Just as a storm front swept upon Sydney, in the sheltered modernity of the City Recital Hall another storm of great proportion unleashed its fury within. In the opening scene of Pinchgut Opera's latest production, Christoph Willibald Gluck's rarely performed late 18th century work, Iphigénie en Tauride, a swirling musical, dramatic and visually strobe-enhanced tempest is belted out. Even when it does subside, a disturbingly aggressive story infused with courage, compassion and hope in the context of familial love and friendship, provides no sense of calm. Only in the final moments is peace restored under a jubilant, golden-champagne light to end a performance of compelling, uncomplicated artistry and soaring vocal performances.

Caitlin Hulcup (Iphigénie) © Keith Saunders
Caitlin Hulcup (Iphigénie)
© Keith Saunders

Limitations of the recital hall for fully staged opera are mostly camouflaged by director Lindy Humes' clear, focused attention in gathering the action in various masses to create a stylised  portrayal of events as she draws heightened dramatic character portrayal from her earnest cast, allowing the opera's 24 scenes over its four acts to unfold as a cohesive whole.

Humes' direction deftly reflects Gluck's blend of sacred and secular music as the events pass with almost ecclesiastical pageantry across Tony Assness' evocative set design consisting of two large tilted marble slabs resting upon the stylobate corner (three-stepped base) of a what would have been an ancient Greek temple to the goddess Diana. The stage marvellously even gives the impression of a rocky coastline to remind us that the story takes place on the peninsula of Tauris across which the cast are forever climbing their way. Lit with shifting subtleties by lighting designer Matthew Marshall, channelled through a three-sided, gently truncated full-height enclosure, and combined with the blood-red robed Iphigénie and her priestesses of Alistair Trunga's costume designs, a sense of remoteness in time and place prevails.

Then, with a shocking jolt of present day horrors of ISIS brutality, the Scythian ruler Thoas enters with his bearded subjects, cloaked entirely in black, wearing headscarves, waving machine-guns and gesticulating with primeval barbarity. Thoas rules to appease the gods by sacrificing any foreigner who enters his kingdom and the two hooded Greek captives, Oreste and Pylade, shall pay the price. Humes momentarily, blatantly and cleverly infuses Gluck's masterpiece with modern day religious fanaticism... not to mention the ruler's questionable handling of immigration law.

Margaret Plummer (Diane), Caitlin Hulcup (Iphigénie) and Christopher Richardson (Thaos) © Keith Saunders
Margaret Plummer (Diane), Caitlin Hulcup (Iphigénie) and Christopher Richardson (Thaos)
© Keith Saunders

Conductor Antony Walker delivers the force of Gluck's music with warmth and vigour from a tight-knit Orchestra of the Antipodes. The score is plentiful in exposed orchestral playing which showcases the richness of the musicianship, all but for the odd straying horn and oboe. Squashed between the front row and the raised temple steps, their proximity to the cast ensured inclusiveness from which Maestro Walker comfortably supports his performers.

A sense of anguish pours from soprano Caitlin Hulcup's grand performance as Iphigénie, vocally typified by glorious, emotive phrasing, a warm, even vibrato and demonstrative wide-ranging tonal colour. Hulcup fires from the start, maintaining her vigour in Act II's mournful and piercing “O malheureuse Iphigénie”. Then, as if dabbing paint to music, Hulcup renders Act III's “Je cède à vos désirs: du sort qui nous opprime” with a fierce delicacy as she agonises over her strange desire to free Oreste in feeling a mysterious bond.

We know Oreste is her brother, electrifyingly powered by baritone Grant Doyle. Hulking in stature and voice, but soft as marshmallow inside, Doyle grasps Oreste with determined strength as he wills his life to be sacrificed for his friend Pylade. In his Act II opening  aria, “Dieux, à quelle horreurs m'aviez-vous réserve?”, Doyle, immediately impresses and you wonder if he can find the reserve to sustain his performance, but he never disappoints, equally able to extrude a pianissimo of shapely beauty.

Grant Doyle (Oreste) © Keith Saunders
Grant Doyle (Oreste)
© Keith Saunders

As Pylade, tenor Christopher Saunders, in near subservient manner, depicts a man who idolises Oreste, convincingly having us believe he'd do anything he could for his friend. Saunders is solid in his lower range but loses firmness and tonal colour as he reaches the upper notes. Gradually, Saunders' performance intensifies and with Doyle in Act III's duet, “Rendez-moi mon ami”, the emotion flows and the voices find loving harmony.

Christopher Richardson explodes on the stage as a menacing Thoas, another large voice, broad and chesty with a pronounced jerky vibrato which is seemingly glued to his gorilla-like behaviour. In stark contrast, Margaret Plummer radiates with authoritative purity as the goddess Diana, scorning the Scythians, decreeing a triumphant passage to Greece for Iphigénie and Oreste and ending unrest.

The chorus of priestesses support Iphigénie with a clear, unified and rock-solid display both vocally and dramatically, forever victorious over the male chorus of Scythian soldiers who took some time to warm up. Together, in Act III's closing song of rejoice, they combine in a blazing tour-de-force.

When considering Pinchgut Opera's "set up by accident" beginnings and "Sydney's surprising opera company" branding, it seems a contradiction. This Iphegenie en Tauride is no accident and with the consistent quality the company presents, "surprising" is becoming less and less surprising.