When is an opera a pasticcio? The term has been used since the 18th century to describe operas which have been created by putting together arias from several other operas. Thus we have the self-pasticcio where a composer has cobbled together arias from their own works to create a new whole (e.g. Handel’s Giove in Argo), the less pure pasticcio which includes arias from other composers (Handel’s Catone in Utica, Handel and Vinci’s Didone abbandonata), and the totally new patchwork (Jeremy Sams’ The Enchanted Island for the New York Met in 2011). While Pinchgut Opera’s latest offering is unabashedly presented as Vivaldi’s Farnace, it includes arias brought in from some eight other Vivaldi operas (plus some not mentioned in the programme notes). This is described as a restorative necessity due to Vivaldi’s third act not having survived complete, but other reconstructions have retained more of the available original arias (several of them across the different versions are not used here plus a duet and a quartet). While little survives of the original 1727 Venetian premiere, there are better preserved versions from revivals in 1731 (Pavia) and 1738 (Ferrara, prepared by Vivaldi but not performed). This Pinchgut version goes its own way in the second half (as usual the Italian Baroque opera three-act structure is jettisoned), and the claim that “we restore Vivaldi’s final operatic masterwork to its full glory” is something of a reach.

Christopher Lowrey (Farnace) © Brett Boardman
Christopher Lowrey (Farnace)
© Brett Boardman

Perhaps this is an argument of purely academic interest, and we should judge the work only on its theatrical impact. The Pinchgut production lives up to the company’s high production standards with respect to historical musical values both instrumental and vocal, while the staging is modern dress in a brutal modern regime (director Mark Gaal, design Isabel Hudson). Given the current state of Sydney, engulfed by bushfires and swathed in a smoky haze, the grim dark stage setting seemed only too appropriate. There being no curtain in this venue, the audience on entering, and throughout, was greeted with a large gibbet-like structure from which dangled black wrapped corpses. Everyone was basically dressed in black, with Farnace and his sister Selinda in combat mode, Tamiri (Farnace’s wife) in a black cloak affair, and Berenice (her mother and overbearing hate filled Quisling to the Romans) flashed out with gold trimmings.

Taryn Fiebig (Selinda) and Michael Petruccelli (Aquilio) © Brett Boardman
Taryn Fiebig (Selinda) and Michael Petruccelli (Aquilio)
© Brett Boardman

As usual the Orchestra of the Antipodes played immaculately for Erin Helyard, conducting from the harpsichord. The orchestration is a little unusual in featuring frequently recurring horns (excellently played by Carla Blackwood and Dorée Dixon) but no oboes, and two theorbo/guitarists, although it is thought that Vivaldi did not include plucked instruments (apart from keyboards) in his operas. There is also a flute in one item, to which I shall return, but overall the music is carried by the strings, well served by all under concertmaster Matthew Greco.

Christopher Lowrey in the title role must be counted one of the operatic countertenors of our day, excelling dramatically and vocally, with clear, ringing and flexible tone. The highlight of the evening was his rendition of “Gelido in ogni vena” bringing down the metaphorical curtain of part one. Close behind him in terms of vocal chops, but considerably less charisma, was another countertenor Max Riebl, as Gilade. Despite a solid vocal career to date, this would appear to be his first operatic role, and one hopes he can develop his on stage presence to match his beautiful, well produced voice, with effortless but well-articulated coloratura. The rest of the principals are experienced performers, particularly Taryn Fiebig, long a stalwart of Opera Australia, with pure soprano tone and effortless Baroque embellishment, and mezzo Jacqueline Dark, a formidable Berenice.

Jacqueline Dark (Berenice) © Brett Boardman
Jacqueline Dark (Berenice)
© Brett Boardman

Another mezzo, Helen Sherman, fills out the role of Tamiri with a heartfelt performance. One of the vocal highlights was her aria “Sol da te, mio dolce amore”, a slow intense love song addressed to Farnace accompanied by a gorgeous flute obbligato played with subtle virtuosity by Mikaela Oberg. But does it really belong in the lead up to the finale? It is in fact borrowed from Orlando furioso, and slows the action right down, in what should be an impetuous build up to Berenice’s (ridiculous) volte face providing the lieto fine.

****1