We can be fairly sure that Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi wasn’t completely happy with his opera Bajazet in the weeks before the première at Verona in 1735.
We know this because Erin Helyard—Artistic Director of Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera—travelled to Italy on the trail of this almost forgotten opera. In a Turin library, he examined a microfilm of the very score, in the composer’s handwriting, that was used in original performances.
“You can see some things that were clearly cut at some point—maybe just before the première,” Helyard says. “It’s always fascinating seeing the composer’s autograph.”
Pinchgut has built its reputation on seeking out and presenting Baroque-period operas that have slipped from sight.
“When most people think ‘opera’, they think of 19th-century grand opera,” says Helyard. “But there is about 250 years of operatic tradition before that period. The 17th and 18th centuries produced more opera than the 19th century did. And it was never exclusively elitist—well, only at its very beginning, when it was courtly music, but then the public quickly embraced it.”
Both a musician and a musicologist, Helyard explains how the Pinchgut process works: “We find the source material and then I use all my skills as a musicologist to edit the score, and then we research performance practice around that particular work.”
Their ambition to reflect the Baroque era extends to using musicians who play period instruments. “We’re the only company that has been doing Baroque opera in an historical performance manner over a sustained period, although Brisbane Baroque is now importing production, and there are various other smaller groups around,” says Helyard. “There was a time when it was somewhat controversial to do things this way. But now ensembles like the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra have been here in Sydney for many years, so it’s more familiar.”
But even though Pinchgut delves into the past, their productions are fresh and new: “Everything is freshly made from the score upwards. They’re not revived productions. We’re not bringing in productions from overseas. They’re Australian-made productions, and always honed by research and passion.”
The opera is based on a play intricately told in poetry by 17th-century French author Jean Racine. “Racine was fascinating because he put his characters into unsolvable dramatic deadlocks,” says Helyard, who read the play—in French—as a teenager.
The background to the story is the victory of one great empire, the Tatars, over that of the Turks. In the bitter aftermath, both the conquerors and defeated experience love, treachery, death and forgiveness.
When Racine’s story was transformed into a libretto, it somehow captured the imagination of an entire generation of composers. As well as Vivaldi—and Handel, and Vivaldi’s teacher Gasparini—at least 22 other composers wrote opera music for these lyrics.
Naturally, anyone able to find and compare all these versions of Bajazet would learn a great deal about the personalities of the composers, each of whom would be keen to impose his own interpretation on the well-known tale.
This sort of research forms part of Helyard’s academic activities; he teaches at the Australian National University. So when he actually saw Vivaldi’s changes on the microfilmed manuscript in Turin, he gained an up-close and personal understanding of the composer’s creative processes.
“I love all that stuff,” says Helyard. “It informs my own interpretation of the opera, too.”
Pinchgut staged its first opera in 2002 and—until 2014—presented just one each year. Enthusiastic audiences have encouraged the company to double their productions, a move which Helyard agrees was somewhat financially risky, given the overall squeeze in arts funding.
But, he says, “we just thought we have to go ahead. There’s so much repertoire! I’m not going to get through it in my life time.”
Pinchgut’s production of Bajazet will be the first in the southern hemisphere. Helyard and his colleagues at Pinchgut had several reasons for choosing it for the 2015 season.
“I really admire Vivaldi as an opera composer,” he says. “We were also looking for a role to showcase Hadleigh Adams.” Adams, a New Zealand baritone, had performed with Pinchgut in 2012, playing Pollux in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1737 Castor and Pollux. “It’s very rare to find a Baroque opera with a baritone title role,” says Helyard. The role of Bajazet was one of the few and we thought it would be perfect for Hadleigh.”
Countertenor Christopher Lowrey (Tamerlano) joins from the United States, while Australians Helen Sherman (who plays Irene), Emily Edmonds (Asteria), and Russell Harcourt (Andronicus) have all returned from London, where they are now based.
Bajazet also recommended itself because it is an operatic genre, a pasticcio, that Helyard has not previously tackled.
“A pasticcio is an opera in which some of the arias were not written by the person who puts them together,” he says. “In this case, Vivaldi wrote about 70 percent of the score but, for the other 30 percent, he decided to use arias from other operas by other composers.”
Helyard’s close study revealed something interesting. Whereas often a pasticcio was—as Pinchgut’s website puts it—“used by impresarios when deadlines were tight and operas needed to be staged quickly”, in this case Vivaldi has “very finely curated” his selection of arias.
“Vivaldi writes for the characters that the audience will sympathise with, but the characters that are problematic or ‘evil’—for want of a better word—are actually given arias by other composers, mainly composers from Naples,” Helyard says.
Even though Helyard transcribed and edited the score, he doesn’t know how audiences will experience Vivaldi’s clever musical strategy. “It will be very interesting to see how this plays out in our production,” the musical detective says.
Pinchgut Opera’s website section on Bajazet includes more details on production personnel and the opera itself. You can also hear Hadleigh Adams sing. http://www.pinchgutopera.com.au/bajazet/
Opens: Saturday July 4
Closes: Wednesday July 8
City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
For bookings, call (02) 8256 2222 or book online at https://www.cityrecitalhall.com/events/bajazet