all the performers with his love and understanding for these forgotten masterpieces, to such effect that the players and singers emit a palpable joy in the co-creation of these magical worlds.

Catherine Carby gives a towering performance in the title role. From her first aria "Qu'ille cherche", she harnesses her rich, true mezzo-soprano to the portrayal of a woman who knows her own strength and is never to be trifled with. This contrasts beautifully with the silvery liquidity of Cathy-Di Zhang's soprano, which gives the princess Creuse the character of a woman whose only power is that of seduction. King Creon, whose face dominates the set (bearing an unnerving resemblance to Peter Dutton) is sung by Adrian Tamburini, whose bass voice is simply glorious. Andrew Finden, looking like Ben Stokes dressed like one of Putin's generals, sings a convincing Oronte. And in fact, as usual with Pinchgut Opera, there is not a weak link in the cast, even the smaller roles, such as Anna Fraser's Cleone, being sung exquisitely. The four short duets stood out, just because they doubled the beauty of sound, and no matter who sings with whom the blend is perfect. The chorus, sung by Cantillation, visibly enjoyed being part of this event, and sang, as always, with clarity, precision, and dramatic awareness.

I must praise the work of Troy Honeysett as movement director. The way he cared for the arrangement and movement of the cast on stage showed a real understanding of the importance of the wordless aspects of theatre. Of the costume designs I was not so sure. While I was glad that Charles Davis had jettisoned the camellias which clothe Catherine Carby in the publicity photos, I found her costuming missed the opportunity to underline her foreignness, and her white hair just made her look like someone's grandmother.

The Orchestra of the Antipodes (interestingly named for an ensemble which performs exclusively works written in that antipodes of Australia, Europe) has been wrought by Helyard into a band at the very top of baroque orchestras. Every work they play is in a different temperament, not to speak of subtle but tangible differences in style of the music itself, and they play as if the tradition of this music is in their bones. I am going to single out the flautists Melissa Farrow and Mikaela Oberg who produced veritable jewels of sound, and the wonderful gamba playing of Laura Vaughan, but one could really list each player in this wonderful ensemble as contributing something special to this performance.

I never miss productions by Pinchgut Opera if I can help it, and I encourage all devotees of opera, who want to hear thrilling performance of works they've never heard before, to do the same.

Event details

Pinchgut Opera presents
by Marc-Anroine Charpentier

Director Erin Helyard

Venue: City Recital Hall, Sydney
Dates: 1 – 7 Dec 2022
Tickets: $59 – $223
Bookings: www.pinchgutopera.com.au

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