Why, oh why has Legrenzi’s Giustino received just a single performance since the mid-18th Century (at the Schwetzingen Festival in 2007)? It’s the absolute peak of Venetian Baroque opera; its libretto was good enough to be borrowed by Scarlatti, Abinoni, Vivaldi and Handel; it’s got oxen, an elephant, a bear and a sea monster. And in the merciful absence of da capos, there’s never a dull moment as the score tears through 60 arias.

Jacob Lawrence (Emperor) and Madeleine Pierard (Empress)
© Cassandra Hannagan

Mind you, that score only exists because Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera has as its Musical Director Erin Helyard, an obsessive on the Baroque with 28 such operas now under his baton. His work in resurrecting Giustino from its unjustified grave involved adding orchestral parts to the harpsichord-only scores from its 1683 premiere in Venice and from Scarlatti's revival in Naples the following year. So there's now a new edition including Helyard's own “discreet accompaniments” to some arias – as Scarlatti did – and scene change music borrowed from other Legrenzi operas. 

Nicholas Tamagna (Giustino)
© Cassandra Hannagan

Unusually for the era, the story is historical rather than myth-based. The Emperor Justin I did rise from peasant origins to rule the Byzantine Roman Empire in the mid-500s. Then librettist Nicolo Beregan added a tonne of romance, happenstance and Shakespearean coincidence to make this one of the most popular operas of the time. Would you believe that our ethical hero – whose lower caste threatens his instant love affair with Princess Eufemia after he’s rescued her from a bear – was actually stolen from his crib by a tiger and is as noble as his two brothers, who spend most of the show at war with the Empire?

All three are counter-tenor roles: the American Nicholas Tamagna a thrilling Giustino, the English Owen Willetts as the ultimate baddie with the smoothest of voices and Aussie Russell Harcourt heroically holding some of the longest phrases in opera as the cross-dressing rival for Euphemia’s affection.

Nicholas Tamagna (Giustino)
© Cassandra Hannagan

Meanwhile the newly minted Emperor Anastasio (Jacob Lawrence) has achieved his eminence by marrying his predecessor’s widow Arianna (the richly endowed Madeleine Pierard). But, thanks to an Iago figure, Amanzio, he develops a totally unjustified envy despite recognising “Oh jealous fear, how you are fierce!”.

Amazingly, all of the male lovers have one thing in common – entrancement with the eyes of the desired one. My favourite is the briefly-doomed Giustino’s duetted paean to Lauren Lodge-Campbell’s sweetly-voiced Euphemia, “Let me live by dying in your beautiful eyes”.

Chloe Lankshear (Fortuna)
© Cassamdra Hannagan

Of course, all comes good in the end, thanks to the delicate direction of Dean Bryant. Extraordinarily, this was his first opera after a career in theatre and musicals. But with the help of just enough design elements to suggest both Byzantium and a touch of tarot in the character of Fortuna, as well as the brilliant use of animal heads on human puppet bodies, he turned the potentially ludicrous into entertainment that never distracted from the sheer beauty of the music – old and new. Perhaps the audience could have been encouraged to laugh and cheer a little more freely, but we almost got there in the second half.

The small band played to perfection. A stand-out moment was the opening of the second half, a shining quartet from the high strings. But the basso section supported arias well, especially Laura Vaughan’s mournful viola da gamba for laments, backed by Simon Martyn-Ellis’s theorbo. A trumpet was there for the battles.

Let’s hope the multi-national cast takes Giustino home with them. A live recording will follow and the Pinchgut at Home website will carry a filmed version.