Erin Helyard, Artistic Director of Sydney's Pinchgut Opera Company, is one of the most dynamic thinkers in the world on the subject of Baroque and early Classical opera. The 15-year-old Company has now presented 18, often unknown, works from that era, challenging audiences with their delightful difference from the works being presented in the Sydney Opera House – much Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. So this dégustation – an appropriately French word applied by Helyard to this triple bill consisting of two actes-de-ballet by Rameau and a commedia dell'arte intermezzo by Leonardo Vinci, was probably as close as most of us are going to get to being in the Académie Royale de Musique in Paris in the 1750s.

Lauren Zolezzi © Patrick Boland
Lauren Zolezzi
© Patrick Boland

Two problems, though. Whereas the outrageous combination of serious French works discussing topical issues and frothy Italians offering nothing but entertainment was a matter of such controversy in Paris that the Académie was filled night after night, we are just a little less engaged by an argument about the relative importance of love and wine, or a philosophical disquisition on consciousness as Pigamlion's statue comes to life. Secondly, the musical delights of Rameau's harmonies and Vinci's lyricism that pre-figures Mozart were all too often interrupted between the performers and our ears by an almost incomprehensibly busy staging.

I can't imagine why American director Crystal Manich felt the need to impose an overarching narrative on the three distinct stories. Pigamlion's pretty familiar (especially when spelled with a Y, though Rameau resisted), even if the Enlightenment significance of the statue's first words, “What do I think? What must I believe?”, followed by her proclamation of a soul certainly distinguished this text from My Fair Lady. And who amongst us took on board that the eponymous Anacreon was actually a Greek BC poet famous for his graceful writings on love and wine who's lust for life lead to fear of aging? But as Rameau's librettist, Pierre-Joseph-Justin Bernard, brought all those subjects into play so lightly, did we need the crowding of a contemporary art gallery opening – showing, oddly, 19th-century art – a drunken collector and a team of constantly moving attendants? 

Lauren Zolezzi and Richard Anderson in <i>Anacréon</i> © Patrick Boland
Lauren Zolezzi and Richard Anderson in Anacréon
© Patrick Boland

It made it so much harder to understand the sudden transformation of party-goers into Bacchic devotees, and for a plaited schoolgirl to become Cupid to bring the collector back to his senses from an over-indulgence in the wine. However, Lauren Zolezzi emerged as the star of the night in that role – popping up later (and older) to bring life to Pigmalion's statue. This UK-trained soprano also has a Fellowship in Movement Direction, which allowed her to make ballet with her arms without looking the slightest bit immoderate, even as her perky singing brought Richard Anderson's art collector back from his drunken dreams to his wife's arms. Counter-intuitively, they then all toasted this reunion.

Anderson was then given an ex-wife to fall in love with in Erighetta e Don Chilone. In fact, Vinci offered the widow Erighetta a rich but hypochondriac (and flatulent) bachelor, already attracted to her, but reluctant to commit because of his “imminent demise”. Taryn Fiebig, in a commedia doctor's mask, soon prescribes marriage to a mature woman as Don Chilone's only possible cure. And within minutes, as herself, she's negotiated a contract promising free running of the house. All is well. 

<i>Erighetta e Don Chilone</i> © Patrick Boland
Erighetta e Don Chilone
© Patrick Boland

Well, well-enough for Fiebig (who, coincidentally, played Eliza Doolittle for Opera Australia last year) to mutate into marble and fall resonantly in love (again) with her creator – the agile English haute-contre tenor, Samuel Boden. Not much haute in his music and not great power in the voice; but he may have been distracted by the fact that everyone around him suddenly deserted their contemporary dress for racks of 18th-century outfits in order to dance. We certainly were distracted.

Meanwhile, the band played on. It was an impressive transition by the historically informed Orchestra of the Antipodes from last year's Haydn and Handel to French music that so closely allies its rhythms to its language. Their languid tones as Anacreon falls asleep were followed by a torrent of demisemiquavers in contrary motion as a storm awakes him. A luscious flute holds Lauren Zolezzi's lively gyrations in balance. And the mellifluous combination of bassoon and recorder in Pigamlion's swinging overture was probably as radical a piece of orchestration in 1748 as it was a delight on the ear today. 

Allegra Giagu, Morgan Balfour, Samuel Boden, Taryn Fiebig and Mariya Tkachenko in <i>Pigmalion</i> © Patrick Boland
Allegra Giagu, Morgan Balfour, Samuel Boden, Taryn Fiebig and Mariya Tkachenko in Pigmalion
© Patrick Boland

Leading from the harpsichord, Erin Helyard made the point in interviews that 18th-century audiences had as short-term attention spans as today's – requiring dances, debate and (in the boxes) sex between short bursts of opera seria. But this would surely be preferable to offering confusions and distractions during the music.