“Wasn’t Jason a jerk?” This pithy characterisation of the lead character in Cavalli’s Giasone, which I overheard after last night’s performance, brought home to me how startlingly contemporary this 17th-century classic felt in its essentials. This was partly due to the modern costumes used in this production, which lessened the historical distance. Not that clothes were always in evidence: the marketing, which featured a shirtless David Hansen, hinted at saucier fare. In the event there was a lot of flesh on display, starting with Hansen being wheeled onstage in his bath (shades of Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love) and singing most of the first scene clad only in a towel. He wasn’t alone: the vampish Medea (Celeste Lazarenko) was all stockings and negligée in her opening scene. Add in sailors with bare torsos, a maid in a cocktail dress, and there was something for everyone.

David Hansen as Giasone © Keith Saunders
David Hansen as Giasone
© Keith Saunders

Some elements of the plot also seemed surprisingly close to contemporary mores. As the comic nurse Delfa (Adrian McEniery in drag) put it, “to find a husband, the girls of today give themselves a test run”, and all the female characters lived up to this maxim. The two principal female characters, Medea and Isifile (Miriam Allan), are chalk and cheese, united only in their affection for Giasone (Hansen). At the start of the opera he has deserted Isifile (who has borne him twins) for Medea, and their union has also produced children, as is revealed when the lovers callously decide to leave them behind when fleeing Colchis. It becomes even more soap-opera-like later on: Giasone and Medea decide to have Isifile murdered, but by accident it is Medea who is thrown into the sea instead. What is a heartbreaking tragedy in Rigoletto is just farcical here: naturally Medea is rescued by her former lover, Egeo (Andrew Goodwin), who was conveniently shipwrecked on that same shore.

The cast was extremely strong from beginning to end. David Hansen’s countertenor voice was flexible and expressive, and he had enough charisma to be credible as the magnetic lover. Save for one brief passage where he was a little under the pitch, he was secure throughout. Celeste Lazarenko captured Medea’s emotional extremes well, and was particularly effective when summoning up the spirits. The musical highpoint for me was the sleep duet between Hansen and Lazarenko in Part 2: their vocal exchanges were simply delightful, and when singing together they blended effortlessly. Miriam Allan sounded sweet but soft-voiced in Isifile’s opening number; later on she opened up dynamically, demonstrating both commanding forte and barely breathed but perfectly audible pianissimo.

Adrian McEniery as Delfa © Keith Saunders
Adrian McEniery as Delfa
© Keith Saunders
David Greco’s Oreste was hugely enjoyable, thanks to his strong voice and fine comedic skills. Nicholas Dinopoulos as Ercole got the biggest laugh of the night, when he crossly explained that he “only killed one queen per day”. The fresh-voiced Alexandra Oomens, still an undergraduate student at my institution (the Sydney Conservatorium of Music), sparkled as the flirty Alinda. Christopher Saunders was amusing as the stuttering servant Demo, as was Adrian McEniery, who was decked out in pearls and twin-set as the simpering nurse. In perhaps the least grateful role, Andrew Goodwin delivered his exaggerated protestations of devotion without flinching.

Director/co-designer Chas-Rader Shieber and designer Katren Wood’s set was minimalist, consisting of a back-cloth which parted to reveal a curtained alcove in the centre flanked by doors. The only significant item of furniture was a couch, which was wheeled off and on as required. Effective use was made of lighting, especially for the silhouetted fight between Giasone and the monster guarding the golden fleece, and the projection of Medea as a threatening shadow onto the back wall during the incantation scene.

Erin Helyard cut an animated figure leading the orchestra, now playing the organ from a semi-standing position, now cueing the singers, now directing the players with such verve that at times it verged on interpretative dance. The instrumentalists, all experienced Baroque performers, played with verve and sensitivity, although towards the end of Part 1 I felt the tuning went ever so slightly sour. The continuo accompaniment was delectably varied according to dramatic need, and the ornamentation was stylish (the occasional clashes between a held orchestral chord and a decorative vocal neighbouring note were delicious). Medea’s invocation was particularly imaginative: the sharply attacked chords at the beginning were more noises than pitched sounds, an effect created through playing clusters of notes on the keyboards, with the later use of the piercing regal adding a final touch of weirdness to the scene.

Although Cavalli’s Giasone was the most performed opera in the 17th century, it is rarely heard nowadays: in fact, last night was its Australian première. The Pinchgut production was not the reverent exhumation of a corpse, however; instead we experienced something much better – a joyous, animated resurrection.