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10.1.06

Dardanus in Australia

When Australian-born conductor Antony Walker is not here in Washington, D.C., to conduct the rare performances of Washington Concert Opera, he is sometimes leading a group called Pinchgut Opera in Sydney, Australia. This past fall, they mounted a production of Rameau's Dardanus that I would have liked to have seen. Pinchgut's Web page collected several reviews of the production, beginning with a review (Dardanus, December 2) for the Sydney Morning Herald:

Dardanus, mythical son of Jupiter, gave his name to the Dardanelles, an area with which Australia subsequently established an unlikely mythical attachment. Pinchgut Opera takes its name from a cheekier Australian myth but its real significance is its dedication to nurturing young Australian talent. Its annual productions of rarely heard baroque operas attract something of a cult following for their freshness, quality and determination to place the music at the centre of the operatic experience. [...]

It is a credit to Walker and the Pinchgut philosophy that Justin Way's reserved production is sustained by diverting the eye and ear with something rich, varied, nuanced and voluptuous. Of course, that is not all. There is the hugely framed Paul Whelan, with a hugely framed voice, as the Tybalt-like, unloved, family-endorsed suitor, who is so impressive in his stentorian moments of self-pity towards the close, and Stephen Bennett with forceful, full and open sound as the father Teucer, unflaggingly committed to getting it wrong. You can see, however, why Iphise chose Paul Agnew's new-age Dardanus, so light-voiced and full of colour: he is the first man she has met who is under six foot six and doesn't bellow.
John Grant reviewed the opera (Rich texture despite tight pocket, December 2) for The Australian:
The work contains many dance and ballet sections where there is no singing, which presents difficulties for a company such as Pinchgut, which has very limited resources. It can hardly afford a separate corps de ballet. All praise to choreographer Edith Podesta, then, for incorporating simple but convincing stage movement for the excellent chorus Cantillation to perform. Period instrument playing has now reached international standards here, thanks in part to Antony Walker with his Sinfonia Australis and Orchestra of the Antipodes. The latter, under Walker's animated and thoroughly musical direction, were a joy all night, playing with precision and exuberance. And, yes, they were mostly in tune.

Pinchgut has always put the bulk of the budget into its artists and once again it has paid off, with Scottish high tenor Paul Agnew, ideal as a sensitive Dardanus, and a group of powerfully voiced baritones. A richly impressive, stentorian-toned Paul Whelan was Antenor, rival to Dardanus for the hand of Iphise (an attractive-voiced Kathryn McCusker). Teucer, Iphise's father and King of Phrygia, was sung by the ever-reliable Stephen Bennett. Damian Whiteley, as the seer Ismenor, was, perhaps, too declamatory, which led to some coarse projection.
Finally, there is Michael Sinclair's piece (Dardanus reaches Australian shores, December 2) for a radio show called The Opera Critic:
If Dardanus has suffered from neglect over the years this may in part be due to the numerous versions of the opera that exist. Rameau's original 1739 version was reworked in both 1744 and 1760 to correct perceived dramatic weaknesses in the plot. While critical appraisal of the later versions confirms that Rameau and his librettist Le Clerc de La Bruère had enhanced the plot both dramatically and emotionally, it is nevertheless felt that this had been achieved at the expense of the music.

So which version to perform? Pinchgut Opera have always placed most emphasis on the musical side of their productions and it was therefore perhaps not surprising that they opted primarily for the 1739 version with some minor amendments, plus some additions from the later versions. To keep the performance to an acceptable length the prologue has been dropped and minor cuts have been made to each act. Most notable from the 1744 version is the inclusion of Dardanus's exquisite aria Lieux funestes in Act IV.
All reviewers agreed that this production represented Pinchgut Opera's best work to date. The libretto uses some mythological characters but the story is essentially an 18th-century one. Maestro Walker, why does Sydney get Rameau and we get Puccini and Mascagni here in Washington?

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