Appointed Artistic Director of Victorian Opera in 2013, Richard Mills’ passion for bel canto (beautiful singing) opera and the music of Vincenzo Bellini in particular soon became apparent. 2014 saw a sold out concert performance of Norma at the Melbourne Recital Centre and a concert performance of I Puritani at Hamer Hall the following year, this time featuring another great passion – the voice of Jessica Pratt. An internationally acclaimed exponent of bel canto repertoire, Pratt subsequently starred in concert performances of La sonnambula in 2017 and I Capuleti e i Montecchi in 2018, again at Hamer Hall. It has been quite an achievement – capped off this year with “Bravo Bellini”.
In keeping with a ten-year milestone of Bellini concerts, “Bravo Bellini” returned to Victorian Opera’s first Bellini concert under Mills’ baton and with the same orchestra, Orchestra Victoria, with the Sinfonia from Norma. St Kilda’s Palais Theatre has been one of the chief venues for Victorian Opera performances, almost exclusively with the orchestra in the pit. As had been the case for Victorian Opera’s semi-staged performance of Capriccio two nights earlier, the orchestra was on stage behind the singers for this concert. The Palais is no Hamer Hall or Elisabeth Murdoch Hall acoustically, but an improvement in the clarity and immediacy of the orchestral sound for the second concert suggested that where you are sitting makes a significant difference at the Palais. Although the orchestra was a little further forward and the back curtain had been replaced by panels – some atmospherically lit for different pieces – it would seem that the circle is a better place to sit than the stalls. The Sinfonia was crisp, clear and colourful as Bellini’s melodies created contrasting moods – now dramatically martial, now lyrically nocturnal.
Before the Sinfonia, Richard Mills spoke to the audience – “Let’s make this a bit informal.” Some listeners might have found his information about the composer and each opera’s plot overly lengthy, but most would have found his articulate accounts illuminating and helpful. Although there were surtitles, it was helpful to contextualize what was about to be performed, particularly as the program didn’t even include a list of the items to be sung. Besides which, Mills’ obvious devotion to Bellini’s music was infectious, and as a composer himself, his keen interest in Bellini’s influences and practices and sympathy for his frustrations made the concert quite personal.
In several respects this concert also had an element of the retrospective. Mills has been a huge admirer and champion of Jessica Pratt’s spectacular talent. He has also given great support to Carlos E. Bárcenas, nurturing his exceptional gifts in a series of increasingly difficult tenor roles. Singing the role of Norma’s faithless Roman lover Pollione, Bárcenas sang the Act 1 Recitativo and Cavatina “Svanir le voci!” / “Meco all’altar di Venere” with distinction, firm and secure on ringing top notes and showing excellent control and refinement of tone in softer passages. As Flavio, Pollione’s friend, young tenor, Alastair Cooper-Golec displayed a confident stage presence but his voice was somewhat lacking in focus and power.
Pratt’s star quality was immediately acknowledged by enthusiastic applause as she entered for the Recitativo and one of the most notoriously difficult six minutes or so of singing in the whole bel canto repertoire. “Casta Diva” requires the ultimate in composure, breath control, vocal agility and beautiful tone to do it justice, and Jessica Pratt came as close to perfection as possible this side of Heaven. There was a tremendous outburst of applause and cheering after the initial cavatina and an even greater one after the final cabaletta with its exacting coloratura and sustained high notes.
Following these substantial excerpts from Norma came some highlights from I Puritani. Richard Mills pointed out that the tenor part was written for Rubini, a tenor of singular gifts with an upper extension employing full-bodied voice rather than a thinned out head voice for the top notes – ranging above top C in this case. Bárcenas has long been a specialist in this department and his duet with Pratt was much applauded. Their strenuous duet was repeated as an encore – sounding more relaxed second time round. It wasn’t all just the thrill of extreme singing though. Bárcenas’ Italienate style complemented Pratt’s long floating phrases and both singers spun out the quietest phrases with superb breath control and a refined tone that carried with ease. Pratt’s evenness of tone was remarkable – no matter what the leap in pitch or volume, her sound was beautiful and of a piece. That well-worn description “seamless legato” could have been designed for her voice. Technically stunning, she also displayed an expressive musical imagination.
Unlike many concert performances, the excerpts from Norma and I Puritani were sung without scores, and even though a score was used for the Beatrice di Tenda highlights, minimal use was made of it. After the Sinfonia came the Cavatina Respiro io qui, the Act One Finale and the Act Two Introduction and Finale from an opera that is rarely (possibly never) heard in Melbourne. Comprising the whole after-interval program, it was a sizeable slice of the opera that Richard Mills would undoubtedly love to conduct some time in the near future. With a singer like Jessica Pratt featuring as one of bel canto opera’s strongest, most heroic female characters, it would be irresistible.
After the cheering and rapturous applause had finally subsided, the woman behind me remarked, “That was special.” To which her friend replied, “Very special!” Indeed. We were treated to something extraordinary that people spend a great deal of money to experience overseas. Bravo Victorian Opera!
Heather Leviston reviewed “Bravo Bellini”, presented by Victorian Opera at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda on September 2, 2023.