Victorian Opera: Heroic Bel Canto

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Published: 17th July, 2019

With Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director and Conductor Richard Mills at the helm, opera lovers can be assured that every attempt will be made to have them share the maestro’s passions. Prominent amongst these is the art of bel canto, roughly translated as beautiful singing; but as his illuminating website and program notes inform us, this art entails more than those two words might suggest.

Mills quotes the aims of Anna Maria Pellegrini Celoni (1777-1820), one of the earliest teachers of the later traditions of bel canto, in a concise outline of what the audience had come to hear: “the voice sonorous, robust, spacious, elastic, obedient, and agile; capable, in sum, of any expression whatsoever, so that even in the midst of other voices and various instruments, it makes itself heard easily, and distinguished not by its hardness, as so often happens, but by the beauty of its formation.” Happily, this is exactly what the “Heroic Bel Canto” audience heard.

Australian superstar soprano, Jessica Pratt, is one of the world’s finest exponents of this art; she is highly sought after internationally and continues to add to a list of notable successes and honours. In a program comprising ten pieces by Rossini, four by Donizetti and Bellini’s Overture to Norma, excerpts from Rossini’s Semiramide provided the highlights of the evening.

Creating a sense of expectation, a drumroll opened both the concert and the Overture to Semiramide, but the ominous dramatic beginning soon gave way to mellow horns and winds with Rossini in a more cheerful, lyrical mood. It was an energising introduction to renowned guest mezzo-soprano, Daniela Barcellona. In his introductory remarks, Mills referred to her suffering from jet-lag, but it was difficult to believe given her astonishing vitality that never once flagged throughout the evening. From her opening aria in the pants role of Arsace in Semiramide, to her deliciously mischievous characterisation of L’Italiana in Algeri and another ebullient “en travesti” role in Le comte Ory, she was an animated presence with a rich, agile voice.

In the moving duet where Arsace, the supposedly murdered son of Semiramide and initially the object of her more than maternal affections, celebrate the discovery of their true relationship, Barcellona and Pratt sang with emotional intensity and true bel canto quality. It was a superb conclusion to the first half of the program and was greeted with an outburst of cheering; the hit of the evening, it was an indication that Melbourne is more than ready for a performance of the whole opera. A Met Opera cinema experience pales when you hear operatic stars such as these in the flesh. Jessica Pratt’s delivery of Semiramide’s famous aria “Bel raggio lusinghier” was simply thrilling; her vocal agility and her ability to float her voice and achieve limpid clarity in pianissimos were perhaps even more impressive than the many stratospherically high notes. Clean pinpoint accuracy in staccato notes and upward leaps were also featured of “O luce di quest’ anima” from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix.

Amongst Victorian Opera’s regular singers, tenor Carlos E. Bárcenas impressed with some fine singing, beginning with an aria from Rossini’s Ciro in Babilona. Richard Mills did his best to outline relevant aspects of the plots of all the excerpts, but with nine different operas to cover, some of which have probably never been performed in Australia until now, things started to be come a swirl of complicated information – a difficulty Mills acknowledged with humour. Despite the flitting between operas, it was easy to see why Mills had made his selections. Bárcenas’ voice with its uncommon upper extension and ringing clarity and beauty of tone is well equipped to meet Rossini’s vocal demands. The tenor aria from Ciro in Babilona also has an alluring part for solo horn, played with suave assurance by Anton Schroeder. The second aria from that opera was a curiosity; sung charmingly by mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan, the vocal part is all on one note; as may well have been the case for the original singer, it was a note that sat well in Dugan’s voice. An attractive viola obbligato provided the melodic interest.

Elizabeth Hill-Cooper’s effective semi-staged direction contributed to the fun of this aria and ensemble pieces. Baritone Stephen Marsh was in excellent voice for a spirited duet with Barcellona from L’Italiana in Algeri and Donizetti’s septet from Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali was an opportunity for Nathan Lay and other young VO artists to display their flair for comedy. The Trio and Finale from Rossini’s Le comte Ory brought all ten singers together in a final burst of bel canto exuberance. The fact that these pieces came from one of Rossini’s French language operas could not have been more appropriate given that the concert was held on Bastille Day.

In addition to being a night of bel canto splendor, it was also an occasion to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Orchestra Victoria. Richard Mills spoke about the contribution the Orchestra has made to music throughout Victoria, calling it “a tremendous cultural asset”. Those listening to this performance could not have agreed more.

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Heather Leviston reviewed Victorian Opera’s “Heroic Bel Canto” given at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer hall on July 14, 2019.