Opera review: Women of the Pietà

Soprano Miriam Allan is joined by a chorus of 12 women and an ensemble of expert orchestral players in service to the music of Vivaldi.

The atmosphere of the Venetian Lagoon greets us as we enter the gorgeously wood-panelled space of the Melbourne Recital Centre auditorium. Mist drapes over musicians warming up their instruments in the smoky golden light. 

The first piece in this recital of Baroque music (using real or replica period instruments) is Concerto for Two Horns in F Major, by Vivaldi. Barring the final piece, Vivaldi makes up the greater part of the concert, as Pinchgut Opera sets out to replicate the ambience of the ospedali – state-run shelters for poor or homeless young women, where Antonio Vivaldi taught music during the 18th century. Here, Vivaldi composed some of his most virtuosic choral and string works, including his Concerto for Two Horns and Magnificat.

A wonderful piece to begin with, the Concerto for Two Horns sees Carla Blackwood and Dorée Dixon exhibiting their dexterity with these instruments, requiring precise embouchure and airflow to achieve seamless glissando. This musical prowess is also evident in the vocalists, strings and percussion. Conductor and harpsichordist, Erin Helyard sets a golden example, rising and sitting to conduct and play alternately in an effortless manner. The joyful baroque guitar playing of Simon Martin-Ellis is mellifluous in the midst of the horns, which feel like a fanfare for the delights to follow. 

The star of the show, Miriam Allan, the soprano who performed at the funeral of HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, comes to the stage for In furore iutissimae irae, showing off the fiercely euphonious nature of her voice. Resplendent in her black satin dress and jewels, enhanced by the intimate lighting, her vocals ripple, river-like over the audience, evoking divinity; the violins a perfect emotive accompaniment. There is a warmth and richness in both her voice and Hannah Fraser, mezzo soprano, that is as pleasant as bath water or honey.

After the interval, Allan singing Laudate pueri Dominium, with flute accompaniment by Mikaela Oberg, is perfection, as they blend and harmonise in a wash of splendour. These moments, enhanced by the skilful lighting design of Trent Suidgeest, are ambrosial and stunning, shifting from warm ablutions to celestial rafters of white light.

The final piece, Dixit Dominus, by Vivaldi’s contemporary Galuppi, is a giddyingly beautiful ending, with Fraser showing glorious vocal affinity with the French horn. 

Read: Theatre review: Variations or Exit Music

There was an encore, in which Allan returned to sing accompanied by Helyard; the audience was exultant. Perhaps the positioning of the choir at the back of a crowded stage occluded our vision a little too much. It would have been nice to see all the vocalists in all their glory. Nonetheless, this was a beautiful mid-week moment of musical sublimity.

Women of the Pietà
Pinchgut Opera 
Melbourne Recital Centre 

Women of the Pietà was performed from 15-16 September 2022.

Leila Lois is a dancer and writer of Kurdish and Celtic heritage. Her poetry, essays and reviews have been published in Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada by Southerly Journal, LA Review of Books, Honey Literary Journal, Right Now, Delving Into Dance and more.