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29 December, 2016

Handel’s Theodora at Wynard in Sydney.

An impressive production of Handel’s Theodora at Angel Place 6/12/16. 
I was bowled over by the whole operatic experience at Pinchgut Opera and would recommend it highly for 2017.  Despite an open stage at the City Recital Hall we saw a virtually fully staged version of this neglected gem thanks to brilliant director Lindy Hume and maestro Erin Helyard. 
The principal singers were all of the highest calibre, supported by the 'Cantillation' chorus and Pinchgut orchestra.  It is always nice when one can interact with the performers and at the Recital Hall one walks past the musicians coming into the theatre.  One could not ignore the huge contrabassoon both physically (it seemed to be about 3 metres long) as well as its booming place in the complex score of this baroque opera.  I think I noted a wooden flute too, reminding us why this brass instrument is still classified as a ‘woodwind’. 
Theodora is a simple but shocking story of early Christians in Roman Antioch during the pagan festival of Venus and Juno.  One young Roman soldier converts to Christianity for love while another becomes very sympathetic.  The staunch and unrepentant Christian is the beautiful young virgin of the title. 
And Valda Wilson sang the role superbly … with dignity and vocal aplomb, despite being condemned to work in a brothel for her baptismal crime against the Roman gods. 
We meet our protagonists initially around a large raised table, brilliantly set as a modern boardroom meeting.  Following amusing domestic preliminaries, the dignitaries are addressed by Valens, the Roman bully-in-charge, well sung by basso Andrew Collis.  The love-struck Didymis was played by Christopher Lowrey, a counter-tenor with a most pleasing voice.  I do not warm to many male sopranos (apart from David Daniels, of course) yet here was beauty, style and flair in his rendition of the fiendish vocal lines by Handel.  Soldier Septimus was English tenor Ed Lyon and Irene was played by sumptuous mezzo Caitlin Hulcup … both excellent operatic voices and actors to wit. 
The start of Act 2 was another piece of theatrical originality being a drunken bacchanal which started half way through the intermission.  As we came back into the hall the singers were already lurching around the stage one by one, bantering with orchestra members, muttering, laughing and generally making a stage-party by the time we were all seated.  The drama then took us through all the emotions as Theodora's paramour Didymis becomes her first customer, only to swap clothes and attempt escape from the brothel.  
It is telling that this venue can be so intimate and user-friendly at just half the price per ticket as Opera Australia which was concurrently engaged in a Ring series of operas in Melbourne for the very select few who can afford the time, travel and enormous ticket prices.  One has an overwhelming feeling of youth, vitality and professional enthusiasm at Pinchgut performances.  This is quite the opposite of the national opera company which has become so survival-conscious, negative and pusillanimous in almost everything it does these days.  And YES, I am very jaded that the Ring was done again in Melbourne rather than Sydney (but spare me the reasons).  However, hats off to the national company for putting Greta Bradman into La Boheme next week.  Toi, toi, toi! 
Get a brochure for Pinchgut in 2017!  And if you want to see serious international quality opera in an opera house, go to San Francisco! 
Notes by Andrew Byrne .. Wishing all readers a happy and prosperous New Year for 2017.