Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini provided the music while some of Melbourne Opera’s most talented singers provided the beautiful singing – the “bel canto” for this Opera Spectacular.
It is always one of those hold-your-breath-and-wait-for-the-bad-news moments when somebody appears in front of the curtain before a performance to make an announcement. In this case, Melbourne Opera’s Artistic Director, Greg Hocking, took the microphone to tell us that the concert’s biggest drawcard was unwell. Melbourne soprano Helena Dix is based overseas and is internationally renowned as an opera singer with “bel canto” repertoire a specialty. All was not lost, however, as another outstanding soprano was willing to jump in. What was more, in order to make up for the disappointment, a free ticket was offered to a performance of Melbourne Opera’s coming production of Maria Stuarda – with Helena Dix in the title role. It was a more than generous offer. It was also tremendously generous of Lee Abrahmsen. To sing “Casta Diva”, one of grand opera’s most challenging arias, can be a daunting prospect for most lyric sopranos, but to undertake it at the eleventh hour verges on the Herculean.
As an introduction to the aria and the concert, the Melbourne Opera Bel Canto Orchestra played the Overture to Bellini’s Norma in crisp, emphatic style under the precise baton of conductor Raymond Lawrence. There was some especially fine playing by the winds in contrasting less assertively dramatic sections – especially gratifying since this concert was dedicated to Andrew Jacobs, oboist and cor anglais player with the Melbourne Opera Orchestra.
A murmur of approval could be heard as the curtain rose to reveal a splendid backdrop of shining blue stars and twenty-two singers from the Melbourne Opera Chorus seated towards the front of the stage. As the long introduction to “Casta Diva” was played, Abrahmsen entered to take her place centre stage behind a music stand carrying a score that was hardly used. She quickly settled into the long arching lines of Norma’s prayer to the moon goddess, becoming steadier as she continued, with expansive, luminous top notes in the surging phrases. Although the complete cabaletta was omitted, we heard some truly beautiful singing.
Rossini was next with three arias from Il Barbiere di Siviglia. “Largo al factotum” was given a spirited performance by baritone Raphael Wong, who conveyed the hectic nature of Figaro’s life with energy, well-articulated “patter” singing and some surprising vocal effects. Mezzo-soprano Naomi Flatman was a delightful Rosina – vivacious, mischievous and maintaining a good sense of connection with the audience. Although she sang with excellent flexibility and a most pleasing roundness of tone, the lower notes were not ornamented or given the strength that we are accustomed to hearing from many mezzo-sopranos. Flatman and Wong had fun with the duet “Dunque io son… tu non m’inganni? (Then it is I … You are not mocking me?), playing up the comic elements with zest.
The final item before interval may not have been the one scheduled for Helena Dix, but tenor Boyd Owen supplied his own brand of spectacular with a series of ringing top Cs for “Ah! mes amis” from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment. In a different vein from the ebullient tenor showpiece, Owen opened the second half of the concert with another Donizetti aria: “Tombe degli avi miei” (Tombs of my fathers) from Lucia di Lammermoor, combining full-bodied dramatic intensity with lyricism.
As the understudy for the title role of Maria Stuarda, Teresa Ingrilli was well placed to join Naomi Flatman and the chorus for the “Preghiera”. Ingrilli does not have a big voice, but it is a most appealing one that could be heard clearly above the combined efforts of chorus and orchestra. Her ability to spin sustained top notes without apparent effort was outstanding.
Like Naomi Flatman, Amelia Wawrzon is a member of the Melbourne Opera Richard Divall Emerging Artists Programme. She is also a recent recipient of a major prize in the Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Bel Canto Award and has earned a scholarship place to study at the Royal Academy of Music. Her singing of “O quante volte” from Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi demonstrated why she has been awarded these prizes. Her voice is attractive and very resonant, and she has a charming stage presence. Boyd Owen later joined her for the melodious “Notturno” from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.
Always a vibrant performer with a solid vocal technique whatever the range or dynamic, baritone Christopher Hillier gave an impressively dramatic account of “Vien Leonora” from Donzetti’s La Favorita. Since no surtitles were provided, director/compere Suzanne Chaundy gave a brief description of what was about to be performed. For singers such as Hillier, the emotional meaning was clear even if the detail was not.
In a further change of program, tenor Asher Reichman joined Owen, Hillier, Flatman, Wong, Lee Abrahmsen and the chorus for an operatic favourite – the famous sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor. Abrahmsen soared above the ensemble to end the concert on a very high note. It was a brilliant conclusion to a celebration of “bel canto”.
Heather Leviston reviewed “Bel Canto Opera Spectacular”, presented by Melbourne Opera at the Athenaeum Theatre on August 20, 2023.