Having just caught Opera Australia's Attila in March before everything closed down, what a joy it was for both players and audience that Pinchgut Opera returned to the stage for a live debut after a winter and spring of on-line entertainments. Audience numbers are now up to 75% in Sydney for venues as large as the City Recital Hall and masks may (or may not) be worn. We have paid the price for isolating and are now and, as Don Marquis' Mehitabel would have it, “there's a dance in the old dame yet, toujours gai, toujours gai”!

Erin Helyard conducts Pinchgut
© Lando Rossi

Pinchgut's Artistic Director, historical researcher and keyboardist, Erin Helyard certainly intended us to emerge from his 75 minute version of Charpentier's Messe de Minuit “toujours gai”. For, while the French composer pushed the traditional form of the mass for his Jesuit patrons at the Paris church of St Louis in 1694 by incorporating both the music and the words of traditional noels with the Latin text, Helyard took the boat out further by adding musical episodes by Chédeville and Boismortier which set feet tapping – if not quite dancing – and doubling the length of the programme.

It also allowed him to introduce Australia to the musette. This truly Gallic version of the Celtic bagpipes features in many a Watteau painting of fêtes champêtres and is such a delicate creature beside the tartan howler that even French ladies were permitted to play it. Unsurprisingly, the musette failed to survive the French Revolution. But, clothed in Christmassy red velvet with many a furbelow, the instrument played by bassoonist Simon Rickard, pumping away with his left arm rather than blowing, proved a perfect companion for Mel Farrow's similarly finespun Baroque flute, which added surprising Celtic touches to his dainty drone.

Simon Rickard plays the musette
© Lando Rossi

The orchestra was similarly minimal, strings and chamber organ backed by a trio of winds, and Charpentier's chorus was reduced to five soloists – two sopranos, two tenors and a baritone. The balance was perfect, and the male trios – Eric Peterson and Nicholas Jones tenor and David Greco baritone – were particularly mellifluous. Chloe Lankshear soared in the Kyrie after an introductory carol, Joseph est bien marié had set the tone for the four-part Kyrie based on it. The era was confirmed for us through notes inégales (dotted rhythms), maintained by Charpentier even as his bitter rival Lully had moved on. For the Christe eleison, the noel, Nous dites Marie preceded its three-part antiphony.

And then a break for Chedeville – preceded by earnest cleaning of the music stands that had been the sopranos as musette and flute moved in. The later Boismortier entr'acte for a Village Ballet followed on from a Sanctus based on Où s’en vont ces gais bergers, which, with twinkling star-lights overhead, conjured shepherds dancing into Bethlehem to celebrate the Christ Child's birth. Earlier, those stars had dimmed for Charpentier's Nuit. Eleven carols in all appeared through the Mass. It was all delightfully low-key but, as Catherine Cessac agrees in her authoritative study of the composer, his Messe de Minuit is “a perfect synthesis between the secular and the liturgical, between popular and learned writing”.

Soloists, Erin Helyard and the Orchestra of the Antipodes
© Lando Rossi

Even Pinchgut's farewell encore of the original version of the tune that has become the jolly Ding Dong Merrily on High in the 20th Century – Branle de l'Official (1589) by French monk and musicologist, Thoinot Arbeau – had a matching delicacy for the evening. Next year, Helyard assured his audience, Pinchgut will be back to opera proper, with just a hint to whet the appetite that Neil Armfield may make his debut for the company by directing Rameau's Platée. Toujours gai!

****1