There are few performing venues as iconic as Sydney’s Opera House, the home of Opera Australia during its Sydney seasons. However, operatic activity in the city is not confined to this space: a surprising number of smaller companies, some of which have particular repertoire specialisms, provide alternatives at a range of different locations. Over a ten-day period, I have been to productions at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (Orphée aux enfers, put on by the in-house Opera School), the City Recital Hall (the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra doing Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo), the Opera House itself (Opera Australia’s Lucia di Lammemoor), as well as the Independent Theatre in North Sydney for Rossini’s Silken Ladder, the item under review.

This production of Rossini’s early farce was mounted by Sydney Independent Opera, one of the newest companies in the city. It was founded in 2011 by artistic director Dr Steven Stanke with the aim of programming “lesser-known works by established composers or new works by emerging composers”. The Silken Ladder, which precedes The Barber of Seville by four years, certainly fits the bill: its catchy Overture is the only extract that is at all well-known today. The work here was performed in English, with a somewhat uneven translation credited to G. Dunn. There were some strange lurches in register: one character described another as “so sexy”, which provoked the archaic response “hush, strumpet”. More enjoyable was some neat comic rhyming of “animosity” with “pomposity”, and “verbosity” à la Tom Lehrer in another place.

The singing, too, was rather variable. The female lead, Julia (Regina Daniel) was the stand out, exhibiting a well-rounded voice, secure coloratura decoration, and plenty of volume, especially in alt. This last quality was used to good comic effect when she unleashed a top ‘C’ in her dismissal of the servant Sebastian (Randall Stewart), clearly rocking him on his feet. Stewart may not have quite milked all the humour that his part affords, but he was generally acceptable. The baritone Raphael Hudson was vocally impressive in the role of the smarmy Blansac, the man Julia is being pressured to marry. However, she has already gotten hitched to tenor Dorville (David Visentin) who was generally underwhelming and exhibited lots of strain in his upper register. The second female lead, Michaela Leisk as Lucille, demonstrated by far the best comic timing of the cast (her credits include several TV appearances), and her portrayal of a pouting sex-kitten who sets her sights on Blansac and gets her man was among the highlights of the production. The formidable Aunt Montdor, a role originally for a tenor, was taken by a slightly hoarse Whitney Erickson, though she did bring the appropriate matriarchal presence to the small role.

In a clearly budget production, the characters wore 1960s outfits, and the directorial note in the program suggested that the production was relocated to an English country house. One had to take the latter claim on faith, as the staging consisted solely of a table, a chair, and a drape representing the ladder. Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect a fledgling enterprise to go in for elaborate sets or lavish costumes, but there is a difference between an imaginatively minimalist production and a show where the design was clearly not a priority. During two consecutive numbers in the second half the lights were dimmed for the cantabile portion of the double aria for no apparent reason. On the positive side the characters’ on-stage interactions were relatively fluid, and they popped in and out of their various hidey-holes in the approved farcical manner.

The Independent Theatre is a small venue, seating 300, but sadly the show played to a largely empty hall: clearly the publicity needs to be better managed. One wonders indeed whether this is the right sort of space: the lack of a pit meant that the dozen or so players in the orchestra were on the lower part of the dais, and hence down-stage of the singers. Visually the stage was dominated by the utterly anachronistic concert grand on the right, which was used to accompany the recitatives. More importantly, there were difficulties hearing the words when the music was going full-tilt. The band itself was rather scratchy (particularly in the strings), which meant that their brave attempts to try to capture the perky spirit of the music generally fell a little short. Maybe the company could follow the lead of Sydney Chamber Opera (an equally young company which specialises in works written in the last century), and move away from the proscenium-arch set-up which really did hinder their performance, and use venues permitting a more fluid and flexible layout.