Victorian Opera: Heroic Bel Canto review

Whether the term “heroic” was in reference to the singers or to the specific repertoire, Victorian Opera’s Heroic Bel Canto concert lived up to its name, warming the wintry Melbourne audience with a fascinating program.

Following a very successful series of concerts of bel canto operas in full, the decision to present a concert of bel canto selections this year yielded the chance to hear wonderful arias from lesser known works. Melbourne’s exposure to Rossini has recently moved on from solely focusing on The Barber of Seville to including such gems as Otello, William Tell and Il Viaggio a Reims, and this concert unearthed a pair of arias from Il Ciro in Babilonia, previously unseen in Australia. Selections from Semiramide and Le Comte Ory made a strong case for these operas to be performed in full again locally before too long.

On an unadorned stage, Victorian Opera’s artistic director Richard Mills conducted the reliably splendid musicians of Orchestra Victoria, making special mention of the orchestra’s 50th birthday this year. From harp to piccolo to French horn and more, featured soloists rose to the challenge time and again to deliver exceptional performances, the high standard all the more notable given the lack of familiarity with the music.

Sporting a head microphone, Mills was free to casually address the audience between each piece, introducing the context and the singers. While these introductions served as an approach to the selections, the absence of surtitles was keenly felt, especially given that the audience had not heard the majority of the pieces before. Helping to bridge the gap was the excellent performances by the singers, who threw themselves into their roles, unencumbered by music stands.

While there were some initial challenges with the balance between instrumental and vocal music, the overall balance was solid and the sheer beauty of the music could be readily appreciated.

For an event featuring world class singers, the presentation was somewhat let down by poor lighting. Singers often entered in semi-darkness, and even Mills found himself in darkness at tines as he addressed the audience. There seemed to be an ad hoc approach to the lighting, whereas the singers deserved better.

The evening began with the rather epic overture of Semiramide, featuring Rossini’s thrilling proclivity for rallentando sequences. The second half of the program opened with the overture of Bellini’s Norma, which might be seen as a generous advertisement for the upcoming production of a sister company.

Looking striking in generous red silk wrap over glittering black gown, star attraction soprano Jessica Pratt delivered customary thrills, all the more precious for her sparing number of appearances on stage. As usual, Pratt’s preparation was thorough, allowing her to focus on her exquisite precision, as heard in “Bel raggio lusinghier” (Semiramide). In act two, Pratt’s stunning fireworks at the climax of “O luce di quest’anima” served as a convincing case for staging Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix in full.

New to the Melbourne stage, Italian mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona proved an absolutely charming stage presence, her big heartfelt smile reaching all the way through capacious Hamer Hall. Sharing Pratt’s propensity for very well-prepared performances, Barcellona particularly delighted in the pair of works from L’Italiana in Algeri, joined on the duet by the warm tone of local baritone Stephen Marsh.

Barcellona and Pratt concluded act one with “Ebben … a te; ferisci” (Semiramide), ending with a warmhearted hug that was a combination of expression of feeling of the characters and the performers. The singers share a gift for rapid fioriture, which was well utilised in the concert.

Barcellona showed another side to her performance personality with the more serious aria “O mon Fernand” (La Favorite).

Local tenor Carlos E. Bárcenas was in sterling form, providing exactly the vocal sound Rossini intended. Well and truly warmed up by the second half, a clear highlight for Bárcenas came with “Deserto in terra” from Donizetti’s little-known Don Sebastiano. Bárcenas was also in top form for the concert’s finale, joined by Pratt and Barcellona for the trio and finale from Le Comte Ory.

Leading up to the finale, momentum was somewhat lost with a penultimate number that showcased Victorian Opera’s young and emerging artists. The septet “Livorno, dieci Aprile” from obscure Donizetti opera Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrale was amusing but involved an overly labored introduction.

Melbourne has been well served in. regard to bel cantoperformances in recent years. It will be interesting to see whether Victorian Opera continues some form of concert presentation next year.

Heroic Bel Canto played at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne 5pm Sunday 14 July 2019.

The Heroic Bel Canto program can be read online.

Photos: Charlie Kinross

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