Monday, July 15, 2019

A generous slice of rarer bel canto heaven may promise more to come - Victorian Opera's Heroic Bel Canto soars high

Reams of ravishing Rossini, dollops of Donizetti and just a bit of Bellini - Victorian Opera have brought together three of the greatest exponents of music written for voices that require superhuman technique and dashing expression in a one night only concert, Heroic Bel Canto. The night proved to be altogether devastatingly heroic, seductive and meteoric.

Daniella Barcellona and Jessica Pratt
After four consecutive years of concert opera featuring four of Bellini’s most acclaimed works (Norma, I puritani, La sonnambula and I Capuleti e i Montecchi), a deliciously crafted program of lesser performed arias, duets and ensembles in praise of the art of bel canto spun its dazzling charms from go to whoa.

Included were excerpts from Rossini’s final Italian opera, the tragedy Semiramide, the infectiously comic work, Le Comte Ory and the rarely performed biblical opera, Ciro in Babilonia. And included from Donizetti’s copious output was a taste of the three-act operatic melodrama, Linda di Chamounix that, crossing fingers, will see its Australian premiere soon.

No stranger to these ornamental gems and heading the program was the divine vocal beauty of soprano Jessica Pratt along with new-to-local-audiences, Italian mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona. Local tenor Carlos E. Bárcenas completed the headline trio, a singer who has certainly yielded heroic results in recent principal roles for Victorian Opera. A contingent of solid local performers and VO associate artists rose to the occasion splendidly.

Thanks to Artistic Director and the evening’s conductor Richard Mills, it was one of those evenings when you felt you were indeed a part of their family. Mills embraced his audience with witty and informative introductions, some a little on overtime but all delivered with passionate excitement. And perhaps a tease? Who else became convinced one or more of these Rossini works are on the company’s future list?

Daniella Barcellona, Jessica Pratt
and Carlos E. Bárcenas
Poised and glamorous, Pratt sung with eloquently ornamented and indelibly phrased beauty. ‘O luce di quest’ anima’ from Linda di Chamounix, an aria gifted to stars, came down from the heavens in an utterly stunning interpretation of perilous high flying notes, pure toned smoothness and darting flexibility. And when it was over, it was like coming out from being under her spell.

Daniela Barcellona, sturdy and plush, animated her performance superbly, her gesturing hands and vivacious expression doing as much convincing work as her increasingly beguiling vocal magnitude. For the agonised Leonora in ‘O mon Fernand’ from Donizetti’s La Favorite, Barcellona exposed the aria’s dramatic interior and great beauty in a concert highlight. In duet with Pratt, Semiramide’s ‘Ebben a te ferisci’ became a poignant, emotionally transparent and supercharged drama.

Tenor Bárcenas keeps on impressing, the chest opening up with warm, muscled strength, the top radiant and soaring, if only momentarily tight, and the bottom of the voice was sounding evermore rich and striking in an especially fine rendition of ‘Deserto in terra’ from Donizetti’s Don Sebastiano.

A singer with a tantalising future, oaky baritone Stephen Marsh sang with great command and pristine diction alongside Barcellona in ‘Ai capricci della sorte’ from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, the chemistry magnetic, the voices in comfortable harmony. One short aria, ‘Chi disprezza gl’infelici’ from Ciro in Babilonia, came with instant appeal from lush mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan who brought to it a slice of smoothly drafted magic.

Daniela Barcellona and Stephen Marsh
And when they were joined by soprano Kathryn Radcliffe, baritones Samuel Piper, Nathan Lay and Raphael Wong and bass-baritone Matthew Thomas in the penultimate piece, a lively and agilely sung display of ‘Livorno, dieci Aprile’ from Donizetti’s farcical Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrale, Victorian Opera seemed to be saying, “We have no trouble in guaranteeing you the goods!” Following, the rapturous trio and finale of ‘A la faveur de cette nuit obscure’ from Le Comte d'Ory made it ever so clearer.

And Happy 50th Birthday to one of the city’s indispensable cultural assets, Orchestra Victoria. Playing with great unity and serving up generous textures, the team supported the artists with familial-like care. Opening the first part, the overture to Semiramide suffered from a mild amount of tarnished brass but the thrusting overture to Bellini’s Norma that opened the second part of the program was a showcase of richness and sensitivity. In other areas, principal flautist Lisa-Maree Amos and Sally Walker on piccolo deserve special mention for carrying the woodwinds on exceptional flights of artistry and concertmaster Yi Wang led the way on violins that perfectly synchronised and delighted in their pizzicato expression.

So which will be the first to get fully staged treatment? Semiramide, Le Comte d’Ory or Linda di Chamounix? I’ll take a stab in the dark with Semiramide, one of Dame Joan Sutherland’s most thrillingly sung roles and one that Pratt would easily enamour local audiences with who have come to know her commitment and style. Then again, Melbourne Opera may very well pip them at the post.

Heroic Bel Canto
Victorian Opera
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
14th July, 2019

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross

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