Melbourne audiences were first introduced to Julia Lezhneva’s “Baroque Brilliance” as part of MRC’s 2014 Great Performers series. This recital, on October 15, with fellow Russian Mikhail Antonenko at the piano, attracted a Helpmann Award for Best Individual Classic Performance. Always one to appreciate a super singer when he hears one, Richard Tognetti has given us the chance to hear how this vocal phenomenon has matured over two years; the Australian Chamber Orchestra in the renowned acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall was the perfect setting for this rare jewel of a soprano to dazzle us with her brilliance.
In addition to (and really within the context of) her very youthful scrubbed-and-polished appearance, the quality that causes most surprise is the strength and dark, almost mezzo timbre of her voice. Although possessing the utmost purity, this no girlish soprano voice, but one where warmth and powerful resonance lend emotional substance to everything she sings.
On Saturday night an atmosphere of excitement was established the moment she entered and the orchestra swung into Porpora’s In Caelo Stele Clare Fulgescant (“May the Bright Stars Shine in the Heavens”) without waiting for the applause to subside. Lezhneva looked and sounded as though she was thrilled to be there singing music so supremely well suited to her talents. Her vivacious personality radiates joy in the music and in sharing it. As one member of the audience remarked, “It was as though she was singing just for you.” An angelic vision in a modest gown of gleaming pale blue and silvery white brocade, her effortless rippling ornamentation conjured up the singing flying birds and murmuring brook of the text. The passionate recitative and aria that followed evoked images of religious paintings depicting saints in ecstasy. The final “Alleluia” was an astonishing outpouring of florid singing. There seemed to be more notes in that short movement than even Mozart managed to pack into the longer, more familiar version she performed in 2014. A vocal showpiece, especially when taken at such a spanking pace, she reprised it for her first encore.
The instrumental music that separated the two vocal items before interval provided complementary balance and variety. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1, featuring a pair of oboes and bassoon in addition to strings and continuo instruments, began with an uplifting Ouverture, followed by some intricate wind playing. Performing on copies of period instruments, Benoit Laurent and Ludovic Achour gave a highly accomplished account of the duet for two oboes with beautifully mellow, velvety tone. As is usual for the ACO, tempi were on the spritely side without losing grace or precision.
Lezhneva approached Handel’s Salve Regina (“Hail Queen”) with the kind of exemplary control of breath, dynamics and tone that is usually associated with an instrumental playing of the highest calibre. In fact, at one point it was difficult to determine exactly when voice transitioned into the sound of the violin – an effect that was no doubt also a product of Tognetti’s keen ear for tone colour. Lezhneva’s judicious use of vibrato and a tendency to sometimes sacrifice clear enunciation of the text to smooth legato line were also contributing factors. Her immersion in the text and her open gestures once again reflected images of awestruck exultation and religious ecstasy.
Although much of the singing before interval had its fair share of operatic drama, when Lezhneva made her appearance in a floating soft red gown, it was plain that we were out of the church and into the opera theatre. She had been heralded by the Sinfonia from Vivaldi’s Ottone in Villa, featuring Tognetti and Satu Vänskä in deft and jolly duet. The remainder of the program was an all Handel affair. The aria “Un pensiero nemico di pace” from Il trionfo del tempo e del Disinganno was one of contrasts with a fast and furious beginning and a second half in the pathetic style with an expressive cello accompaniment. “Felicissima quest’alma” from Apollo e Dafne featured a most beautiful oboe obbligato against plucked strings and Lezhneva seemed to embrace the audience as she sang the final lingering phrase.
Richard Tognetti made dextrous, elegant work of Handel’s Sonata No.5, with some virtuosic playing by Axel Wolf on theorbo and Erin Helyard on chamber organ. Wolf also featured in one of the most gratifying items on the program: the final encore, “Lascia la spina” from Rinaldo. With just that gentle accompaniment, more restrained ornamentation of the vocal line and a final recapitulation by the strings, it was the perfect ending to the concert.
The final programmed items were two excerpts from Alessandro: “Alla sua gabbia d’oro” (“To her gilded cage”) and “Brilla nell’alma”(“My Soul Sparkles”). Composed as showpieces for one of the greatest soprano of the day, Faustina Bordoni, they are tailor-made for Lezhneva’s strengths. The first was imbued with longing and the second reflected the words of its title and pretty well sums up her approach to singing.
There also seemed to be quite a few sparkling, or at least extremely enthusiastic, souls in the audience. In addition to the enthusiastic applause and cheers throughout the evening, the final item brought the capacity audience to its collective feet. Another Helpmann Award coming up?