The standing ovation that greeted the conclusion of Handel’s Rodelinda was as much for Richard Bonynge’s contribution to opera as for the performance itself. Both were worthy of enthusiastic celebration. With proceeds from this gala event going towards the Joan Sutherland & Richard Bonynge Foundation and the Bel Canto Award for young singers, the program provided a superb showcase for emerging and established vocal excellence.
Two years ago in Sydney almost the same cast gave what was believed to be the first Australian performance of the complete work. The two Sydney performances were given to celebrate Richard Bonynge’s 50th anniversary as a conductor and dedicated to the late Dame Joan Sutherland, who once sang performances in the title role to great acclaim. More recently, audiences around the world have become familiar with the work via the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD broadcast, with counter tenors Andreas Scholl and Iestyn Davies assuming the two roles written for castrati. The increasing popularity and virtuosity of the counter tenor voice has meant that castrato roles, which were generally sung by mezzo sopranos and contraltos (all of Sutherland’s recordings have females in these roles), are now being sung by men.
This may be an advantage in a staged performance, but when a mezzo of the calibre of Fiona Janes sings the main male role in a concert performance, there can be nothing but satisfaction at hearing a voice that is so well suited to the music. Janes’ voice is generous, beautiful and flexible. Much of what she has to sing as Bertarido, the usurped King of Lombardy and Rodelinda’s husband, is about death and being “stricken with anguish”, but Janes was hard pressed at times to maintain a solemn demeanour when she had such glorious music to sing. You could see and hear her luxuriating in the beauty of her first aria Dove sei, amato bene? This query also leads the listener to wonder why we do not get to hear much more of such a consistently superb singer. The passionate bravura of her final aria Vivi tiranno, enhanced by some wonderful oboe playing, was quite thrilling. Lorina Gore as Bertarido’s friend Unulfo invested the role with her customary vitality, negotiating the coloratura passages and upper extremities of pitch with ease and crystalline purity.
Performances of Rodelinda are often mounted for a soprano with exceptional vocal attributes. The Met’s latest series of performances, which began in 2004, were designed as a vehicle for Renee Fleming. Joan Sutherland herself would have been the prime candidate to inspire a production by any opera house. In this case, the exceptional talents of Greta Bradman were on display. With a dark mezzo quality in her middle voice and an ability to float her voice when singing soft sustained notes and intricate coloratura passages, she was at times uncannily similar in vocal quality to Sutherland. As Bradman’s mentor and conductor, Richard Bonynge was always sensitive to her intentions. For the da capo of her Act II aria, Ritorna, o caro, he reduced the orchestra to such an extent that it was possible for her to sing with the finest pianissimo. It will be interesting to see how a voice with such an unusual blend of fascinating substance and agility develops.
As the inaugural winner of the Bel Canto Award, John Longmuir is certainly fulfilling the hopes invested in him. He was so much at home in his part that he hardly looked at the score, preferring to immerse himself in the role of Grimoaldo, the usurper of King Bertarido and predatory wooer of his wife. Not only did he sing with a bright, vibrant tone and with clean agility in the many demanding coloratura passages, he was also unexpectedly affecting in his final scene of repentance and longing for the consolations of nature and sleep. As the other “baddie”, Garibaldo, Michael Lewis impressed with a firm, strong voice. Any discomfort with some of the more florid passages was more than compensated for with the powerful menace that he brought to the role of Grimoaldo’s evil counsellor.
It is always exciting to hear a darker voice sing a bravura role. Liane Keegan appears to be equally at home with Wagner and Handel. Her portrayal of Bertarido’s sister Eduige called upon dramatic passion, vocal agility and a wide range, all of which are at her command. Keegan’s low notes in particular were splendidly rich and satisfying.
In the hands of an elegant and attentive Bonynge Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, led by the stylish Baroque specialist Rachel Beesley, offered a series of delights. Among these were sterling work from the continuo instruments, some beautiful interweaving of flute and oboe with vocal lines, buoyant rhythms and the judicious use of vibrato.
Around thirty da capo arias, relieved only by a duet, a final quintet and the odd orchestral passage, could have become a little too much of a good thing were it not for the quality of the singing and playing and the gorgeous music itself, complete with exquisite ornamentation. As it was, the evening seemed to be over all too soon. Richard Bonynge’s championing of Handel’s music over the last fifty years has enriched our lives and this performance was a reminder of how grateful we should be.
The picture is of conductor Richard Bonynge.
Heather Leviston reviewed the performance of Rodelinda at the Melbourne Recital Centre on October 3, 2014.