Sunday, May 7, 2017

An evening of outstanding bel canto bliss with Victorian Opera's La sonnambula in concert


A near-packed Hamer Hall set the scene for a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini's La sonnambula on Saturday evening that sent shock waves of rapturous applause and a standing ovation. Not only did Bellini's semiseria opera shower its ostentatious and sublime music on its eager-ear local audience, it was presented with ample and compelling dramatic acuity surpassing expectations of what a concert performance gives. For this, from an assembled cast delivering a gloriously sung evening, Artistic Director and conductor Richard Mills deserves congratulations. That, and bringing sensational Australian soprano Jessica Pratt back to Melbourne to crown the performance in diamond quality.

G. Bradman, R. Hislop, J. Pratt, C. Bárcenas and P. Pecchioli 
La sonnambula continues Victorian Opera's commitment to presenting concert performances of gems from the great library of bel canto works that adorn the repertoire - in 2014 it was Bellini's Norma and I Puritani followed in 2015 in which Jessica Pratt wowed as Elvira.

The opera premiered in Milan in March 1831 (Norma followed before the year was out) and tells an amusing tale driven with intense melodrama by librettist Felice Romani. Sung in Italian with English surtitles, the story centres around the village girl Amina who, after her betrothal ceremony to Elvino, is found asleep in the room of the mysterious stranger, Count Rodolfo, who is staying at the village inn. Of course, the plot thickens - Elvino is outraged, breaks off the engagement and gives his heart back to Lisa, the proprietress of the inn to whom he was formerly betrothed. Amina is bereft but when Rodolfo realises that the villagers' story of a ghost appearing each night is, in fact Amina, a somnambulist, the misunderstanding is cleaned up and a happy ending ensues. Accompanied with such highly elaborate music, this somewhat frivolous story powers a sweet message to never jump to conclusions without adequate proof - or have a very good excuse why you've been found in an admirer's bed when you're engaged to another. How Amina hadn't realised she's a sleepwalker does tend to stretch belief.

It began with a discernible nervous start, taking a little time for the chorus to settle smack on the orchestral line and balance out the layers, but a sense of confidence took over. Mills firmly planted the seeds to support a sumptuous and responsive sounding 50-plus member Orchestra Victoria. That beauty was carried through to a subtly dappled orchestral introduction, the horns and woodwind especially deserving compliments, to Act 2's "Qui la selva è più folta ed ombrosa" and a splendorous and distinctive chorus sang in its wake.

Jessica Pratt as Amina and Carlos Bárcenas as Elvino
When Pratt took to the stage wearing a black bodiced gown of evening blue and long-draped smokey shawl, then catapulted her recitative and cavatina, "Care compagne - Come per me sereno", to extraordinary heights, a palpable change took hold that seemed to guarantee the magnificent night it was to become. Assured, relaxed and commanding a sense of effortless freedom, Pratt embodied the stupendous beauty of voice that places her as a leader in her art and gives the 21st century a new bel canto star. Every smoothly shaped phrase came with an emotively expressed and engaged magnetism that aided in deflecting attention away from her and onto the first joyous, then innocent, wrongly accused and aching-hearted Amina.

Pratt's consummate professionalism shone through via her rapport with her colleagues and commitment to her understated acting while exuding soft and natural elegance befitting her presence as both a star performer and role interpreter. As Act 1 headed towards a colossal finale in which Elvino rejects Amina, Pratt's prowess with the most fragile pianissimo and ability to sustain length of note was a moving experience. From there, Pratt embarked on a blazing display of coloratura fireworks big enough to stun the city. Then, returning in a long black fitted gown in Act 2, Pratt maintained the perfection and natural warmth all the way to the jubilant finale.

Italian bass Paolo Pecchioli was the other standout as Amina's admirer, Count Rodolfo. Suave, rich and cavernous-voiced, Pecchioli's articulate line and dashing flexibility brought many rewarding moments that included a piquantly crafted duet with Pratt as Rodolfo's conscience gets the better of him when alone with the vulnerable sleepwalking Amina.

Searing young tenor Carlos E. Bàrcenas dug deep into his character and projected with large Italianate warmth as the first besotted, then suspicious and incensed Elvino. Bàrcenas continues to pack exciting dynamism and expressivity in the voice with a beautifully controlled vibrato and smooth register shifts. A marginal loss of flesh in the top head voice was heard but it didn't detract from what was a highly commendable performance in which he paired comfortably with Pratt. That pairing was at its finest in Elvino and Amina's pledge of love in Act 1 before the plot's sharp turn.

 Greta Bradman, Roxane Hislop, Jessica Pratt
It was a welcome sight to see Australian soprano Greta Bradman back in Melbourne. As the shady, unprincipled innkeeper Lisa, Bradman's chocolatey-rich soprano and gorgeous use of vibrato added impact to the performance. In Bradman's Act 1 opening, sudden leaps in range came with exaggerated power but as she progressed, the voice became increasingly pliant to reach its most lush in Act 2's "Lasciami: aver compresoassai dovresti", coming with attractive glint and fluttering coloratura.

The ensemble was reinforced solidly by mezzo-soprano Roxane Hislop as Teresa, Amina's affectionate mother. Velvety-dark and sumptuous of voice, Hislop's experience cut through with ease in her portrayal of dignity and staunchness and unflinching attention to detail. As Alessio, Lisa's hapless admirer, young artist Timothy Newton brought robust bass support and held strength in ensemble work. In the smaller role as the notary, Tomas Dalton didn't go unnoticed for his refined tenor display.

Victorian Opera's annual concert opera presentations have become a highlight of Melbourne's opera scene. After La sonnambula was over, I was shaking with excitement, my pulse certainly racing. What might next year bring? I'm going to take a stab in the dark and say another Bellini, the explosive romantic tragedy, I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Fingers crossed.


La Sonnambula
Victorian Opera
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
5th May

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross 

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