Nobody witnessing Nicole Car’s charismatic performances on the operatic stage has been surprised at the Australian soprano’s international success. Her return as a Great Performer for the Melbourne Recital Centre’s 10th anniversary season gave us an opportunity to enjoy her superb voice and artistry in a program and venue that allowed for greater intimacy and connection with her audience.
As Euan Murdoch pointed out in his introductory remarks we had the benefit of three Great Performers. Car was joined by her husband, the renowned French Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis, and another Australian making his mark on the international stage, pianist Jayson Gillham.
Emphasising the French connection, much of the program was devoted to French music. Car launched the recital with L’invitation au voyage, the first of three songs by Duparc. Both singer and pianist immediately established an atmosphere of quiet concentration, unhurried immersion in the “Luxe, calme et volupté” with all the beauty of tone that this exquisite mélodie deserves. There were some more operatic moments in the climaxes, but commendable restraint was a key feature. Gillham’s rippling accompaniment flowed effortlessly beneath Car’s expressive rendering of Baudelaire’s poetry.
In another considered interpretation, Dupuis continued with Chanson Triste, his voice pleasing, even and relaxed. Every word was imbued with meaning without being in anyway overburdened. He struck a more colourful dramatic note for Le Manoir de Rosemonde, using a firm, nicely gathered tone to protest how “love has bitten me like a dog”. As he continued with Fauré’s Chansons du pêcheurs I was reminded of just how wonderful these songs are. It would be so easy for singers with such engaging personalities to over-shadow the music; instead, they enticed you into appreciating it more fully. The performers were always at the service of the music rather than vice versa.
After a moving account of Fauré’s Automne, Car ended Massenet’s Élégie with such a heartfelt operatic cry of “Tout est flétri pour toujours!” (All is withered forever) that a spontaneous response of Bravo! voiced what so many felt. The magic continued with an aria from Gounod’s Faust. The repeated “Il ne revient pas” was riven with anguish and the final climax was the epitome of operatic devastation embodied in a high note of despair in all its glorious lyric beauty.
Before what was for many listeners the literal and figurative centrepiece of the program: La Noche Oscura by Kevin March, Dupuis invested Hahn’s L’énamourée with caressing eloquence and Car gave L’heure exquise exactly the treatment suggested by its title. La Noche Oscura was composed specifically for Nicole Car and Étienne Dupuis, and this was only its second outing. Written in the 15th century by the Carmelite friar St John of the Cross, the text superficially reads like a secret meeting of lovers but, as March’s program note explains, “beneath the poem’s romantic veneer lies a mystical, metaphorical subtext about a soul’s yearning for the divine”. Dupuis sings the first part in French, then Car follows in English which leads to musical echoing in both languages and a final section in Spanish. It is an intense, beguiling work that is eminently suited to their voices and their relationship.
The second half of the program largely comprised French repertoire by Massenet, Delibes and Ravel – with an entertainingly unbuttoned Chanson à boire from Dupuis – in contrast to suave soft tones in the two earlier Don Quichotte songs. Weightier fare featured in works by Verdi, including an extra Violetta/Germont duet from La Traviata, sung with poignant sensitivity. Passion and glorious vocal amplitude, especially from Car, animated arias from Don Carlo. Appropriately, instead of her willowy figure being sheathed in black velvet with a somewhat distracting bling-bordered split to the top of the thigh, or the black pants and top for the post interval French songs, Car made a strikingly dramatic entrance wearing a vivid red gown with a metres-long train as Gillham played the final section of the introduction to “Tu che le vanita”.
The train, which she wielded with the graceful aplomb of a supermodel, also provided an occasion for humour as Dupuis followed her on stage dutifully carrying the ends for one entrance and deftly sidestepping as they took their bows. Although the pair didn’t quite dance the Merry Widow waltz for the final encore, their rapport was all that was needed to create a delightful moment. At their invitation, the audience was more than happy to join them in singing the refrain. It was an uplifting way to celebrate the joy of music and love.
Heather Leviston reviewed Great Performers Series: Nicole Car, Étienne Dupuis and Jayson Gillham presented at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on August 7, 2019.