An intriguingly varied evening of truly wonderful music was presented in a concert that represented extraordinary value for ticket buyers. Victorian Opera set a high standard for the year ahead with this presentation, a carefully selected program that was curated and conducted by artistic director Richard Mills.
For less than the price of a gold class cinema ticket, the audience was treated to a full-length concert with impeccable performances from the excellent singers and the vast orchestra. The majority of the singing was performed by Victorian Opera’s young and emerging artists, who were joined by three experienced colleagues, with the jewel in the crown being the return performance of acclaimed Australia soprano Lisa Gasteen.
Even though the selections were performed in their original Italian, French, German or English without surtitles, understanding of the pieces could not have been easier, thanks to excellent program notes, captivating introductions by Mills, and the combination of crisp diction and excellent acting and expression from the singers.
The intertwined themes of Love and Chance were explored with choices such as the tarot card trio from Carmen and Lucia di Lammermoor’s famous act two sextet. If the themes were not quite represented in all the music, another interpretation altogether was that the concert was a reflection of Victorian Opera’s Love of music and that they are taking a Chance on the young singers in their company.
The massive orchestra, filling almost every square metre of the large stage, was the Monash Academy Orchestra, which clearly works to a supremely high standard. A generous number of orchestral excerpts allowed the orchestra to really shine, proving themselves easily capable of Wagner with three exquisitely played preludes. Mascagni’s gorgeous intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana also received a sumptuous treatment.
Conductor Mills had the spotlight for the night, but generously heaped praise upon Fabian Russell for his meticulous preparation of Monash Academy Orchestra (supported by concert master Roy Theaker) and on Victorian Opera repetiteurs Phoebe Briggs, Phillipa Safey and Simon Bruckard for their invaluable preparation of the music.
Welcome cameo performances came from a pair of experienced singers, soprano Roxane Hislop and Baritone Douglas McNicol. Hislop demonstrated the joyous tone of her warm soprano in a well-chosen aria from Samson et Delilah, in which Delilah sings of the game of love she is playing with Samson. McNicol, in fine form, contrasted his pleasant, cheerful countenance with the stormy Otello aria “Credo in un Dio crudel,” followed by an equally dramatic selection from La Forza del Destino in the second half.
Three of the singers were recent graduates of Victorian Opera’s Master of Music (Opera Performance) program. Imposing young tenor Carlos E. Bárcenas gave a lovely rendition of Don Jose’s Flower Song from Carmen. Although the power of his voice meant that Bárcenas did not quite get the tenderest pianissimo of the aria, this control will undoubtedly come with further experience of singing with an orchestra.
In one of three selections from twentieth century compositions, young soprano Olivia Cranwell gave a remarkably mature, golden-voiced performance of Marshall-Hall’s Tired Nature Sleeps” from 1912 opera Stella.
Bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman, so memorable in 2013’s The Magic Pudding – the opera, was not given a solo aria, but clearly demonstrated the rich strength of his voice in ensemble number “Consider the Rain,” a fascinating piece from Blitzstein’s 1949 opera Regina.
The inclusion of these contemporary pieces really set the concert apart, avoiding any possibility of domination by party pieces and chocolate box favourites. Another such piece that proved a real treasure was the New Year’s Eve quartet from Mills’ own 1996 opera Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. To have the young singers perform the iconic characters of Olive, Pearl, Roo and Barney was a perfect choice, with the icing on the cake coming being Mills himself as conductor.
The cast was filled out by the 2014 Master of Music students, all of whom we will surely more of throughout the year (and beyond). Highly talented Baritone Nathan Lay, already a relatively well-experienced performer, made several choice appearances throughout the night, a highlight being the impressive vocal power he exhibited in eth spiritual section of “Consider the Rain.” Lovely young soprano Kate Amos shone through impressively as the increasingly mad Lucia in the Lucia di Lammermoor sextet.
In a highlight saved for the final sequence, treasured soprano Gasteen graced the stage for a song cycle that was lovingly constructed by Mills. Retaining her imposing stage presence, Gasteen sang with a gentle beauty. While famed for powerhouse roles, Gasteen’s gentle grace with this pair of lieder, one by Wagner and one by Strauss, was particularly affecting.
Victorian Opera’s next production, La Traviata starring meteoric soprano Jessica Pratt, is highly anticipated.
Photos: Charlie Kinross
This review was published on Theatre People 30 March 2014.