Munich, Berlin, Moscow, London – and now Melbourne. Thanks to a partnership between BMW Group Australia and Opera Australia, Melbourne has now joined an illustrious group of cities to host “BMW Opera for All”. It is a most welcome initiative that further enhances Melbourne’s reputation as a city with a “rich tradition of art, theatre and music” – as Wolfgang Buechel, the CEO of BMW Australia Group, puts it.
The inaugural concert, held in Federation Square, was favoured with fine weather as a large audience gathered to hear four artists from Opera Australia sing some of opera’s most popular arias, duets and ensemble pieces. In his dual role of Conductor of Orchestra Victoria and Master of Ceremonies, Brian Castles-Onion provided lively introductions to the artists and items.
Many members of the audience had come prepared with rugs and chairs, others perched on less comfortable vantage points, strolled by with children in pushers, or stood for long periods, reluctant to miss such a splendid musical treat, while an area in front of the stage had been cordoned off to seat VIPs. The giant screen above the canopied stage enabled most to enjoy close-ups of the singers and the orchestra, although a mismatch between audio and slightly lagging visual data was a little disconcerting for those who could not see the stage. Perhaps this can be rectified in future along with some interference from the thumping music that came from the venue behind the stage. London might have Big Ben doing his thing, and sirens are an inevitable presence in any major city centre, but they tend to enhance the atmosphere, whereas a pounding disco beat does not.
Against a background soundscape of summer activities, an appreciative audience enjoyed a program comprised entirely of vocal items. Baritone Luke Gabbedy launched proceedings with a rousing account of “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville. Anchored to a standing microphone it was a more static performance than we are used to from Figaro – one of opera’s most animated characters. Dimity Shepherd is among Melbourne’s most loved and admired mezzo-sopranos, her voice rich, vibrant and capable of a huge range of expressive colour. As Bizet’s Carmen, she sang the “Habanera” and “Seguidilla” with sensuous flair, revelling in her powers of seduction both vocally and physically. As the hapless Don Jose, tenor Simon Kim sang “The Flower Song” ardently, his full-bodied tenor ranging from fervent passion to more delicate moments of pleading, negotiating some well-controlled diminuendos and nicely sustained softer notes. He displayed a similar mixture of passion and musical expressiveness in “When the Stars were brightly Shining” from Tosca.
Standing on either end of the stage, Kim and Gabbedy joined forces for perhaps opera’s most popular duet: Bizet’s “In the Depths of the Temple” – much to the delight of the audience. If turning an operatic aria into an AFL football club theme song is the pinnacle of popular success, then “The Toreador Song” from Carmen has the honour of wearing that guernsey, and the woman sitting next to me took great pleasure in singing quietly along with Luke Gabbedy.
Soprano Sophie Salvesani is probably best known to Melbourne audiences for her acclaimed performances as Maria in Opera Australia’s touring production of West Side Story. She became a Principal Young Artist in 2021 and recently made her operatic debut as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Sydney Opera House. Her singing of Violetta’s “Sempre Libera” was unquestionably the star turn of the afternoon, her vocal agility and securely sustained top E-flat, like all her high notes, pure and gleaming. The audience loved her, cheering, whistling and applauding enthusiastically. She radiated youthful charm in her performance of “The Jewel Song” from Faust (further enhanced by a graceful violin solo from OV’s Concertmaster Yi Wang), and her “Flower Duet” from Lakmé with Dimity Shepherd was yet another a hit.
Kim’s performance of Puccini’s famous tenor aria, “Nessun dorma” – surely an obligatory inclusion for such an occasion – was greeted with prolonged approval by a very wide-awake audience. Although it was listed as the final item on the program, all four singers returned to the stage flourishing champagne glasses for a celebratory finale with “Brindisi” (Drinking Song) from La Traviata. This “toast” was the ideal way to end what will be the first of many successful Melbourne performances of “Opera for All”.
Heather Leviston reviewed BMW Opera for All, presented by BMW Group Australia in partnership with Opera Australia at Melbourne’s Federation Square on February 4, 2023.