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 

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