This is possibly Pinchgut Opera’s finest achievement. Its past presentations of Baroque operas and obscurities from the later 18th century have tended to dilute the product somewhat, by selecting oratorios rather than operas to stage, and often rather outré productions. Here however is the real thing, a typical Baroque opera, presented with one basic set and minimal stage business; an opera with no soprano, but five alto voices and a tenor; no ensembles except a duet and a concluding chorus for the principals; a succession of long da capo arias interspersed with skeins of recitative; and practically nothing happening for three hours when it suddenly speeds up and all is resolved in a lieto fine. The performance runs for three and a half hours (including a single interval), and even so dispenses with two arias, truncates several others and omits copious amounts of recitative.

Hasse’s Artaserse has a typical Baroque narrative structure which sounds complex but is clarity itself when performed (and with English surtitles for the sung Italian): Artabano kills Serse then lets his son Arbace take the blame; Arbace is in love (reciprocally) with Serse’s daughter Mandane, and his sister Semira is in love with Serse’s son Artaserse. A loathsome toady called Megabise, another soldier, languishes after Semira. In between the opening death of Serse and the final resolution, the opera explores the relationships between the characters in terms of their feelings, but also themes of class and power (Arbace is really below Mandane’s princess status, Semira likewise in aspiring to the putative king), and particularly love and duty, one of the most significant sources of conflict, and plot, in Baroque opera.

In this production, directed by Chas Rader-Shieber, a simple stage set easily surmounted the problems inherent in working without a proscenium arch, comprising a sumptuous wall-papered room with few accoutrements and featuring a portrait of the deceased king. Generally the production allowed the opera to proceed unimpeded, with tidy movements of the singers around, on and off the stage.The costumes (designer Charles Davis) were a bit of a puzzle.  Mandane first appeared in a sumptuous aqua Dior-ish full-skirted gown with a bejewelled bodice; it looked fabulous but seemed somewhat out of place. Semira was a conrast in an apricot business suit. The two women are on different social planes, but it could also be read as one going to a ball and the other to the office. All the men were in uniform:  the king looked like 20th-century royalty in white tie and blue sash with medals, the others in khaki representing their various ranks. As always, the Orchestra of the Antipodes played exceedingly well, under the now customary leadership of Erin Helyard, conducting from the harpsichord and allowing the singers to demonstrate their decorative abilities. 

Vivica Genaux is known in Australia for her performances in Brisbane two years ago, and in Europe and the US she is a justly celebrated performer of, initially, Rossini, and latterly, Baroque music. Genaux, basically a mezzo-soprano, endows the role of Mandane with brilliance in all aspects, vocally, dramatically and charismatically. Her voice production is decidedly odd, but manifests itself in a distinctive timbre (not totally unlike that of Marilyn Horne) with a wide range, unlimited flexibility and accuracy. There was no weak link in the cast. Australian born countertenor David Hansen took on the Farinelli role of Arbace, caught between love of his father and his duty to the king and justice. He also convinced emotionally in the role, and dispatched his demanding arias with flair, and a mastery of florid decoration. One’s only reservation is that at times he seemed to be pushing it a bit, and a more relaxed approach might lead to more beautiful tone. The mezzo role of Semira was sung by another local, Emily Edmonds, surely a star in the making, singing with golden tone and convincing expressivity. 

Artabano was sung by Italian countertenor Carlo Vistoli, who provided a textbook display of Baroque singing, with beautifully articulated coloratura, creamy tone, pinpoint accuracy and seamless drops into chest. The creepy Megabise was well-portrayed by countertenor Russell Harcourt whose high tessitura allowed him to cut through the forces with flowing legato. The single other voice range representative was the tenor Artaserse, very finely sung, and acted, by Andrew Goodwin with ringing tone.

The audience seemed subdued on the opening night, perhaps taken aback by the unfamiliarity of the work and its difference from the works of Handel and Vivaldi, but as it progressed, it became clear that they were very attentive. I would see this as a major milestone in the Pinchgut story, not just entertaining but, to some extent at least, educating their audience and, it is to be hoped, bringing them further into an understanding of Baroque opera.