An exotic treat delivered some of Australia’s finest Baroque musicians to a suburban hall on Saturday for Freeze Frame Opera’s third annual Handel in the House recital.
From the first soft rustling of Stewart Smith’s harpsichord, to Noeleen Wright’s solemn cello and Shaun Lee-Chen’s formal measures on violin, the stately parameters of the genre filled the expanse of Fremantle’s Victoria Hall with the Sinfonia to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.
Enter soprano Bonnie de la Hunty to sing the Prologue, extolling the power of Fortune, elegantly framed by proscenium arch and drapes, with humour in the cadence.
Mezzo Caitlin Cassidy answered with a hymn to Virtue, melodramatic by contrast and modest with it: “The pure incorruptible being of mine” a counter claim, as one diva outbid the other.
Only to be trounced by soprano Sara Macliver’s embodiment of Love, warmly lit and lavishly phrased; her rivals Fortune and Virtue gracious and harmonious in their concession.
Elaborate as Baroque can be, all was enlivened by the effortless grace each brought to the stage. As FFO founder Harriet Marshall put it: “Legends in their field.”
De la Hunty followed with Legrenzi’s Vibri pur di strali armato, from Eteocle e Polinice — like most Baroque opera, a tale of lust and death from classical antiquity — in a florid proclamation of love worthy of a warrior princess, towering in voice and stature.
Then it was time for Handel — Macliver and Cassidy led in by plaintive violin, the ensemble melting into the background for Son nata a lagrimar from Giulio Cesare; robust soprano and mellow mezzo well suited to the mood: “I was born to sigh”.
Macliver stayed centre stage for Bel Piacere, from Rinaldo; the lively, spirited celebration of the faithful heart a bright spot amid the theatrical doom and gloom.
De la Hunty held the mood with O Thou Bright Sun, from Theodora, an outburst of joy suddenly caught in its tracks by dark reflection; violin catching and developing the mood over mournful cello, then duetting with the voice. Keen expression was amplified by English lyrics, with a cadence couched in softly subsiding strings.
Still with Theodora, Cassidy found more complex tones in the lament, Sweet Rose and Lily, summoning delicate continuo playing then resuming, full-voiced and passionate as violin twittered in echo while cello and harpsichord anchored the soundscape.
Cassidy continued with Handel and Iris, Hence Away, from Semele; dramatic attack in ensemble and voice plunging deep — “down to the flood of Acheron” — and emerging with a glint of steel, flushing out a sudden shock of applause to close.
Emotive overtures in violin, quietly shadowed by harpsichord and cello, drew a febrile quality from Macliver’s voice in Vivaldi’s Sovente il sole, from Andromeda liberata; a mournful meditation swiftly flowering into an exquisite duet with Lee-Chen; drama at each entry interspersed with intricate continuo playing.
Back to Handel, and Rinaldo, the two sopranos found perhaps the first unequivocally cheerful moment in Scerzano sul tuo volto – “Charming graces are playing over your face” – upbeat major key harmonies setting a mood to match the full flush of spring.
L’incoronazione di Poppea returned with Pur ti miro, De la Hunty and Cassidy swapping lilting phrases in mutual admiration, like gentle zephyrs caressing a warm afternoon; rich cello and gentle harpsichord completing the soundscape.
Handel rounded out the program in Non e amor, ne gelosia, from Alcina; symphonic overtones in the ensemble intro joined by three voices in furious disagreement as sparks of a love triangle flew .
And as encore, Where’er you walk, from Semele, was densely scored in voice with deft accompaniment: a considered climax.
Freeze Frame Opera’s 2021 finale is Christmas at the Quarry Amphitheatre, December 16-18. www.freezeframeopera.com.