The composer Legrenzi is hardly a household word. Indeed, I hadn't knowingly heard a note of his music until Thursday night, the opening night of Pinchgut Opera's production of Il Giustino. Of his 19 operas this one was his most popular, and Genevieve Lang's description of him as the Puccini of the 17th century is scarcely an exaggeration of his popularity during his lifetime, when he was indeed a household word.
The plot is in two halves. The first half is about how the the humble farmer Giustino succeeds, where the emperor Anastasio has failed, in defeating the threat to the Byzantine empire posed by the tyrant Vitaliano. In the process Giustino rescues a damsel in distress not once but twice, and they both fall in love with him. He wisely chooses not to take advantage of the emperor’s own wife Arianna, who is one of these damsels, reserving his favours for her younger sister Eufemia. This story is laced with comedy, after the fashion in 17th century theatre, mainly through the character of Andronico, who clumsily tries to use cross-dressing to win the affection of Eufemia, in which endeavour he fails.
The second half turns on a quite different thematic trope. Amanzio, an ambitious courtier, envious of Giustino’s rise in the court circles, sows jealousy in the mind of the emperor Anastasio, who begins to doubt Arianna’s fidelity. The act begins to resemble Shakespeare’s Othello, a jewelled belt substituting for Othello’s handkerchief, but Legrenzi’s librettist brings in a Deus ex machina in the person of the ghost of Vitaliano’s father. He informs Vitaliano that Giustino is his long-lost brother – and that they are brothers of Andronico too. Enmity ceases, all ends well, and Giustino is crowned as the Emperor Justinian.
The title of Monteverdi's 8th book of madrigal, "amorosi e guerrieri" becomes a genre in later baroque opera, and Legrenzi's libretto turns the 6th century Byzantine setting into an excuse for a series of gorgeous love songs. Legrenzi's life sits halfway between his fellow citizens of Venice, Monteverdi and Vivaldi, but Giustino displays a melodic charm that either of these composers would have recognised.
Before I saw this production I had been alarmed to hear that Legrenzi popularised that scourge of dramatic action, the da capo aria. I understood there were over 60 of them in Giustino. At least, I thought, they won't be long and rambling like Handel's, if 60+ have to fit into the three hours of Pinchgut's production. It turned out I was wrong – there are indeed 60+ arias, but not many of them are da capo in form; most are short, pithy portrayals of particular emotions, and the ones that are in ternary form have the tunes you most want to hear a second time. Although there is no chorus, no ensembles, and just four duets, the pace of the music, beautifully judged by Helyard, combined with the occasional riveting harmonies, held the audience’s attention spellbound.
The Orchestra of the Antipodes sets a standard these days for historically informed passion. It was reduced for Giustino, in line with Venetian practice at the time this opera was composed, to just ten players: six strings (with no violone), archlute, theorbo, keyboards, and one sole trumpet. This presented the score as chamber music, and the musical director, Erin Helyard, frequently didn't have to conduct the singers at all, content to direct the band and play both harpsichord and organ with his usual sensitivity.
As always in Pinchgut’s productions, the cast for Giustino is magnificent, both vocally and theatrically. The prima donna, Madeleine Pierard commanded the stage, and her imperial voice finely calculated the space between regality and love. Lauren Lodge-Cambell’s delicate, silvery soprano suited the part of the virginal Eufemia perfectly. The three countertenors, singing the castrato roles of Giustino, Vitaliano, and Andronico, were an interesting contrast of sounds. Owen Willetts, as Vitaliano, was a villain and a half until the deus ex machina's revelation, and, like all the singers in the cast, negotiated the outrageous coloratura with aplomb. Russell Harcourt, in the ungrateful part of Andronico, had a golden sound, though I would have liked to hear his words more clearly. But the star of the group, and indeed of the whole show, was Nicholas Tamagna’s Giustino. His voice is absolutely superb, whether in the long lyrical phrases of his first aria, or the extraordinary coloratura of some of his later utterances, or the two beautiful duets with Lauren Lodge-Campbell, and true as a die in all of its varied settings.
Andrew O'Connor doesn't make a very convincing tyrant's henchman Polimante, but his glorious bass voice really comes into its own when he appeared as the deux ex machina at the end of the opera. We are very aware nowadays of the castrato voice in late Baroque opera, but the very deep bass voice used, for example, for the part of Charon in Monteverdi's Orfeo was just as special in the 17th century.
The whole opera is framed by the figure of Fortune, sung meltingly by Chloe Lankshear, who dances and smiles her way insouciantly across the stage in between her three gorgeous arias, watching amused at the twists and turns of the fates of the characters. The wheel of fortune combines with the sun to form the only moving part of the set, except for a single structure which became the rock to which Arianna chained, the throne of the emperor, and part of a farm landscape. This simplicity of set, by Jeremy Allen, was one of the most successful I have seen in the constrained stage space at Angel Place.
Melanie Lietz’ costuming was also particularly to my taste. But what made the theatrical side of this production really arresting was the work of the movement designer, Shannon Burns. She has designed movement in a few of Pinchgut’s recent productions, but here in addition she produced something worthy of Brisbane’s wonderful theatre company, Dead Puppets Society. In the first act she had the four supporting actors use “puppets” (models of the animals’ heads) to embody the oxen that the farmer Giustino uses to plough with, the bear that Giustino rescues Eufemia from, the sea monster that threatens Arianna on her rock, and most beautiful of all, an elephant.
This show runs until Wednesday 31st May. Even if, like me, you don’t know a note of Legrenzi’s music, don’t miss this eye-opening production.
Pinchgut Opera presents
by Giovanni Legrenzi
Director Dean Bryant
Venue: City Recital Hall, NSW
Dates: 25 - 31 May 2023