GIUSTINO, Pinchgut Opera at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, 25-31 May 2023. Photography by Cassandra Hannagan: above - Nicholas Tamagna and oxen; below - Madeleine Pierard and Lauren Lodge-Campbell; below again - Chloe Lankshear and Russell Harcourt
Venetian audiences of 1683 adored Giovanni Legrenzi’s Giustino not only for his music but also for the rollicking story. The libretto, by Nicolò Beregan, was (very loosely) based on the true story of Emperor Justin I of Byzantium (518 to 527) whose rise to the top took him from peasant ploughman to imperium via law reform and anti-corruption. Beregan added a marauding sea monster and internecine wars and betrayals to that otherwise rather dry reign and the result is two and a half hours of colourful drama with a leavening of humour and lots of love in all its forms.
Musical theatre maven Dean Bryant makes his directorial debut for Pinchgut with a witty and lucid production. He guides the singers into fashioning three-dimensional human characters while grappling effortlessly with the intricate new territory of music rarely performed since Legrenzi’s time. The result is a visual and musical celebration that had the opening night audience stomping its appreciation.
And all this despite threats of execution, betrayal and a stage direction that has the beautiful Eufemia (Lauren Lodge-Campbell) entering in high alarm “inseguita da un uomo selvaggio” – “pursued by a wild man” but which here is made into a huge, rapacious bear. This creature is brought to comic life by four puppeteers. They also perform as Giustino’s plough-pulling and touchingly empathic oxen in the opening scenes, as well as a benign war elephant and the sea monster. He, or they/them, who knows, is actually a giant Anglerfish whose prey-tempting lamp dangles wildly above jaws large enough to swallow the empress Arianna (Madeleine Pierard) in one dreadful gulp. Except she is rescued by heroic Giustino (Nicholas Tamagna). Illustrating that nothing changes when it comes to bad sex, and feminism was ever-present, a while later,Eufemia escapes by her own efforts the would-be coercively-controlling clutches of Vitaliano “Tyrant of Asia Minor” (Owen Willetts).
Mistaken identity and being in love with the wrong person have been staples of theatre and opera for centuries and so it is in Giustino. While the omnipresent goddess Fortuna (Chloe Lankshear) observes and comments on human foibles, Andronico (Russell Harcourt) disguises himself as Flavia in order to gain entry to the palace and then court a resolutely unimpressed Eufemia. This could be because Flavia’s all-enveloping pink garment is reminiscent of Hyacinth Bucket’s dressing gown, although not nearly as sexy. In any event Andronico is as appealing as the scheming wretch Amanzio (Louis Hurley). His machinations are designed to set lovers and brothers in opposition and to wrest crowns from rightful heads. In his sleek paleness he could be related to Draco Malfoy, and just as sinister.
Costume designer Melanie Liertz clearly had fun with the quasi-medieval gear in which the protagonists get about on set designer Jeremy Allen’s simple staging of painted backdrop – misty mountains and forests – with an Escher-like stairs-and platform structure that becomes throne, church steeple, shipwreck island and so on as it’s wheeled about an otherwise empty stage; all lit atmospherically and strategically by Damien Cooper.
It must be said, in the interests of the fashionable Trigger Warning, that the Sea Monster, the Bear and their human counterparts are not only thwarted but also forgiven and, where appropriate, redeemed. Redemption mainly comes in the form of music that is elaborately of the period – with Erin Helyard conducting the Orchestra of the Antipodes from the harpsichord – yet is flush with the sustained melodies (some 70 arias throughout) most often associated with much later music.
This production also famously features three countertenors in Tamagna, Willetts and Harcourt. Such an extravagance of soaring voices might be overwhelming – particularly Nicholas Tamagna whose sonorous tones are uncommonly rich and rounded – if it were not for Madeleine Pierard’s commanding power and exquisite voice. Chloe Lankshear and Lauren Lodge-Campbell are also formidable in their different ways. In truth, there isn’t a weak link in the cast with glorious tenor Jacob Lawrence (Anastasio) holding his own and Andrew O’Connor as factotum Polimante anchoring with his sumptuous bass.
Sometimes we discover that a “forgotten treasure” was forgotten for good reason, but this isn’t so with Giustino. Led to electrifying effect by the divine Nicholas Tamagna and Madeleine Pierard, this is a production that anyone interested in sea monsters and pathbreaking early opera should rush to see. Recommended without reservation.