Pinchgut Opera company, based in Sydney, could probably be referred to as “venerable”, having been going now for some 20 years. It specialises, but not exclusively, in Baroque opera, and has established a reputation for musical excellence and exploring interesting corners of the repertoire. Its one major drawback is its primary performance venue, the City Recital Hall, which is exactly as it sounds, and has no proscenium stage, fly tower, wings or curtains. This is a challenge to operatic production, often but not always overcome by clever direction.

Catherine Carby (Médée)
© Cassandra Hannagan

French Baroque opera, especially that composed during the reign of the Sun King, is larded with dances, and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Médée is no exception, not to mention stage directions for dazzling effects. If you are going to have dancing, it’s probably best not to fill up a narrow stage with a stepped platform and, not surprisingly, there wasn’t any. Some of the dance music was just eliminated (along with the Prologue, which has nothing to do with the story), and for what remained, the principals and chorus on the stage just twirled about on the steps. Dazzling effects were mostly left to the imagination. The back of the stage was filled by a large male head, presumably representing Jason, in slotted relief, which lit up red at moments of drama and ended up drenched in molten gold. Rather than flying off on her dragon at the end, as per the stage directions, Médée crowed her nasty vengeance from the organ loft high above the stage.

The first three acts were performed before an interval, followed by Acts 4 and 5. Despite cuts, there were certainly longueurs in the first part, a lot of which comprises discourse about love and duty. There was a technical hitch on opening night with the surtitles not reappearing until well after the interval. Fortunately there is far more action in the second part and most people could probably work out what was going on even if they lacked familiarity with the work.

Michael Petruccelli (Jason) and Cathy-Di Zhang (Créuse)
© Cassandra Hannagan

The director was Justin Way, the designer was Charles Davis. Going by hem length and accessories, the costumes seemed to be sourced from the 1950s-60s. Médée herself strode about in a white shortish overcoat and thigh high black boots, with white hair and a dead white face. When her vengeance started to hot up, she ditched the coat to reveal a multi-coloured snakeskin top and glittery black short skirt. La Vengeance and La Jalousie (male roles) when summoned appeared in identical outfits. The men got off lightly in suits or modern-ish military outfits; Créuse appeared briefly on stage before she actually got to sing in what appeared to be pink pyjamas, but subsequently wore a modish purple cocktail frock.

As usual, the Orchestra of the Antipodes was excellent, led by Erin Helyard on continuo harpsichord, supported by concertmaster Matthew Greco and an array of Baroque specialists on period instruments. The flutes (Melissa Farrow and Mikaela Oberg) and recorder (Alicia Crossley) were noteworthy, especially in Médée’s “Princesse, c’est sur vous”, and trumpet (Leanne Sullivan) and timpani (Brian Nixon) are always exciting. Similarly Cantillation, the chorus, was tightly synchronised and managed to negotiate all the steps while staying vocally together.

Cathy-Di Zhang (Créuse) and Catherine Carby (Médée)
© Cassandra Hannagan

Catherine Carby turned in a gutsy, dominating performance in the title role, with a strong resonant and well-balanced mezzo, leaving no doubt as to what she thought of Jason’s pusillanimity (not to say straight out lying) and Créon’s attempts to get rid of her. Once roused to action, she was a sight to behold (and hear). The other female singers were not nearly as strong vocally. Cathy-Di Zhang certainly looked tempting enough, but her voice seemed a little reedy, as did that of Brianna Louwen as Amour.  In smaller roles, Chloe Lankshear as Nérine sang nicely and Anna Fraser’s rich soprano as Cléone made one wish for more. French vocal music is somewhat unforgiving with its relentless declamation and not much in the way of ornamentation (come scritto or otherwise); the Italian aria (possibly intended as something of a parody) came as a bit of a relief with actual coloratura, nicely sung by Maia Andrews.

Maia Andrews (Italian woman) and Cantillation
© Cassandra Hannagan

On the male side, Michael Petruccelli as Jason projected a good, clear and carrying tenor and managed to put in a decent shake here and there. Créon was powerfully sung by bass Adrian Tamburini, with a well-delivered “Noires divinités”. Andrew Finden displayed a pleasing baritone as Oronte, and his Act 4 exchange with Médée was palpably heartfelt. Tenor Louis Hurley filled the roles of Arcas and La Jalousie, joined in the latter by baritone Philip Barton’s La Vengeance. Médée’s unfortunate children were well acted by Rhys James Hankey and Chiara Schmitz, especially being dragged on stage dead and all.