How this director is bringing a queer lens to rarely staged opera

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In the tin-lined interior of a yellow building by the water at Sydney’s Darling Point, director Dean Bryant has sage advice for his high-pitched singers: “Be careful with your swords.”

They’re rehearsing a battle scene that begins with a slow harpsichord tempo. Countertenor Owen Willetts as Vitaliano has his blade hovering over the torso of another countertenor, Nicholas Tamagna, who plays the lead, Giustino.

Owen Willetts and Nicholas Tamagna rehearse a duel for Pinchgut Opera’s Giustino.Credit: Edwina Pickles

It’s a scene from Pinchgut Opera’s new production of Italian composer Giovanni Legrenzi’s rare baroque opera Giustino, which premiered in Venice in 1683.

At the time, castrated males, the castrati, rather than tenors, would typically fill the hero roles – in this case Giustino, a simple farmer on a quest to become emperor.

New York-raised Tamagna, whose accent hints at his Sicilian and southern Italian roots, muses in a rehearsal break: “In that time, it was considered the higher the voice, the higher to God.”

Across three acts, Giustino’s virtuous values are challenged – Tamagna will need to battle a bear in a hessian costume, the same material used to construct a sea monster and elephants.

A third countertenor, Russell Harcourt, spends half the opera wearing a dress, as his character Andronico pretends to be a woman to be near his love interest, Leocasta – a nod to the history of drag on stage that also feels contemporarily queer.

In total, nine singers and four dancers, or “movement actors”, will bring Giustino to life on a set featuring Italian tarot cards and a sun above mountains of forest.

This is the first time Bryant, fresh off directing the gay Australian rom-com Hubris & Humiliation for Sydney Theatre Company, has directed a fully fledged opera – one that he describes as “a pretty queer story”.

He usually directs musicals and operettas, but sees a through-line in his work: “I always bring a lens of not camp necessarily, although there is often camp in it, but theatrical juiciness.”

Bryant is aiming here for a mood of myth rather than fairytale, and he likens Giustino’s quest to a Lord of the Rings or Star Wars/Luke Skywalker-style journey of discovery.

“I didn’t want to do a silly layer on top,” he says. “I know there is a sea monster, and I wanted this piece to not be taken seriously because it’s a lot of fun, but [also] not to be sent up in any way because this was a very popular story.”

Director Dean Bryant and countertenor Nicholas Tamagna are bringing a rare baroque opera to life.Credit: Edwina Pickles

Under artistic director and harpsichordist Erin Helyard, Pinchgut’s ethos is to stage neglected baroque treasures, hence the company opting for Legrenzi’s 1683 Giustino and not Vivaldi’s 1724 opera or Handel’s take from 1737.

Tamagna is in a strong position to compare composers, having performed in Handel’s Agrippina for his Metropolitan Opera debut in New York in 2020 and more recently as Pompeo in Vivaldi’s Il Farnace at Spoleto Festival USA.

He says Legrenzi’s work falls somewhere between early baroque and the high baroque of Handel.

“You start to get the sense of de capo aria, where you have the repeated structure of an aria that returns, and then you ornament, or make it florid, or do something different with it interpretively,” he says.

While Legrenzi’s work points toward the future of baroque opera, it also gives audiences a taste of the Florentine Camerata, a group of humanists, musicians, poets and intellectuals who lived in late Renaissance Florence, says Tamagna.

Jacob Lawrence plays the emperor Anastasio in Pinchgut Opera’s Giustino.Credit: Edwina Pickles

Hence, he says, a Legrenzi opera calls on acting above singing skills, and more nuance and grit in characterisations than might be found in later operas.

“The later you go [with opera], you get this sense everything has to kind of homogenise and be beautiful,” he says.

“Whereas because these works are more text-driven, there’s ability to find other colours: it doesn’t have to be sung, it can be more in the spoken idiom.”

Then there is the spectacle, which is never out of fashion: elephants and sea monsters, like the fantastical stories of a blockbuster movie.

The emphasis here, however, is on “beauty and charm”, says Tamagna, “without having to have multimillion-dollar machinery”.

Giustino is at City Recital Hall from May 25 to 31.

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