Pastiche opera has recently gained an unexpected new lease of life. The first big success came with The Met’s The Enchanted Island in 2012, and last year William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants toured Sydney with ‘In an Italian Garden’, in which a clear narrative progression linked together music from disparate sources. What both these works have in common with Victorian Opera’s Voyage to the Moon is their recourse to 18th-century opera as source material. This was the era of opera seria, a genre which consists of a series of essentially distinct musical numbers, facilitating their redeployment into a new scenario, and hence the great age of the pasticcio. In our (post?)-post-modern era, when the imperative of originality seems a little shop-worn, the time is ripe for the kind of creativity that involves reshaping what already exists rather than offering the absolutely new.

Emma Matthews © Jeff Busby
Emma Matthews
© Jeff Busby

The plot of Voyage is based on Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso, a major inspiration for Baroque composers: for instance, Handel wrote no fewer than three operas based on this subject matter. Author and director Michael Gow was only concerned with an episode from the longer poem: Orlando’s descent into madness, and his friend Astolfo’s journey to the moon to find a cure. (Spoiler: it all ends happily.) We are plunged into the action in medias res: Orlando goes insane within one aria of the opening, with apparently very little justification. Familiarity with Ariosto’s tale would help in understanding his motivation, but then again a plot that involves recovering a man’s sanity from a box on the lunar surface isn’t overly concerned with dramatic plausibility. The fact that everything was sung in English provided enough of a story to hang the music on.

In contrast to the big-budget Enchanted Island, and indeed Baroque opera more generally, the staging of Voyage to the Moon embraced an aesthetic of lean sparseness, whether through financial necessity or artistic preference. The minimal props (including roadie and instrument cases) were a reminder that this production is touring six cities, and hence has to be bumped in and out easily. In contrast, the colourful costumes had clearly taken up a sizable chunk of the budget, especially the moon goddess’ elaborate full-bustle number, complete with crown and train. Different colours of lighting were used to suggest characters’ emotional states and different locations, and a big orb was hoisted into the air as the scene shifted to the moon.

Only three singers and seven instrumentalists featured in the 75-minute opera (incidentally, the short run-time was a welcome miniaturisation of the sometimes interminable succession of da capo arias that dominate Baroque operas). The opening Overture (repurposed from Vivaldi’s L’incoronazione di Dario, which is probably not in everyone’s library) fizzed with energy and sensitive dynamic variation. Period instruments were not employed, but this would have mainly concerned the purists: for me, it was only an issue on those infrequent occasions when the continuo cello part dwarfed the sound of the harpsichord. The gorgeous tone of oboist Emma Black was a potent argument for using the modern instrument. A later highlight was the short Sinfonia marking Orlando’s return to his senses, taken from Handel’s Alcina.

Sally-Anne Russell and Emma Matthews © Jeff Busby
Sally-Anne Russell and Emma Matthews
© Jeff Busby

Initially, the more impressive of the two female singers was Sally-Anne Russell as Astolfo: her rendition of “Piangerò la sorte mia” (from Handel’s Giulio Cesare) had a magical purity of tone. By contrast, Emma Matthews (as Orlando) began the evening rather off-form: in her initial outburst of rage, her pitch was rendered unclear by excessive vibrato. When she reappeared as Selena, goddess of the moon, she was much more convincing, with her trademark crystalline passage-work on display. In authentic Baroque fashion, she used the repeat of the first part of the aria to decorate her line further, often venturing way above the staff. Her final solo back in the character of Orlando “As strong as an army” (a curious translation of Hasse’s “O placido il mare” from Siroe) was perhaps the acme of virtuosity in the entire evening.

While both female singers are seasoned performers, the role of Magus was taken by a relative tyro, baritone Jeremy Kleeman. Not that one could have told this from his performance: on the contrary, he more than held his own whether in his solos or in the ensembles. His tone was rounded and flexible, and he has real stage presence: definitely one to watch.

Aside from the vocal and instrumental pleasures on offer, this pastiche also allowed listeners to hear a wide range of music by composers who are household names (Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck, Telemann) and those who aren’t (Sigismondo Molino, Gian Francesco de Majo, Giuseppe Maria Orlandini). Even if the arias of Handel (in particular) still clearly outshone most of the others, it was excellent to have the opportunity to hear some cherry-picked lesser treats from among the riches of the Baroque.