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  • Shamistha de Soysa

Women of Pietà - Review - limelight

This concert, celebrating the music of Vivaldi, was excellent in every regard, with soprano Miriam Allan

holding the audience in the palm of her hand.

☆☆☆☆☆ City Recital Hall, Sydney Reviewed on 10 September, 2022

by Shamistha de Soysa on 11 September, 2022

Pinchgut Opera’s Women of the Pietà celebrating the music of Antonio Vivaldi is a showcase of excellence in programming, instrumental and choral performance. However, this concert belongs to one individual, soprano Miriam Allan, who holds the audience in the palm of her hand, mesmerising with her consummate technique, exquisite tone and radiant presence.

Miriam Allan, Erin Helyard and the Orchestra of the Antipodes performing Women of the Pietà, PInchgut Opera, 2022. Photo © Cassandra Hannigan

From the harpsichord, Pinchgut’s Artistic Director Erin Helyard, directs the 11 female voices of Cantillation and the 15-strong Orchestra of the Antipodes, led by Karina Schmitz. Performing at baroque pitch, A=415, the instruments range from period originals to modern-day replicas. The program centres on works by Vivaldi written for the young female residents of the Ospedale della Pietà, in Venice, where in 1703, Vivaldi was appointed maestro di violin. The Pietà cared for homeless girls; those with promise received musical training. They must have been promising, even precocious, if they were schooled in works of this calibre. The Pietà’s services, enriched with music, attracted broad and noble patronage. Teaching these musicians and securing new works for them to perform was a vital task. The Pinchgut program also includes a piece by Baldassare Galuppi whose life overlapped with Vivaldi’s. Galuppi had the choral chops to be appointed maestro di coro of San Marco in 1762, as well as being elected later that year as maestro di coro at the Ospedale degli Incurabili, which, like the Pietà, cared for and educated female orphans. Lighting designer Trent Suidgeest’s swathe of electrified candles and colour-wash spotlights transport us to the darkened chapels of 18th-century Venice, illuminated only by candles and rays of light pouring through windows, its hues mediating the moods of the music.

Vivaldi’s fiendishly difficult Concerto for Two Horns in F Major (RV 539) with soloists Carla Blackwood and Dorée Dixon opens the program. Hard enough to play on the modern horn, the three varied movements of this double concerto are even more challenging on the baroque equivalent. Their performance is effortless with beautiful clarity of tone, phrasing and security of pitch in this effervescent concerto, which contains some of the highest notes written for the instrument.

Miriam Allan’s two contrasting solo motets, In furore iustissimae irae (RV 626) and Laudate pueri Dominum (RV 601) demonstrate her nimble coloratura, expansive range and laser-like accuracy polished with a layer of crystalline tone. They also reveal the versatility of Vivaldi’s writing. Although written for a sacred setting, these pieces are theatrical in creating a range of moods, through drama, penitence, celebration and intimacy.

The RV 626, is accompanied by string ensemble, with Simon Martyn-Ellis playing baroque guitar and Continuo Fellow Andrei Hadap playing the chamber organ. The opening Allegro is reminiscent of a baroque ‘rage’ aria, Allan depicting a wrathful God, with blazing scales and arpeggios coloured with ornaments and superb dynamics. The second movement is wistful and plangent. The leaps of the third movement Largo are gracefully phrased and the decorative fourth movement Alleluia is a little kinder, its rage tinged with benevolence.

Miriam Allan, Erin Helyard and the Orchestra of the Antipodes perform in Women of the Pietà, Pinchgut Opera, 2022. Photo © Cassandra Hannigan

Allan meets the demands of the second solo motet, Laudate pueri Dominum (RV 601) with thrilling virtuosity. More jubilant and dramatic than the RV 626, Allan exploits Vivaldi’s vivid word-painting. The baroque guitar is swapped for the theorbo and, at times, the voice is accompanied only by pared back concertante strings. There are many highlights in this motet, especially the slow rising arpeggios of Allan’s A solis ortu and the Larghetto Gloria Patri, where Allan is joined by Mikaela Oberg on obbligato transverse flute in a serene and beautifully blended duet before Allan moves to a dazzling coloratura Amen.

Allan joins the ensemble for Vivaldi’s Magnificat (RV 610) as written c 1715 for the musicians of the Pietà. This canticle of Mary, often expressed with humility, becomes a grand gesture of praise in Vivaldi’s hands, with its broad introductions and deft musical devices. The tied rhythms and leaping intervals of the string part in the Et exultavit displace the metre accompanying the largely stepwise vocal lines with solo moments from Allan and mezzo-soprano Hannah Fraser; the Deposuit potentes is a true test of intonation, requiring total unanimity of pitch in its unison passages. Singing in imitative sequences and thirds, Allan and Chloe Lankshear, Pinchgut’s inaugural Taryn Fiebig Scholar, deliver an accomplished version of the Esurientes, moving through to the tutti Gloria Patri as the stage lights rise to a burnished gold.

The horns join the ensemble for a celebratory blast in Galuppi’s Dixit Dominus in a performance that contains many highlights including mezzo-soprano Keara Donohoe’s Tecum principium closed off with a gentle cadenza and the darkness of the four-part Jurait Dominus. Allan and Fraser reconvene for the Dominus a dextris, neatly executing the cadenza as a duet. The De torrente and its cadenza are another perfect opportunity for more celestial singing from Allan. The solemn grandeur of the Amen reflects the power of the final movements of other great oratorios of the time. Allan and Helyard, playing the chamber organ, return for a poignant encore, Purcell’s evening hymn Now that the sun hath veil’d his light. While there was no mention of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, this historic event and Allen’s performance at the funeral of Prince Philip last year were surely in the minds of the audience at this concert, which paid tribute to women then and now.


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