Melbourne seemed bowled over by Sydney-based Pinchgut Opera’s first foray into Melbourne, with a stunning concert featuring mezzo soprano Vivica Genaux accompanied by Erin Helyard and the Orchestra of the Antipodes. Fresh from Genaux’s success in Hasse’s Artaserse in Sydney, the substantial Melbourne audience seemed wowed from her very first step onto the stage, and continued to manifest noisy enthusiasm until the final standing ovation.

Vivica Genaux and Erin Helyard
© Albert Comper

The programme was a choice menu of Baroque delights, featuring composers such as Riccardo Broschi (Farinelli’s brother), Porpora, Hasse and the better known Vivaldi and Handel, but the audience was ready for anything the performers wanted to throw at them. The players were as for Artaserse but somewhat reduced (no flutes or oboes here, but the horns survived). The singing was interspersed with purely orchestral items by Hasse, two structured opera overtures (to Cleofide and Demoofonte, and a concerto. The first overture opened the concert, with a fat horn sound followed by some string brilliance. As with everything, the playing was brisk and precise. The little-known concerto was quite a substantial work with very energetic playing, but an odd ending – it just seems to stop. The second overture on the other hand has some excellent virtuoso violin passages, and a joyous Presto which finishes with an emphatic flourish.

Vivica Genaux
© Albert Comper

Genaux sang with enormous engagement with the audience, and also the orchestra, turning to watch them during ritornelli, smiling encouragingly and seeming to have a rip-roaring time.  She was a vivid visual presence, with a flesh-coloured, heavily sequined gown flaring from below the hips in the first half, and a bright red number after the interval, which recalled her first appearance in Australia, in Il barbiere in Perth 20 years ago. She has a very distinctive timbre and rather odd voice production but sings with great and accurate flexibility, with extensive ornamentation. Her first item, a bravura aria from Cleofide, set the pace, with almost insane coloratura and an extended elaborate cadenza, followed by huge applause and shouting. Similar arias from Porpora and Vivaldi wound up the audience further. Two slower arias associated with Farinelli, Broschi’s “Ombra fedele” and, later, Porpora’s “Alto Giove” went down well, but to some ears her voice type doesn’t really work so well here. On the other hand, Handel’s “Ho perso il caro ben” (Parnasso in festa) was wholly successful, sung with great expressivity, with Genaux wiping away tears at the end. The resounding “Sta nel’Ircana” (Alcina) followed before the interval, with a cadenza including a long pause, during which the singer teased the audience, bringing down the house.

After the pause, two Vivaldi arias were also hailed with enthusiasm, “Mentre dormi” (L’Olimpiade), a serious piece with a demanding lightly orchestrated b-section, followed by the popular Bartoli showpiece, “Agitata da due venti” (Griselda), which naturally went down a treat. The final item on the programme was also by Vivaldi, “Come in vano il mare irato” (Catone in Utica), another rollercoaster ride of fiorituri, roulades, trills… the whole box of Baroque tricks. An encore followed, the instantly recognisable “Lascia ch’io pianga (Handel’s Rinaldo), sung simply and affectingly, with little vibrato, followed by a second, considered to be Genaux’s “signature piece”, Broschi’s furioso aria “Qual guerriero” (from his opera Idaspe, but also featured in Vivaldi’s Bajazet); another textbook study of Baroque ornamentation, followed by huge acclamaton. Such a reception is not only a tribute to the musical feast thus laid out but bodes well for Pinchgut’s future expansion south of the border.