HEROIC BEL CANTO
Sunday July 15, 2019
First, a confession. I didn’t last the distance on this night. Mind you, I missed only the last three items: a solo from visiting mezzo Daniela Barcellona, a curious Donizetti septet featuring some of the company’s younger voices, and the finale to Rossini’s Le Comte Ory which involved all ten of the evening’s vocalists. But the exercise had made its points quite obviously by this stage and sticking around would only have resulted in weariness of spirit if not a growing impatience at an unhappy alternation between laudable accomplishment and mediocre interpretation and/or material.
On the positive side, soprano Jessica Pratt shone at every turn. Admittedly, she wasn’t overworked: Bel raggio lusinghier from Rossini’s Semiramide, the final act soprano/mezzo duet from the same opera, O luce di quest’anima from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, and a leading role in the night’s all-in conclusion. This singer showed excellent pliability of phrasing in the first aria with a congenial bounce to her fioriture later in the piece; if the style of attack occasionally impressed as over-studied, the results proved accurate and firmly spun.
Pratt and Barcellona worked gratifyingly well together in the Ebben . . .a te; ferisci duet, largely because both singers were pitching their efforts in the same direction, Pratt keeping her dynamic power at a level congruent with her partner’s output, each singer sustaining a congruent dramatic balance which helped to maintain both interest and admiration during an operatic passage more improbable than most. Pratt gave a successful airing to her Donizetti aria, finding a lightness of delivery in the final pages that brought to mind the sparkling brilliance of Sutherland in the same work.
Of all the singers I heard on this night, the one most affected by the prevailing working conditions was Barcellona. With Orchestra Victoria under Richard Mills making some effort to moderate their weight, the mezzo opened her account with Eccomi alfine in Babilonia; another Semiramide excerpt which the singer and conductor thought would be amusing to turn into Eccomi alfine in Melbourne – a verbal twist that went unnoticed . . . or perhaps people didn’t consider it that funny. The opening recitative showed us an interesting Arsace, active to the point of volatility; parts of the Ah! quel giorno aria made for heavy going, Barcellona’s lower register disappearing under the orchestra’s output.
There’s not much you can do about this, of course. Operating from a pit, OV is less confrontational a creature than when spread out across the Hamer Hall stage, and the brass – even if confined to horns alone – is necessarily prominent in carrying power. Later, in her rendition of Cruda sorte from L’Italiana in Algeri and that sparkling duet Ai capricci from the same opera in collaboration with baritone Stephen Marsh, Barcellona came across with a much more determined dynamism; but then the singer has a more infectious character to portray, one with a high degree of emotional volatility, especially in the duet’s comings and goings.
The night’s solitary tenor, Carlos E. Barcenas, coped with his three arias to a fair degree but the bravura high notes sounded strangled. Things went swimmingly through most of Avrai tu pur vendetta from another Rossini Oriental construct, Ciro in Babilonia, right up to the final pages where the top notes were uncomfortable to hear. Later, the same problem occurred throughout Asile hereditaire from Guillaume Tell where the top B flats lacked power and conviction. The tenor was more comfortable with Deserto in terra from Donizetti’s Don Sebastiano although the final two lines with the high C was of a piece with the singer’s previous efforts of the evening. A pity, as the middle register is individual and carries well; in fact, most of his range is well-harnessed and his production eloquent and polished. But, if you’re a tenor, the top is unfairly important.
Mezzo Shakira Dugan enjoyed the distinction of airing Rossini’s one-note aria Chi disprezza gl’infelici from Ciro; a curiosity but not much more than a school-boy joke, even if enlivened with an amiable obbligato from Paul McMillan‘s viola. At the opening to each of the night’s halves, the orchestra performed the overtures to Semiramide and Bellini’s Norma with credit; mind you the strings – 10-8-5-4-3 in sectional number – were no match for the brass nonet (occasionally decet) physically elevated above their peers. Piccolo Sally Walker shone in the Rossini overture: an idiosyncratic skittering presence rising above her doubling first violin colleagues. Mills maintained undemonstrative command over his forces, considerate towards his singers and making occasional attempts to mute orchestrally active passages for their comfort.
He also introduced every item, which in some cases was a misguided exercise; either the information was too confusing – as in the Rossini Babylonian plots – or it wasn’t informative enough about the character, e.g. Donizetti’s Linda. Nevertheless, apart from us few malcontents, he had his audience pretty much onside; not surprising as most of them (from the conversations I heard) seemed to be VO patrons and enthusiasts. Still, the lasting impression that some of us would have carried away from the night was not so much one of heroism but more of a conductor-headmaster introducing his star pupils at their graduation concert.