Lively night in North Melbourne

TRIPLE TREAT

Gertrude Opera

130 Dryburgh St., North Melbourne

Saturday September 16

                                                                     Allegra Giagu

For sure, it was a triple bill; the question of a treat, I’m not so certain.  This company, coming up for its 10th birthday, gives a welcome avenue for aspiring local and international singers to gain expertise and repertoire; whether by design or by chance, the participants in this group of one-acters were young, although the GO promotional material shows that this accent on tender years doesn’t always obtain.

For Saturday night’s premiere, members of the company began with Salieri’s Prima la musica, poi le parole: that little entertainment, first performed on the same night in the same venue as Mozart’s Impresario, with which it shares pretty much the same plot-line – the problem of getting an opera written with two competing sopranos in play.  The male roles of Poet and Composer were handled with plenty of grunt by baritones Josh Erdelyi-Gotz and Darcy Carroll; they exuded a persuasive sense of exasperation from the start, setting out the plot-lines competently enough, although Salieri  and his librettist Casti make sure an audience is aware of the competitive collaboration that underpins the action, simply by means of sheer repetition.

Soprano Allegra Giagu sang Eleonora, the prima donna with an ego the size of Schonbrunn.  This voice was over-projected for the room that was used for the triple bill, but she made a fine fist of the three satirical extracts from Sarti’s Giulio Sabino that saw the three soloists involved move into slapstick.  Bethany Hill’s contribution as the good-time soubrette Tonina presented as more hectic than happy, the account of Via largo ragazzi given too rapidly for comfort.  But I did enjoy the wrap-it-up quartet, Lieto intanto, mainly for the unabashed energy that each of the singers gave it.

Second up was Menotti’s evergreen The Telephone, one of the shortest operatic two-handers you’ll ever come across.  Bethany Hill put in another appearance as Lucy, Darcy Carroll also returning for the not-too-demanding part of prospective fiance Ben.  A fluffy piece which gives its soprano all the running, this staging by Greta Nash worked efficiently, even if there’s little enough you can do with it.  Hill proved more effective in this piece, but then it’s an easy ask: the line is simply dialogue (or monologue, if we’re honest) dressed up with notes.

In these days of instant communications where a phone is rarely out of many people’s hands, this work takes on a credibility that is streets beyond its effect in 1947.  The ubiquity of multi-function phones as an extension of personality plays out well in a reading set today, with the added advantage that Hill could (almost inevitably) use her device as a physical appendage – to talk into, of course, but also to take selfies.  Carroll had few occasions to shine, except when his beloved left the room for a short spell and then in the love-duet that concludes the work to general satisfaction.  Not that the singers were playing for subtlety: Ben and Lucy are both as superficial as anyone you can see on The Bachelor or, more pertinently, The Farmer Wants a Wife.

A new quartet came on for the staging of the 18-year-old Bizet’s operetta Doctor Miracle, the most substantial of the evening’s components, in part due to a fair bit of truncated dialogue in the Salieri work.  Resounding with echoes of The Barber of Seville, Don Pasquale, Cosi fan tutti and even La serva padrona, the plot concerns the feisty daughter of the Mayor of Padua who wants to marry a buoyant Almaviva-type military sprig, who gets into the house by disguise, is found out, pulls a swifty on the podesta and gets the girl in the end. Nothing particularly original, yet the music is loaded with attractive melodies and the young composer had a keen eye for how long he could justifiably hold up the dramatic onward surge.

Juliet Dufour sang the daughter-in-love, Laurette, with a keen eye for the part’s vitality, especially in recitative.  The solitary problem came from her pronunciation.  Doctor Miracle was written in French, of course, with a libretto from Leon Battu and the highly prolific Ludovic Halevy, but the Gertrudes presented it (as also Prima la musica . . . ) in English and Dufour’s enunciation showed a lack of ease with idiomatic English singing. While she would have been happy sailing through Ne me grondez pas, it was often hard to decipher her meaning in that romance’s English equivalent.

Bass baritone Henry Shaw made a satisfyingly fussy Mayor, if inclined to overdo his revulsion at certain stages; the objection to Miracle’s clamour was strident enough but the omelette reaction exceeded the bounds of probability.  Nevertheless, his contribution to ensembles like the trio with Laurette and Silvio was assured and moderately resonant.  As his wife, Veronique, Lisa Parker played a comfortably assured vamp, too clever for her current company but pushing all the right buttons; in other words, making her presence felt in spite of having little but dialogue with which to do it.

Tenor Hew Wagner, a guest artist with GO,  made a bright beginning as Silvio, the military man disguised as Pasquin, the Mayor’s newly-hired servant.  His boasting Je sais monter les escaliers self-introduction came across with a breathless vigour and assurance.  A pity, then, that his ensemble contributions were close to inaudible, even in the rousing final quartet. It was hard to see why this ringing timbre went missing in concerted moments, although I sympathized with him in coping with Jeremy Stanford’s direction.

Wagner is a solid fellow, with the physique of a second-row forward and a solid diaphragm at his disposal.  But the tenor was required to climb onto a fairly rickety table at two points in the action, moments where your expectations that he wouldn’t make it or that he would fall were high.  This clambering requirement looked effort-laden and distracted from your focus on the voice and characterization.  A pity as he might have made a more persuasive showing if he’d had his feet on the ground throughout.

The company works under certain constraints, most of which are understandable.  Costumes have to be contemporary, regardless of traditional settings (1786 Vienna?  An American city in 1947?  18th century Padua?  Forget it), lighting is rudimentary and scene-setting errs on the functional side with little room for stage effects.  The most serious problem relates to the absence of an orchestra.  Bizet’s opera requires a pretty standard pit with a quartet of instruments for off-stage noises representing the Doctor’s self-promotion; Menotti asks for six wind, percussion, piano and strings; Salieri has the full woodwind, trumpets and horns, timpani as well as an active string body.

Opera Australia’s veteran Brian Castles-Onion took on the unenviable task of escorting the company’s singers through all three elements of the triple bill; he did so from the piano, just like at a rehearsal which, at times, this night seemed in danger of becoming.  I don’t know what he was doing with Salieri’s opening sinfonia but it sounded like selected bars were hefted out with little care for exactitude.  Matters improved for the actual opera but the results across the three productions were often ragged, the most successful collaboration coming in the Bizet score which, compared to the others, radiated fluency.

It’s beyond the company’s means to assemble an orchestra, although thought might be given to organizing a skeleton band – even a string quartet for something like the 18th century piece would have helped, or some percussion(ists) for Menotti’s entertainment. But serious thought should be given to providing the Gertrude’s singers with something like a realistic accompaniment against which they can show their talents more fairly and with more rewarding results.

The productions have been presented also on Monday September 18 and will receive their last performances tonight at 8 pm.