Melbourne might have missed out on fully staged operas from Opera Australia this year, but the concert given by American tenor Michael Fabiano in the much-lauded acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall certainly provided a major consolation. The concert was considerably shorter than the advertised two hours, yet nobody would have felt in the least short-changed given the immense vocal and emotional power invested in every single item on the program by this international star.
Fabiano’s fairly informal manner between items changed to establish the atmosphere of each piece before he sang. From the very first note of the collection of three songs by Puccini, from Inno a Diana, voice matched text. His voice rang out with “Gloria”, vibrant and bell-like in this plea for protection, a sense of harnessed power generating huge excitement – the Wow! factor palpable. Having the acoustic blinds completely raised allowed the Hall to provide the full force of its resonant magic. Not that this concert was all rock solid phenomenally powerful high notes. The second Puccini song, “Terra e mare”, began and ended on a gentler note, Fabiano’s voice most beautiful in soft but heartfelt yearning. “Canto d’anime” saw him use facial expression and gesture to strong dramatic effect, with the final soaring note being an impressive climax to this set.
Like much of the program, the Puccini songs were not familiar to most in the audience, unlike the aria that followed them. Fabiano was Cavaradossi as he sang “E luce van le stelle…” from Tosca. Ardent, and encompassing the wide dynamic range, expressive phrasing, colourful tone and Italienate soulfulness of this famous aria, he held us entranced. He held back nothing and was greeted with unrestrained enthusiasm.
The set of three mélodies by Duparc saw thoughtful interpretations and, again, a wide dynamic range, although the upper end was perhaps more on the robustly operatic side than is usually heard in French Art songs. Nevertheless, Fabiano’s ability to create the appropriate atmosphere was a feature of these songs, particularly at the end of “La vie antérieure” and the beginning of “Phydilé”. An almost spoken ending of “Le manoir de Rosemonde” was preceded by plenty of passion and “bite”. But it was the first of the four Tosti songs that summoned up the most intense dramatic thrust for the evening.
Sounding totally in his element in these wonderful Italian songs, Fabiano set the scene by assuming a nonchalant air, hand in pocket before mining the drama of “L’ultima canzone”. The audience became the bride as he pointed and gestured, a wounded heart by turns pensive, violently accusing – what a fabulous top note! – and lamenting. It was a tour de force. The final three songs told of yearnings for lost love, ending with the more upbeat, expansive “L’alba sepàra dalla luce l’ombra”.
The second part of the program was devoted to five operatic arias. Piano transcriptions of operas are not the most gratifying accompaniments to perform, but Laurent Philippe was commendable in his attempts to match the formidable power of his Fabiano’s performance, despite playing with the piano lid only at half stick. Although played with skill and sensitivity, even the songs were sometimes a little dynamically contained. Perhaps having a lower piano lid facilitated communication between the two. Whatever the reason, I have never seen a singer make more extensive use of this instrument as a prop; whether to lean on or clutch, it was a physical part of the performance.
Beginning with “Lamento di Federico” from Cilea’s L’arlesiana, Fabiano’s passionate performance and vibrant singing, with some supremely well controlled long high notes, prompted cheers of approval from a thrilled audience. An atmosphere of quiet prayerfulness was juxtaposed with fervent outpouring in Jean’s aria from Massenet’s Hérodiade, followed by an even greater sense of “leaving nothing in the tank” as he committed to “Come un bel dì di Maggio” from Giordano’s Andréa Chénier.
Lensky’s aria from Yevgény Onégin was the only item not sung in either Italian or French. It was also one of the most familiar items on the program, Tchaikovsky’s haunting melody a heart-wrenching expression of noble yearning. Fabiano began facing away from the audience, seeming to enter into Lensky’s world. The increasing vehemence of despair led to a soft reprise brimming with pathos, the singer as visibly moved as the audience.
After a superbly controlled Verdi aria from Il Corsaro, with its changes of mood from heroic lament to declamatory bite and authoritative resolution, it was time for the bows and flowers and a little speech. Fabiano had some trouble suppressing the enthusiasm of the audience, but his compliments and charm were not needed to have the audience on side – we were positively in awe of this phenomenal singer. A standing ovation followed the two encores: an aria from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera and, inevitably, back to Puccini with “Nessun dorma”.
Now it’s up to Opera Australia to give us a Fabiano encore with a fully-staged opera starring this extraordinary artist – in Melbourne.
Heather Leviston reviewed Michael Fabiano in Concert, presented by Opera Australia at the Melbourne Recital Centre on February 12, 2023.