Why travel overseas to hear some of the best singers in the world when they can be heard in Melbourne? Even those who had been swept away by Jessica Pratt’s performance as Violetta in Victorian Opera’s production of La Traviata last year would have been astonished by the brilliance of her Elvira in this concert version of I Puritani.
Given its premiere in Paris just months before Bellini’s death in 1835, it has remained at the heart of “bel canto” repertoire. It is certainly not the ludicrous plot that inspires such enthusiasm; rather, it is the opportunities for glorious singing that the composer has provided for those who are up for a vocal challenge as demanding as anything Wagner devised. Following in the footsteps of the greatest prima donnas, from Giulia Grisi to Callas and Sutherland, Jessica Pratt gave such a superlative demonstration of beautiful singing that it is easy to see why many consider her to have joined their ranks.
Bellini appears to be among those composers who require his leading lady to go mad in order to justify stratospheric displays of vocal gymnastics. The sublime aria, “Qui la voce…”, in which Elvira expresses her longing for the return of her beloved Arturo, is a case in point. Heightened by musical interjections from chorus and other soloists, Jessica Pratt’s ability to float her voice with a limpid beauty of tone was mesmerizing as she conveyed the pathos of her situation. Mistress of a stunning messa di voce and a satin smooth legato line, she also dazzled with the spinning athleticism of her coloratura and, quite literally, hair-raising top notes. With seemingly effortless technique and unaffected simplicity of demeanour she inhabited the emotional extremities of despair at being abandoned by her betrothed on the eve of her wedding to the joy of requited passion. Applause was so sustained at the end of this aria that Richard Mills was unable to continue. He finally shrugged, gave up trying and waited for the audience to subside after giving the diva due tribute.
While this scene might not have been as deeply moving as Pratt’s wonderful Traviata death scene, her emotions were as fully realized as possible for a concert performance. The fact that she made minimal use of her score certainly helped to create the illusion of a fully staged dramatic narrative.
Another factor that aided in energising the drama as such was the presence of Celso Albelo as Royalist sympathizer Lord Arturo Talbot. A friend and colleague of Pratt, the ease and sympathy with which they engaged in some of their interchanges reflected shared professional experience. He too has a phenomenal voice of extraordinary power and range. Written for Rubini, celebrated for the upper extension to his voice, the part calls for an F above top C. Usually it is sung in falsetto or transposed, but Albelo opted for the intended full voiced version. With the soloists placed in front of the orchestra, some of his truly amazing high notes might have been best appreciated from a distance rather than the front rows of the stalls; however, hearing a top-notch Italian tenor in full flight from the front of the Balcony was an exhilarating experience. As well as producing some extremely beautiful high notes using an alluring head voice, Albelo generally invested his singing with a meaningful use of tempo and dynamic range.
As Elvira’s warm and fair-minded uncle, Sir Giorgio Valton (not much sense of a rigid Cromwellian Puritan there), Paul Whelan gave a resonant account of his arias and ensembles. His character drives much of the political element of the opera, but is really more important in providing an occasion for wonderful music. His duets with Elvira’s other suitor, the jealous Sir Ricardo (Nathan Lay) and his brother, Lord Gualtiero (Jeremy Kleeman) were splendidly sung by all three. Carlos E. Barcenas and Tania Ferris gave good service as Sir Bruno and the imperiled Enrichetta di Francia, respectively. It was heartening to see that the three male Master of Music students were given an opportunity to stretch their wings, particularly Nathan Lay in his central role, and acquit themselves so admirably. They gave every indication of an assured future in opera.
Richard Mills’ love affair with Bellini’s music has now given Melbourne audiences two exceptional concert performances in Norma and I Puritani. In combination with his recognition of Jessica Pratt as a major talent, his devotion made I Puritani a performance that showcased the art of beautiful singing at its best and in its most concentrated form. With some fine playing from Orchestra Victoria and effective contributions from the chorus under a baton that sought to allow the singers to give of their best, this concert would have to rate as one of the most remarkable to have been heard in Hamer Hall.