Government House Ballroom became a timecapsule within a timecapsule – an island within an island – as Freeze Frame Opera brought Handel in the House to the iconic venue at the weekend.
One capsule was the precinct of historic buildings nestled at the foot of skyscrapers on the Terrace; the other was the ballroom, hosting an almost folkloric lilt of baroque strings and harpsichord to cue Sara Macliver and Bonnie de la Hunty, two of the most ethereal voices in Perth.
The sopranos called and answered, then combined; paired seamlessly in the ballroom’s delicate acoustic for O Lovely Peace, from Judas Maccabeus.
“To actually be singing in a concert is really special,” Macliver explained.
After months of virtual audiences it was nice to be face to face.
The bill was a combination of oratorio – principally concert pieces – and operatic arias by the prolific 18th century composer and impresario, Handel.
Two numbers from Theodora followed, a classical tale of virtue and sacrifice.
A mournfully reflective intro by Stewart Smith (harpsichord), Krista Low (cello) and Sarah Papadopoulos (violin) summoned De la Hunty, towering in voice and presence for O Thou Bright Sun, her trilling as ornate as the surrounds.
Macliver followed with Angels Ever Bright and Fair, an impassioned plea in soaring vocals, swelling dramatically to fill the room, then falling back to quiet pathos.
As Steals the Morn drew a pastoral quality from the trio, the sounds of a simpler age underlining the clarity and harmony of the singers; a fine balance in dynamics.
The sopranos swapped arias again for Alcina, an opera. A strident violin intro summoned a rueful lament redolent of the era from De la Hunty in Ah, mio Cor (Ah, my Heart), sparse orchestration highlighting richly sonorous voice.
Macliver then led a merry dance for Tornami a Vaggheggiar, a plea for love, with a shimmer in the flourishes. Cello and harpsichord were solid in rhythm while an agile violin imitated the singer’s virtuosic style, intervals and dynamic leaps executed with energy and ease.
Semele, an oratorio, again brought contrasting arias; Macliver suddenly dreamy and contemplative, voice and period instruments a timeless combination.
Then De la Hunty broke the seal with Myself I Shall Adore, playfully indulging in a selfie to evoke obsession; a coquettish smile illuminating a stage so recently oozing with regret.
Finally before the break, an aria so good it figures in two works, Sosarme and Imeneo. Per le Porte del Tormento tells how suffering leads to joy; perhaps the leitmotif of a return to live music after shutdown.
The interval completed the picture: baroque music, a decorous setting, fine wine and food – and raffle tickets drawn from a hard hat. Freeze Frame is democratising opera with its diverse venues – most recently the verges of suburb streets when all halls were dark – just as the Governor’s Restart the Arts campaign is opening this venue to diverse artists and genres.
The second half was all from Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), with the sopranos channeling Cleopatra in turn, cramming the highs and lows of a whole opera into 30 minutes.
An overture gave the trio time to shine, rhythmic and upbeat, introducing De la Hunty for Non disperar (Don’t despair), an ineffably cheerful tune for a tale that cannot end well.
The mood returned to rueful for Piangero la Sorte Mia (I will Weep for my Fate), mournfully accompanied by strings; rich texture turning to agitation as Macliver sang of revenge, albeit in sublime tones.
V’adoro Pupille (I adore your eyes) brought a lighter timbre from De la Hunty, though still yearning; melancholy and emotive as sparse strings underpinned pathos.
Da Tempeste il Legno Infranto (The Ship undamaged by the Storm) was next vigorous and joyful with Macliver soaring.
Finally the duo united in Caro! Bella! – a bittersweet moment highlighting the plight of contra tenor Russell Harcourt, who sang the role of Caesar for Freeze Frame last year. Locked down in Sydney, his absence lent resonance as the sopranos chased each other through the register as though the Ides of March could have no sting.
Of course, it did: March 14 was the day Perth Concert Hall and all other venues went dark, only now cautiously reopening.
Perhaps in reflection, the encore intoned the Largo from Xerxes; its timeless beauty momentarily silencing the audience before a rousing ovation.
Next weekend, Freeze Frame premieres Opera Truck-O-Rama from Claremont Showground.
Seven musicians will share music from across Europe, featuring the Bedford truck the group has used as a stage for Street Serenades during the shutdown.
Freeze Frame promises everything from sophisticated French chanson to German drinking songs.
Mulled wine and wood-fired pizza will complete the experience.
Tickets $65 (child/student $25, seniors $60) at www.trybooking.com/book/sessions?eid=633906&ses=1911930.