Vivaldi is best known today for his orchestral works; who doesn’t know at least some of The Four Seasons? But he was also very active in the baroque opera scene, claiming to have written 90 operas, though only around 50 have been identified and only 21 survive.

Thanks to Pinchgut Opera, Sydney audiences now have the chance to see one of his final operas, Farnace. It’s the fourth Vivaldi opera the company has performed – after Juditha Triumphans in 2007, Griselda in 2011, and Bajazet in 2015 – and the first time it has been staged in Australia.

Christopher Lowrey as the antihero Farnace. Photograph © Brett Boardman

And what a glorious evening it was, combining ravishing music with virtuosic vocal performances and an intelligent, contemporary production. It’s a piece that could so easily flounder if poorly staged, given the limitations of the libretto by Antonio Lucchini, but here the production soars on every level, sending you home exhilarated.

Farnace is widely considered one of the best scores from Vivaldi’s later period of operatic writing. First performed in 1727 in Venice, it proved very popular and a revised version was staged in Prague in 1730, followed by another in Pavia in 1731. In 1738, Vivaldi was invited to provide a new work for the opera house at Ferrara and suggested another reworked version of Farnace. He completed the first two acts but not the third.

Erin Helyard, the Artistic Director of Pinchgut, has chosen to present the 1738 version, piecing together the third act by using some arias from other Vivaldi operas that fit the plot and characters. However he’s done it, it works brilliantly.

The plot, which revolves around war, revenge, betrayal, love and forgiveness, is loosely conceived to say the least. The libretto rarely delves beneath the surface in its portrayal of the characters, and yet there are so many wonderful musical lines, and the performances are so excellent, that many of the arias are extremely moving.

The story centres on Farnace (Christopher Lowrey), the King of Pontus, who after a five-year war with the Romans has finally been defeated. He orders his wife Tamiri (Helen Sherman) to kill their son (Matthew Simon) and then herself, so that they can’t be captured by the Romans and used as slaves, but Tamiri defies her husband out of fierce love for her son, and hides him.

Max Riebl, Taryn Fiebig and Michael Petruccelli. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Farnace’s scheming, vengeful mother-in-law Berenice (Jacqueline Dark) is just as dangerous as the Romans, if not more so. Full of hatred for Farnace because his father murdered her husband, while Farnace himself murdered her son, she is determined to destroy him. In league with Pompeo (Timothy Reynolds), who is leading the Romans, she does all she can to have Farnace, Tamiri and their son killed – even though Tamiri is her daughter.

Meanwhile, Farnace’s sister Selinda (Taryn Fiebig) is captured by the Romans. When Berenice’s general Gilade (Max Riebl) and a Roman prefect called Aquilio (Michael Petruccelli) both fall instantly in love with her, she decides to use them to try to save Farnace and her nephew.

Director Mark Gaal (who also directed Griselda for Pinchgut), brings an inventive, intelligent eye to the opera, taking it seriously but with a slightly raised eyebrow at its absurdities; a canny approach – particularly when you have ridiculous, sudden changes of heart from various characters, and an unlikely reconciliation at the end.

Having Selinda seduce an honourable, gentle Gilade, and an aggressively macho Aquilio, with a knowing twinkle in her eye, is very funny and infinitely more believable in this day and age, while the way she holds her head in her hands at Farnace’s insane stubbornness is a hoot. What’s more, Gaal includes a gesture at the very end of the production to show that the happy ending is unlikely to last.

Gaal and his designer Isabel Hudson have set the opera in a bombed-out war zone; a setting all too familiar from today’s news coverage. Bodies wrapped in black plastic hang from the ceiling as a warning to others; chalk outlines of people on the back wall are perhaps graffiti, perhaps a suggestion of the ghosts of the dead. The costuming is contemporary (camouflage jackets, balaclavas, guns) with a slightly stylish twist. The lighting (Benjamin Brockman) is subdued and shadowy, with faces or bodies lit for arias. The way Tamiri and Farnace are both illuminated from above, with a dark void between them, towards the end of the opera when Tamiri sings of her enduring love for him, is a simple effect yet incredibly eloquent. The prevailing look of the production is monochromatic, but a judicious use of red is again highly effective.

Jacqueline Dark. Photograph © Brett Boardman

As for the music, anyone who likes Vivaldi will be seduced by the score from the opening bars of the prelude, with its sharp, pulsing chords intercut with melting melodies. The music is recognisably Vivaldi’s, while Farnace’s famous aria ‘Gelido in ogni vena’ (“my blood is frozen in my veins”) recalls the opening strident, glacial chords of Winter from The Four Seasons. (Gaal has snow falling).

The music is often radiantly beautiful. A flute solo by Mikaela Oberg during an aria by Tamiri is so sublime you want to cry, and the horns (Clara Blackwood and Doree Dixon) are thrilling. But the performance of the Orchestra of the Antipodes is exciting across the board under the virtuosic leadership of Helyard. It’s hard not to watch him at times as he plays the harpsichord, conducts, and coaxes the music from the musicians with evocative hand and arm gestures, as the music courses through every sinew in his body.

He has gathered a sensational cast. As the antihero Farnace, American-born countertenor Christopher Lowrey sings with spirited, gleaming tones across his register. His diction is impeccable and he has a powerful stage presence. His characterisation exudes impatient arrogance, yet despite Farnace’s often odious behaviour, his delivery of ‘Gelido in ogni vena’ is ravishing and his final reconciliation with Tamiri – sung with radiant expressiveness by Helen Sherman – is genuinely poignant.

As Gilade, Max Riebl’s countertenor is sweet, lush and sumptuously smooth, his coloratura agile and beautiful. It was his debut with Pinchgut, and he gave a performance to remember. Taryn Fiebig brings a lovely comic timing to her portrayal of Selinda, displaying a keen sense of theatricality, yet her luminously sung arias are deeply moving. As the fierce, formidable Berenice, Jacqueline Dark unleashes dark, steely tones, while exuding an exuberant, villainous glee. There are also strong performances from Timothy Reynolds as Pompeo and Michael Petruccelli as Aquilio. All in all, a miraculous, unforgettable night.

Farnace plays at City Recital Hall, Sydney until December 10


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