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Freeze Frame puts Handel’s Baroque opera in the House

REVIEW DAVID CUSWORTH 4 stars

Bonnie de la Hunty raised her eyes wide-open to the high ceilings of her childhood home and keened with the voice of an angel tormented by a demon.

Few arias in three centuries of opera match Handel’s Laschia ch’io pianga – Let me weep – for pathos and charm; a still moment amid the sound and fury of a melodramatic artform.

De la Hunty carried the room with her in a Baroque house party both intimate and scintillating, a boutique audience crowding the Peppermint Grove mansion her parents still own.

Freeze Frame Opera know how to pick a venue: a freezing barn in winter for Tosca; a leafy suburb in high spring for this pastiche performance of operatic works by one of the earliest impressarios, George Frideric Handel.

It was also a signature choice to put audience and artist in such direct contact, barely metres apart, as Stewart Smith’s harpsichord rustled in the background while Krista Low and Sarah Papadopoulos tuned antique cello and violin in the warm up.

FFO impressaria Harriet Marshall welcomed a sell-out crowd – “Perth’s audience can handle more Handel” – before handing over to contra-tenor Russell Harcourt.

His brisk attack on Agitato da fiere tempeste – Shaken by ferocious storms – set the pace, clarity and tone for the evening; ornamented, agitated runs and trills summoning a turbulent scene, yet refined in delivery.

Soprano Sara Macliver was equally dramatic in E pur cosi in un giorno – Queen Cleopatra’s lament, but also rage, at her brother’s treachery.

As she explained, the form of the day required an A theme (lament) and B theme (rage) then a return to A, dramatic backflips she executed with aplomb; the sheer power of both Macliver and Harcourt a revelation at close range.

Macliver and De la Hunty combined for Per le porte del tormento – the gate of suffering that leads to pleasure – two voices blending and intertwining through the register, building to a blissful cadenza evoking harmonics almost beyond reach.

Pastiche was the leitmotif; assembling highlights from lengthy and elaborate works, dipping into legend, magic and fantasy, at times stretching credulity.

De la Hunty introduced one character, Partenope, with dead-pan timing: “She has four men after her: it’s a comic opera.” Laughter followed but then surprise, her robust delivery of heights and ornaments a revelation.

Two duets next opened another vista. Harcourt and De la Hunty, then Harcourt and Macliver, played lovers with a common voice. Rarely do men and women sing in the same register, but their delicate artistry seemed to sketch a different course to the one that inspired #MeToo.

Here the female voice had equal weight, perhaps even more power; Macliver rattling the rafters in her declaration of love, Harcourt almost demur in comparison.

At last the trio joined forces for Consolati, o bella: Macliver and Harcourt harmonious in their blandishments; De la Hunty melodramatically pained as the gooseberry in the threesome.

After the break, highlights from one opera, Rinaldo, allowed the artists to settle into a role, channelling the dramatic and musical sensibilities of 300 years ago.

If Lascia ch’io pianga was the highlight – worth the journey on its own – the denouement of Harcourt’s conflicted lament as the male in the menage a trois, and Macliver’s woman scorned breathing hell’s fury in Vo far Guerra – I will make war – set the jewel in a precious crown.

As encore, a trio of Non e amor, ne gelosio – Not love, nor jealousy – from Alcina was resonant and nuanced, building to a heroic last climax from Macliver.

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