Pratt takes the honours

LA SONNAMBULA

Victorian Opera

Hamer Hall, Victorian Arts Centre

Friday May 5

                              Jessica Pratt

Somehow I’ve missed the Victorian Opera’s previous concert versions of Bellini operas – Norma and I puritani.  A real pleasure, then, to come upon the latest enterprise, particularly as the performance worked very well, notable for a top-notch cast, a willing if distant chorus and a revitalised Orchestra Victoria, coping easily with this score and revealing a good deal more polish than had obtained during the previous night’s Carmen for Opera Australia.

Not that the opera has a large principal line-up.  The sleep-walking heroine Amina is a virtuoso role – well, it’s made so by the insertion of ornamentation to taste; Jessica Pratt proved more than equal to the task with admirable technical control and a fine characterization of open-hearted simplicity.  As her betrothed, Elvino, tenor Carlos Enrique Barcenas maintained a firm delivery throughout the night; if the high notes sounded strained, they were present and correct, although they would be more telling if the singer would treat them with greater relaxation of his physical equipment.   Paolo Pecchioli, a bass new to me, proved an exceptional Count Rudolfo, capable of responsible phrasing and varied delivery as evident from his first appearance where you immediately gained insight into a personality capable of command and sensitivity.

Another substantial contributor was Greta Bradman who, as Lisa, enjoyed two arias, including that which follows the opening chorus, Tutto e gioia, and the later one with chorus, De’ lieti auguri, where she thinks Elvino will marry her instead of the ‘unfaithful’ Amina.  The pyrotechnics came less thick and fast than in Pratt’s line but Bradman balanced her fellow principal soprano with a more solid timbre in production, and brought some welcome relief to the work’s sweetness and light with her barbed responses to her courting by Alessio.  This latter role brought bass Timothy Newton down from the chorus for the character’s contributions, although his role in ensembles often simply mirrored his upstage colleagues.

Mezzo Roxane Hislop sang Amina’s foster-mother, Teresa, with seasoned security, blotting her copybook only once with an early entry, almost cutting off the distant horns at  Ma . . . il sol tramonta, but quickly pounced on by conductor Richard Mills.  Tenor Tomas Dalton followed Newton’s lead, coming down from the choir for the Notary’s brief contribution when all things are going swimmingly at the betrothal scene.

Pecchioli had only two significant passages in which to shine.  The deceptively long Vi ravviso and its pendant Tu non sai is the more important in revealing something of the Count’s character as an informed, benevolent if somewhat secretive aristocrat with a splendid line in rolling reminiscence.   In Act 2, he attempts to explain (briefly and lucidly) to the village what a somnambulist is, V’han certuni che dormendo, before Elvino leads a chorus of denial.  As you’d hoped, the singer’s tone quality retained a carrying amplitude, not over-stressed in the part’s upper register and satisfyingly dark at the other end.

Barcenas made a favourable impression from his opening recitative, although the strain to get through the mordent to the upper B flat at rendesti il padre interrupted a well-controlled delivery.  But the following duet  Prendi: l’anel ti dono turned out to be one of the performance’s gems, the tenor gifted with the high road and keeping it.  Still, the four high Cs that turn up later in the scene would have gained from a less determined approach.  As shown better in Act 2, this tenor has an attractive authority across most of his compass, if not yet the floating elasticity of an ideal Elvino like Tagliavini.  A short burst of regret in Ah! Perche no posso odiarti gave us a telling insight into Barcenas’ talent at instant communication – address without complications, the lyric falling in the nutty kernel of his talent.

Pratt gave us an excellent Amina, from her first appearance to the happy (and quick) resolution of the opera’s action.   In the initial Come per me sereno cavatina, she demonstrated how to handle the composer’s thick fioriture, particularly in a throw-away piece of brilliance at non, non brillo (the sort of startling facility that typified Sutherland at her best). and again at a quicksilver non ha forza a sostener.   In fact, Pratt sustained her role beyond expectations at the crucial point where she is spurned by Elvino, maintaining our sympathy throughout the D’un pensiero quintet and the following Act 1 finale where again the character yields dynamic and range primacy to her ex-fiance –  whom any spirited girl outside opera would have now given up as a waste of space.

But it’s Ah non credea mirarti that crowns the opera – a surprisingly non-flamboyant peak, but you can expect only a few flashes of brilliance from a sleepwalking heroine (unless you happen to be watching Lady Macbeth or Lucia).  Pratt mirrored her opening aria’s happiness with a moving depiction of a credulous soul finding consolation in her dreams. But the pretty-well packed hall was waiting for the fireworks of Ah! non giunge, and Pratt didn’t disappoint, although the top E flat in her final solo bar was a close thing.

Without claiming to have made a concerted study of the scores, it’s hard to recall an opera of this type that requires so much chorus work.  Looking through the music afterwards, I was taken aback by the number of principal solos, duets and other ensembles that featured support, in this case from the near-omnipresent villagers.  On this night, the VO Chorus carried out their work with diligence, even if you might have wanted more power from the 32 singers involved.  Mind you, the body operated from behind Mills and his orchestra, who were nothing if not lively.  But their contribution assisted considerably in raising the work’s involvement level.

Another oddity that struck me after this performance was Bellini’s delight in his own triplet-rich, meandering melodies; his operating principle appeared to be that, if something was worth saying twice, it was probably worth repeating once more.  This can take its toll in Act 1 where the lovers’ idyllic satisfaction goes on for a patience-wearing stretch of time.  However, the absence of staging, costumes, and scenery meant that the performance centred solely on the music – a real concert, in other words, and so an experience to be treasured for giving all executants, both vocal and instrumental, a blank field to work in, and handing to an audience the inestimable gift of witnessing music-making without theatrical distractions, in an arena where the performers stand purely on their own abilities.  After this, I’m more than a little regretful that I missed the company’s previous Bellini expeditions.