Freeze Frame Opera’s annual Quarry outing brings known stars, new talent, a late addition and the odd joke

David CusworthThe West Australian
Caitlin Cassidy, Ashley Chua, Bella Marslen, Harriet Marshall, Paul O’Neill, Bonnie de la Hunty, Naomi Johns and Robert Hofmann in Freeze Frame Opera’s Christmas at the Quarry.
Camera IconCaitlin Cassidy, Ashley Chua, Bella Marslen, Harriet Marshall, Paul O’Neill, Bonnie de la Hunty, Naomi Johns and Robert Hofmann in Freeze Frame Opera’s Christmas at the Quarry. Credit: John Marshall

Old, new, borrowed and blue could be the motto for Freeze Frame Opera’s annual outing to the Quarry Amphitheatre, with established stars, new talent, a late addition and the odd off joke.

Harriet Marshall shimmered in voice and dress — gold spangles in warm red light — for Dich, Teure Halle, from Wagner’s Tannhauser, striking a rueful, nostalgia note on a balmy night with audience at 60 per cent capacity due to COVID curbs.

Bonnie de la Hunty — new to the FFO lineup — then dispelled all gloom with a light and airy Rejoice Greatly, from Handel’s Messiah, her elevated theme picked out in Cathie Travers’ accordion as she descended the long Quarry stairs.

Bonnie de la Hunty sings at Freeze Frame Opera’s Christmas at the Quarry.
Camera IconBonnie de la Hunty sings at Freeze Frame Opera’s Christmas at the Quarry. Credit: John Marshall

The unusual accompaniment was another FFO surprise; Travers joining musical director Tommaso Pollio and cellist Sophie Curtis in Trio Tiramisu, a folksy combo that kept up a constant kaleidoscope of genres.

Robert Hofmann, another FFO regular, took Father’s aria from Hansel and Gretel perhaps closer to the average Aussie Christmas, spouting wit and wisdom in his cups.

Caitlin Cassidy brought clarity with power to Cruda Sorte, from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri; deep, rich mezzo tones and dramatic timing with a comic touch.

Naomi Johns backed her up in Ore Dolce e Divine, from Puccini’s Rondine, filling the auditorium with lyrical warmth and Romantic inflection; fading to an infinitesimal cadence.

She later reprised her role as Musetta in Quando m’en vo from Puccini’s La Boheme, sporting voice and curvaceous charms to lascivious effect — comedic, dramatic and seductive.

Bella Marslen sings at Freeze Frame Opera’s Christmas at the Quarry.
Camera IconBella Marslen sings at Freeze Frame Opera’s Christmas at the Quarry. Credit: John Marshall

Brand new talent emerged in WAAPA nominee Bella Marslen for Frere Voyez, from Massenet’s Werther; bright, clear tone combined with tightly judged phrasing making a confident and authentic professional debut.

Marslen and fellow nominee Ashley Chua joined FFO this year under a memorandum of understanding with WAAPA to nurture emerging singers.

They combined for Pur ti Miro, from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, ethereal sounds weaving a magic spell, softly susurrating in the evening air.

Chua’s solo debut came later, a silvery voice over rippling piano reflecting the gossamer wings of her faux fairy role in Sul fil d’un soffio etesio, from Verdi’s Falstaff.

Ashley Chua sings at Freeze Frame Opera’s Christmas at the Quarry.
Camera IconAshley Chua sings at Freeze Frame Opera’s Christmas at the Quarry. Credit: John Marshall

WA Opera star Paul O’Neill was the borrowed element — a late stand-in for regular tenor Jun Zhang — bringing rich timbre to Bizet’s Pearl Fishers duet; Hofmann rising to match him and the Trio deftly effective in continuo and accompaniment.

O’Neill took centre stage for Rossini’s La Danza, his full-throated attack, vocal gymnastics, gestures and presence engaging the audience right to the back row.

Then Nessun Dorma dawned; Hofmann darkly intoned the introduction and an understated female chorus summoned one of the best known operatic phrases from O’Neill; filling the cavernous space, effortlessly building on the breeze to a rousing tutti finale.

And that was only the first half.

Piazzolla’s lilting tones drew the audience back to hear Chua’s solo, followed by musical comedy from Hofmann and Marshall, assisted by “Berocca specialist” De la Hunty and Johns, leading into a seasonal set.

O Holy Night was a highlight, female leads passing the melody around sweetly and delicately, ringing changes in combinations, closing in a gorgeous chorale.

De la Hunty injected a sense of wonder into Touch of Paradise, aided by Cassidy and Johns, before a segue to Over the Rainbow that was spellbinding, achingly so.

Finally, a touching tribute to Ennio Morricone was never going to be the last note, with Still Call Australia Home a fitting encore in a year without travel.

And the blue element? Ask Marshall.

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