Romantic thrills and spills

23 August 2021

Freeze Frame Opera’s “Angels & Devils” presents unlikely opera repertoire in an unusual venue and Sandra Bowdler says it offers a night of good fun and great singing.

“Angels & Devils”, Freeze Frame Opera ·
Centenary Pavilion, Claremont Showgrounds, 20 August 2021

“Centenary Pavilion is the perfect venue for car launches”, its web site tells me; no mention of opera per se.  It certainly has an impressive art deco façade, and if you come to it at the right angle the fact that it is made primarily of corrugated iron is not immediately obvious. Inside, the kindest description would be drafty barn, but the patrons were told to wrap up warm AND there was tiered seating, so what’s not to like? It looked like a near capacity audience, who seemed to have a great time one way or another.

Freeze Frame Opera (FFO) have taken over the venue for “Angels & Devils” which draws on Puccini’s 1918 Il trittico (The triptych). A typical performance features three one-act operas, namely Il tabarro (The cloak), an unbearably mawkish melodrama and happily not included this evening; Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) a sumptuous, romantic Catholic tearjerker with one moderate hit (“Senza mamma”) and Gianni Schicchi, a pretty sharp, blackish comedy with one really big hit (“O mio babbino caro”). All require high level, late romantic singing.

Director Rachel McDonald’s concept for Suor Angelica was to set it in a rehab centre, rather than a 17th century convent. Rather than being a disgraced lady from a rich family, Angel is a woman who has been in rehab for seven years (is that feasible?), and instead of nuns we have a bunch of mostly young woman. 

Two singers stand behind a kitchen table, dressed in plain daywear
L-R: Emma Pettemerides as Gen, Harriet Marshall as Angel in ‘Suor Angelica’. Photo: John Marshall

The story is much the same as the original, performed with the original Italian libretto, but with subtitles tweaked to support the modern context. Angel is visited by her rich and nasty aunt, who tells her the son Angel was forced to give away at birth died two years ago. The distraught Angel takes a deliberate overdose and dies while having a vision of her son and a young woman (who in the original is the Virgin Mary). The audience was warned that some of the material might be confrontational, and such was the level of realism that some members did seem quite distraught.

The lack of interest in Suor Angelica after its première is sometimes attributed to its lack of male voices (what, an opera without a tenor?), although one is included here in a transgender role – “Sweetie” (Sister Dolcina in the original), sung by tenor Perry Joyce.

The whole ensemble was well characterised and well sung, with students from the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts included alongside more established performers. The major roles were taken by FFO’s driving force the soprano Harriet Marshall as Angel, and Nicole Youl, now a mezzo-soprano, as her aunt. The whole confrontation scene was dramatically electric, the two powerful voices playing off each other with virtuosic effect, and Marshall carrying off the final moments most affectingly.

Gianni Schicchi has the sort of plot which can be considered timeless – a bunch of relatives fighting over their patriarch’s assets as he is dying. Gianni Schicchi, a devious member of the lower classes, is called on by one of the relatives who wants to marry Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta, and Schicchi devises a plan to get money not only for the rellies, but for himself and his daughter. The story originates with Dante and is set in the 13th century, but is usually updated to recent times – here somewhere in the 20th century judging by the props (including a truck) and costumes (design Robbie Harrold). 

A similarly excellent ensemble cast featured in Gianni Schicchi, with a wider range of voices, and singing in English. The title role is carried off with great panache by FFO stalwart, baritone Robert Hofmann. Tom Buckmaster as Rinuccio, more or less the romantic hero of the piece, has a pleasing tenor voice and a convincing presence. Mezzo-soprano Brigitte Heuser’s Zita is deliciously mean, and Bonnie Staude is great fun as Dr Spinelloccio and Mrs Amantio. To some extent the opera stands or falls on the rendition of the short aria “O mio babbino caro” by Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta. She is sung here by rising soprano Bella Marslen with faultless accuracy and timing, and lovely creamy tone, calculated to move any father’s heart.

If one were giving thought to how to replace a large Puccini orchestra with a smaller group, a combination of piano (played by Musical Director Tommaso Pollio), piano accordion (Cathie Travers) and cello (Sophie Curtis) might not spring to mind. However it works very well, with textures capturing the lyrical score of Suor Angelica, and the faster and more discordant rhythms of Gianni Schicchi.

Once again, a really good night out as FFO injects somewhat dusty old classics with renewed life, allied to high musical values, while highlighting our emerging talent.

Angels & Devils’ continues until 28 August 2021.

Pictured top: Brett Peart, Brigitte Heuser, Ava Charleson, Robert Hofmann, Ruth Burke in ‘Angels & Devils’. Photo supplied

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Author —
Sandra Bowdler

Sandra Bowdler is an archaeologist who has been writing about music for some twenty years, most recently for Opera magazine (UK), Bachtrack and Handel News. She is also the author of “Handel’s Operas in Australia, a performance history” Händel Jarhbuch (2017). Her favourite piece of playground equipment would be the picnic bench with smoked salmon sandwiches and champagne.

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