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From Gluck to Philip Glass, Elena Xanthoudakis’s repertoire spans centuries. But the bel canto repertoire occupies a special place, and this month, as Xanthoudakis prepares to open as Gilda in Opera Queensland’s Rigoletto, she’ll also see another project come to fruition. Jewels of the Bel Canto, her first solo aria disc, features Xanthoudakis and the Royal Northern Sinfonia with Maestro Richard Bonynge in a selection of arias by the great bel canto composers.
Since 2011, Xanthoudakis has been a Borletti Buitoni Trust Artist, and it was the Trust who supported this album. “They decided I should make an album so Signum Classics and the BBT put this together really.” Her agent brought Bonynge into the picture, she says, “and all parties were keen to work with each other so as if by magic, it came together!”
The album is something of a tribute to the Greek-Australian soprano’s musical heritage. “My love of bel canto repertoire has been inspired by years of listening to both my idols, the Greek Maria Callas and the Australian, Dame Joan Sutherland,” Xanthoudakis writes in her own notes to the album. “These two iconic, though very different sopranos reflect my heritage and have inspired me in different ways, to perform this rewarding repertoire.” And she was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with bel canto master Bonynge on the recording. “We had a lovely time working over the arias in Switzerland,” she says, “and discussing between ourselves which variations did and didn't work. I came with far too many possibilities and really needed to decide which ones we liked!”
Xanthoudakis is passionate about this high flying and virtuosic music. “I absolutely love the genius melodies!” she enthuses. “Whether long, tragic lines or fast, playful lines, there are plenty of opportunities to express and use colour – something I think is very important, to bring music to life!” Many of bel canto’s greatest tragic and comic heroines are represented here, from the Donizetti’s mischievous Norina (“I love her damned outrageous cheek,” says Xanthoudakis) and tomboyish Marie to Bellini’s doomed Giulietta and of course Lucia di Lammermoor, whose haunting Act I aria includes a luxury cameo by Australian mezzo Catherine Carby as Alisa. There’s even a relative rarity in the form of “Ami alfin” from Rossini’s Mathilde di Shabran; Xanthoudakis is one of the few sopranos in the world with the title role under her belt.
Alongside the three acknowledged giants of bel canto opera, Xanthoudakis has also included a piece of early Verdi, Medora’s “Non so le tetre immagini” from Il corsaro. “Although Verdi is such a distinctive composer with his own musical identity,” she explains, “there is much that he has taken with him from the bel canto. I believe his gift for a melodic line was schooled in the bel canto.” The aria from Il corsaro, she points out, was written “at the height of bel canto singing. It is strophic, and Verdi, quite the purist, has written out his own variations rather than leaving that to the devices and imagination of the singer ... It is a beautiful, expressively lilting and decorative line – I can't imagine it without bel canto preceding it.”
Jewels of the Bel Canto will be released online on March 10th by Signum Classics, and in UK retailers by the end of the month, with worldwide release to follow in April. Both a snapshot of Xanthoudakis’s artistry and a nod to a grand tradition, it promises to be an important calling card for a soprano whose star – in bel canto and beyond – is definitely on the rise.
Elena Xanthodakis is in Opera Queensland’s Rigoletto from March 15-29.