When an operatic superstar such as the great bass Ferruccio Furlanetto performs a recital in the much-lauded acoustic of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, it feels ungrateful to complain that Melbourne has been neglected by Opera Australia this year. True, there will be no fully staged operas, but there will be a diverse range of superb music and brilliant singing.
We have had a succession of some of the best international operatic talents give concert performances in Melbourne, but they have often shared the program with associate artists who have performed alone, in bigger venues or with amplification. On this occasion, Furlanetto and his associate artist, pianist Natalia Sidorenko, performed as one seamlessly integrated unit for the whole program.
Chosen repertoire before interval comprised two whole song cycles: Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs) and Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death,plus three songs by Rachmaninoff. The second half of the program comprised six arias that represent operas in which Furlanetto has made his name.
The Brahms’ song cycle was probably the least expected inclusion, but it was in keeping with the emphasis on death and loss that seemed to inform much of the program. Composed in 1896, after his friend Clara Schumann had suffered a stroke and a year before his death, it is considered to be Brahms’ musical last will and testament. Three of the texts, taken from the Old Testament of the Lutheran Bible, speak of death and life’s transience while the fourth, from the New Testament, ends the cycle on a more optimistic note. Furlanetto’s sombre, darkly resonant timbre was a perfect fit. These songs are vocally demanding in their wide vocal range and dynamics as well as requiring dramatic artistry. From the first song it was obvious that Furlanetto possesses a formidable command of vocal colour. From the sepulchral funereal beginning to declamatory outbursts of golden focused tone on even the highest notes and a final expressive pianissimo, his voice was always alluring. What ensued was equally impressive in its attention to detail on the part of both singer and pianist.
Applause followed each item, understandable given the splendor of his voice, but it was clear that many in the audience were not accustomed to vocal recitals. A troop of latecomers barely had time to be seated before the Mussorgsky song cycle began, but a more important issue was the presentation of the program. Less than two pages of small writing gave a brief introduction to the background of the works and thumbnail sketch of their content. In dim light the information was virtually impossible to read so that quite a few people had thought it was already interval before the Rachmaninoff songs had started, with some scurrying back to their seats. Furlanetto’s singing of Songs and Dances of Death was brilliant – so much so that it was worth attending the concert just for these. He was absolutely on vocal home territory. But what a shame many members of the audience had only a vague idea – if that – as to what he was singing about. One of the things that has saved opera from being a rapidly dying art form has been the introduction of surtitles – often in two languages: the language being sung and the language of the home audience. It is a terrible shame that Opera Australia failed to do composers, artists and the audience proper courtesy by making this concert experience as complete as possible.
Furlanetto himself did everything possible to convey meaning and create emotional impact with facial expression, body language and supreme vocal colour. The conversation between the anguished mother and Death in the opening song “Lullaby” was particularly striking in its contrasts – a caressing, wheedling voice for Death as he takes the child. Sidorenko was terrific in these songs too. The strong chords for Death’s entrance, rocking rhythms for a cynical sounding Death for “Serenade”; a rumbling wonderfully atmospheric “Trepak” with the heavy tread of its dance rhythms and final reflective chords after the desolate unaccompanied passage; and, finally, “The Field Marshall” – with its variety of moods: busy, declamatory, expansive – as the Death musters the slaughtered troops.
The Rachmaninoff songs were much more romantic in tone. “O stay, my love, forsake me not”, an impassioned plea, being softer and more overtly melodic than what had gone before. “In the silent night”, nostalgic and also passionate, ended with a splendidly sustained pianissimo. A billowing “Spring Waters” with a rock solid top note along the way, ended the first half of the program on a triumphant note.
The three Mozart arias: Sarastro’s aria from The Magic Flute, Figaro’s “Non più andrai” from The Marriage of Figaro, and Leporellos’s “Catalogue Aria” from Don Giovanni were very different in character and showcased Furlanetto’s versatility. Although he still had the music stand in front of him, he did not look at the music once, preferring to characterise the roles physically. His witty Leporello was a huge favourite with the audience as he communicated the Don’s conquests with considerable relish.
Moving from Mozart comedy to two death scenes, there was a slight change in the order of items by Massenet and Mussorgsky – a wise choice because Boris Godounov’s Death Scene was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening, eliciting cheers and enthusiastic applause, and might have undermined the effect of of Massenet’s Don Quichotte if it had come first. Both scenes are gifts for a first-rate singer who is also a compelling actor, and I’m sure I was not alone in feeling privileged to witness Furlanetto sing these and the main bass aria from his final signature role on the program. Brooding and heartfelt in its towering anguish, “Ella giammai m’amò” (She never loved me) from Verdi’s Don Carlos was a fitting conclusion since it was the role that brought him into the spotlight at the beginning of an illustrious career. An encore of Aleko’s aria from Rachmaninoff’s opera of the same name was the final thread in this gripping interweaving of German, Italian, French and Russian classics.
Heather Leviston reviewed Ferruccio Furlanetto in Concert, presented by Opera Australia at the Melbourne Recital Ccentre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on April 22, 2023.