Baroque brilliance in Fremantle

15 November 2021

Freeze Frame Opera brings together Australia’s leading exponents of Baroque music for what Sandra Bowdler says is an exquisite opera concert.

“Handel in the House” performed by Freeze Frame Opera ·
Victoria Hall, Fremantle, 13 November 2021 ·

Freeze Frame Opera (FFO) has given us a lot to be thankful for during the pandemic, both in entertaining the punters, providing work for a large number of musicians and utilising an extraordinary range of repertoire and productions.

This gorgeous concert of Baroque opera highlights, celebrating their fifth anniversary, was almost a pinnacle of perfection. As with all FFO concerts, the venue was interesting; Victoria Hall in Fremantle is a small gem of high Victorian architecture, saved by a green ban from demolition in 1974, and featuring a small proscenium stage and a gallery at the rear, with nice acoustics.

The programming was immaculate – mostly Handel, but also some Monteverdi, Legrenzi and Vivaldi.  The small but brilliant ensemble comprised Shaun Lee-Chen on violin providing lyrical melodies and the unbeatable continuo team of Noeleen Wright on cello and Stewart Smith on harpsichord. Vocally, Sara Macliver is unparalleled as a Baroque soprano and her younger colleagues, Bonnie de la Hunty (soprano) and Caitlin Cassidy (mezzo soprano) are both sharply rising stars.

The program opened with the prologue to Monterverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, which features allegorical deities – Fortuna (de la Hunty), Virtù (Cassidy) and Amore (Macliver) – squabbling over their respective importances. Naturally love wins out, but that is not necessarily for the best in this most cynical of early operas. This was an excellent vehicle for the three singers, with Macliver, as a rather stroppy Amore, and de la Hunty displaying purity and clarity against Cassidy’s rich lower tones. It was followed by de la Hunty in an excerpt from Legrenzi’s opera Eteocle e Polinici (1674), in which the singer compares the pain and challenge of love to that of war. It was well delivered, with much challenging coloratura.

Then came Handel, in the form of a duet “Son nata a lagrimar” from the end of Act I of Giulio Cesare in Egitto, with Cassidy and Macliver blending beautifully here as mother and son, if presenting something of an age role inversion. Macliver followed with the aria “Bel piacere”, first heard in Handel’s Agrippina (1709, Venice) and recycled by him in London in Rinaldo (1711).  This was tossed off with the lightest of touches, like a glass of fizzing champagne, enhanced by Lee-Chen’s gracious little coda at the beginning of the da capo.

More serious matters followed with two arias from Handel’s 1750 oratorio Theodora. “O thou bright sun … With darkness deep” depicting the misery of Theodora was sung by de la Hunty with deep feeling, followed by “Sweet rose and lily” sung by her chaste Roman lover Didymys (Cassidy) who hopes to save her.

Cassidy’s subsequent contribution was perhaps the dramatic highlight of the evening, a really dynamic performance of Juno’s rage and fury aria from Semele, “Iris, hence away”, including the vengeful recitative “Awake, Saturnia, from thy lethargy”. Cassidy put away her score and gave this her all, with a stunning surly cadenza leaving us in no doubt she meant business. 

Sunniness returned with Macliver’s sprightly rendition of the Vivaldi aria “Sovente il sole” from the serenata Andromeda liberate, and a duet from Handel’s Rinaldo celebrating the love of  Rinaldo (Macliver) and Almirena (de la Hunty).

The last programmed item was the Act III trio from Handel’s Alcina, in which Alcina (Macliver) tries to come between the true lovers Bradamante and Ruggiero (de la Hunty and Cassidy) one last time, and crossly fails. Some of us can remember Macliver’s Morgana in a WA Opera production of Alcina in 1996; it would be wonderful to see her take on the title role.

As a delightful encore, we heard another item from Semele, the famous aria “Wher’er you walk”, originally written for a tenor but on this occasion re-arranged by Macliver for the three singers, which showcased the lovely tune in a quite different and beguiling way.

Pictured top: Bonnie de la Hunty, Caitlin Cassidy and Sara Macliver with ensemble at Victoria Hall. Photo supplied

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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