Saturday, July 4, 2015

Blessed in bel canto heaven at Victorian Opera's I Puritani

With an evening blessed in bel canto heaven, Melbourne audiences had just one chance to hear Victorian Opera's concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini's I Puritani, a grand opera which premiered in Paris in 1835 not long before the young composer's death.

Expectedly, the Hamer Hall stage was devoid of sets and costumes but the emotive vision and robust musical landscape painted by the shining artists and the musicians of Orchestra Victoria was clearly palpable. I Puritani's original 1640s setting during the English Civll War was felt with as much presence as its story clearly has in a modern context, a story of loyalty and love crossing political allegiances and its ensuing conflict.

Jessica Pratt (centre) with soloists, chorus and musicians of Orchestra Victoria

With neither surtitled introduction nor announcements (local audiences seemed to be trusted having mobile phones switched off), a matter-of-fact briskness heralded a subdued entry into what would become a momentous escalation of musical and dramatic force.

Conducting, Victorian Opera Artistic Director Richard Mills came to the stage and commanded every corner of the orchestra with gusto. The tempi were thoughtful and timing was crisp. Intermittent, erratic brass excepting, Orchestra Victoria responded marvellously, especially with the fine, vibrating warmth of the string playing. Highly percussive passages were safely handled, giving the well-prepared, confident-voiced Victorian Opera Chorus room to breath. Rear-stage but cleverly not highly prominent, the chorus acted as an effusive force on the horizon.

Early in Act I a tentativeness existed in orchestra and chorus blending but ended thrillingly on the summit of excellence with Elvira's aria then quartet with chorus, "Oh, vieni al tempio, fedele Arturo". After interval, in Act II a refined cohesiveness remained. Act III pulsated with tension, energy and splendiferous vocal signatures.

Showing a natural-like rapport with his soloists, each taking the stage as their roles required to lend clarity to the story's flow, Mills unobtrusively conducted with both the direction of a guardian and the trust of a friend.

Bellini demanded of his librettist Carlo Peponi, "The opera must draw tears, terrify people, make them die through singing". The Italian sung libretto was as easy to make sense of in its surtitled English translation as it was interpreted by the singers. Pleasingly, rolled 'r's were gloriously enunciated. Bellini's vision felt very much realised and breathtakingly interpreted.

I was impressed the first time I saw Australian soprano Jessica Pratt perform in Naples in 2013. Pratt has quietly established herself firmly in sought-after European houses and having the opportunity to hear her again in Melbourne (her only Australian performance this year) is a coup for audiences after her debut in the role of Violetta in Victorian Opera's La Traviata last year.

In a lipstick pink gown, amongst a line-up of black-tie suited soloists, Pratt exuded an immediate, captivating  purity as Elvira, betrothed to Sir Riccardo Forth but eventually given permission to marry her love, the royalist Lord Arturo Albert. Calm and radiant, Pratt's experience and comfort in the role was apparent, securing her character with dramatic completeness. As radiant in voice as her stage beauty, Pratt not only navigated her rich vocal range and fluid, elegant coloratura without apparent effort for all the energy required, but showed an understanding as to where her voice belonged in ensemble.

Pratt returned in Act II in an emerald green cloak draped over a midnight-blue gown to reflect the darker, delusional Elvira who loses her mind after Arturo disappears mysteriously with a female captive prisoner. Driving the poignancy of her character without resorting to melodrama, Pratt responded in brilliant form in  "Qui la voce" then "Vien, diletto" with heartfelt pathos.

Celso Andres Albelo Hernandez as Arturo and Jessica Pratt as Elvira

Looking delighted to perform in front of a Melbourne audience Columbian Celso Andres Albelo Hernandez powered with passion and determination as Lord Arturo Talbot. Exhibiting a thrusting, dynamic Italianate tenor, Albelo drove his voice with courageous control like a racing car driver taking risks that paid off. Albelo's middle range was thick and lusciously layered and his phrasing was intelligent. An inclination to overextend finishes brought a little imbalance but in ensemble there was complete awareness of the power of his instrument. In Act III's "Corre a valle, corre a monte, l'esiliato pellegrin" in which Arturo continues a song he hears that he used to sing with Elivira, every note was awoken with meaning. A reunion with Elvira followed in a thrilling duet with Pratt in "Vieni fra questa braccia". Together, the singing was vibrant, unforced and the on-stage harmony was real.

As Elvira's uncle Sir Giorgio Valton, bass-baritone Paul Whelan's experience in the role showed, portraying a compassionate and trusted mediating force with exemplary diction and a fireside-warmth of tone. Only in ensemble did a hint of eagerness occasionally sneak into vocal starts.

Currently a developing artist at Victorian Opera, as Elvira's betrothed Sir Riccardo Forth, Nathan Lay stepped into a demanding role to notch up another level of success with a memorable performance. Layered with don't-mess-with-me grit, Lay's seamless phrasing and suave, velvety baritone showed ease and control. Only in the voice's upper range did signs of strain appear but Lay remained steadfast in the spirit of character. Often accompanied with Whelan's Giorgio, the pair never appeared upstaged by the star amorous couple. One of the evening's overall highlights came with their extended Act II duet, a vocal rendition blending age-old comfort and surety.

In smaller roles, the night was enriched with accomplished vocal performances from baritone Jeremy Kleeman as a resonant, warm-voiced Lord Gualtiero Valton, tenor Carlos E Bárcenas adding impressive high head notes as a clear, confident-voiced Sir Bruno Robertson and Tania Ferris' lusciously leaden-dark mezzo-soprano for Enrichetta di Francia, the mysterious prisoner and widow of the King Charles I.

When the performance was over and adulations were done, it occurred to me that Victorian Opera had conveyed the power of Bellini's last opera without the trimmings of costumes and sets. Rather than feel cheated, I felt marvellously privileged. It also occurred to me, without mobile phone or audience disturbance, what a behaved and satisfied lot the Melbourne audience was.

Performance photographs by Charlie Kinross 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

An immersive, real-time I Capuleti e i Montecchi at Zurich Opera

                            Olga Kulchynska as Giulietta and cast
If there are problems with Vincenzo Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues) they weren't apparent in the capable hands of Zurich Opera and director Christof Loy's dramatisation. One of the many interpretations of the story of Romeo and Juliet, not even Bellini's casting of Romeo as a mezzo-soprano gets in the way, with Joyce Di Donato's boundless strength and conviction making sure of that. And if it felt far removed from a Shakespearean construct, it owes a little to Felice Romani, Bellini's librettist who based the work on an Italian source (Luigi Scevola's 1818 play Giulietta e Romeo) rather than Shakespeare's, and much in Loy's compelling retelling of an archetypal story.

Many times removed from its origins and set centuries later, Loy honours Bellini and the art form of opera while presenting a legible, incalculable tragic drama of mini-series proportions, located somewhere in the second half of 20th century Verona.

Loy sets a fast pace to match the often quick tempo conductor Fabio Luisi establishes in the pit, the rotating stage motor powering hard as scene after scene is revealed with not so much cinematic flow but real time immediacy. During the almost 5-minute overture alone, the story's outcome is revealed as a five-part rotate turns through eight scenes which include the aftermath of conflict with bodies strewn across the stage and the empty gaze of a young girl caught up in a tragedy. Since the story is already widely known it doesn't destroy the progression but, on the contrary, it established the concept and raised curiosity marvellously.

Olga Kulchynska and Joyce DiDonato
Stripped away from its original Medieval setting, Christian Schmidt's designs gave spatial variation across the Capuleti compound, its bland plaster and timber-panelled austerity framing a conservative, proud and powerful family. Stiffly elegant costumes in black tie for the men, long gowns for the women suited an imminent wedding. And yes, if a female could be cast for Romeo, why not have men cast as women as Loy did for some of the male chorus in an Act I scene. It wasn't even apparent at first but it was convincingly scene-appropriate. Franck Evin's often diffused or gloomy lighting assisted and the overall visual impression lent a remarkable sense of presence as if each window or opening was a direct link to a real world.

This world expressed the cold discomfort of the two warring families, the Capuleti and the Montecchi, as if linked to an organised crime syndicate, no guesses there. The concept, too, transferred very comfortably with the libretto but the greatest power came via an excellent cast.

The conviction Joyce DiDonato brings to Bellini's Romeo is immense. DiDonato portrayed a desperate single-mindedness in Romeo's shrewd pleas for brokering a peace deal with the Capuleti which would see him marry Giulietta. After failing, the same desperation is directed towards Giulietta in attempts to convince her to elope with him which DiDonato embodies with the valour of a saviour. Naturally, it was the voice of one of the great mezzos of today that was being scrutinised and DiDonato made it very clear her range, stamina and expressivity are in excellent shape, from fierce voluminous grit to notes filed down to infinitesimal beauty.

Olga Kulchynska and Joyce DiDonato

Soprano Olga Kulchynska beguiled, capturing the troubled Giulietta with a powerful demeanour as vacant as the spaces themselves. Kulchynska's vocal artistry painted everything from angelic purity to explosive power while being able to maintain unfaltering length and clarity with ease through the rise and fall of her voice. Together, DiDonato and Kulchynska acted with complete fluency, sharing a subliminal vocal beauty and creating an exciting vision of wrenching drama in which the focus was on the tension and urgency, not on melodramatic romantic gestures. It came across cleverly, poignantly and with the immediacy of being in the moment, making great sense of the limited close body contact between the pair and focusing on the circumstantial tragedy.

Benjamin Bernheim stood mighty as Tebaldo in action and voice, his large, clear, ringing tenor a force of its own but equally powerful over the chorus and orchestra. As Giulietta's father Capellio, Alexei Botnarciuc brought a distinguished presence and a disquieting pensiveness in a fine solid vocal display of not knowing how he might react. Sympathetic to Romeo and Giulietta's relationship and retainer of the Capuleti, bass-baritone Roberto Lorenzi imbued Lorenzo with an ice-cool wariness, his gravel-rich and resonant voice on the mark. Threading his way across the day's horror, Gieorgij Puchalski created intrigue as he seemingly alternated between Romeo and Giulietta as an 'attendant' or as a ghostly shadow.

The Zurich Opera Chorus are to be credited with not only their impressive vocal depth, pinpoint timing and wonderful balance, but the magnitude of the detail in which they act.

And driving the momentum with great feeling, Fabio Luisi led the Philharmonia Zurich to fill the theatre with Bellini's highly charged music with energetic playing. Amongst some stunning frenetic string playing and flowing brass, solo members of the orchestra get to shine with Act II's brooding solo clarinet of Robert Pickup a fine example.

With every ingredient weighed up thoughtfully, this production sucks you in from the beginning and quite remarkably makes you forget this is a story harking back centuries. There is much in it to ponder without losing the story's effect and you'll want to see it again.

Production Photographs by Monika Rittershaus