Election done and (almost) dusted and notwithstanding the large screen in the main foyer tuned to the ABC’s election coverage, a large audience settled into Llewellyn Hall for the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s popular annual opera gala.

Jessica Cottis and the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. Photo supplied

As is usually the case with opera (and even elections), there were weird story lines. In one, a lead character is dead before the opera even starts. In another, a noble(?)man’s intended infidelity with a girl on her wedding night sees his wife and the girl devise disguises and tricky plans to catch him out. In still another, a Spanish nobleman is secretly imprisoned so he can’t expose a rival’s crimes.  Then, in another Spanish setting, a brave toreador, before going to the pub, wows the girls outside with a song about his courageous exploits in the bullring.

Can you guess the operas?  Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Beethoven’s Fidelio, and Bizet’s Carmen – excerpts from all were featured, along with some others, in this most entertaining concert designed to be something of a potted history of opera stretching back some 400 years.

Making her second appearance in as many months with the CSO, conductor Jessica Cottis, embarked on a program that had been devised by the late Richard Gill, who was to conduct the performance. She paid a touching tribute to Gill, who was the CSO’s inaugural artistic director and chief conductor from 2001 to 2005. Gill put the orchestra on a very strong musical foundation, in every moment thinking of the future.

Cottis was an inspired choice. The orchestra responded brilliantly to her conducting style, which at one minute was fluid and expressive, and, at another, animated and explosive, and everything in between.

Opening with the Overture to Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Cottis turned to the audience to conduct the fanfare from the brass, who were high above the audience in the gallery. The acoustic in the room caused some timing issues between the brass and orchestra’s on-stage percussion, but it was dramatically effective, coming as it did, as a surprise to the audience.

Cottis drew many special moments from the orchestra. Teresa Rabe’s flute was simply gorgeous, with exquisite phrasing and expression in Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits, albeit with the strings a touch too soft. A beautiful duet between Rabe’s flute and Rowan Phemister’s harp, a haunting solo from oboist Megan Pampling, and a stately and majestic trumpet from Justin Lingard were notable features of the selections from Bizet’s Carmen Suite. And there was a powerful and assured performance of Beethoven’s fourth attempt at an Overture for his only opera, Fidelio, which saw Cottis dancing on the podium.

The two soloists were inspired choices, too. Soprano Jacqueline Porter and bass-baritone, Jeremy Kleeman, fitted their diverse roles perfectly throughout the concert, even right through to Lehár’s The Merry Widow and Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, which closed the concert and included a special guest appearance by the ANU Chamber Choir, directed by countertenor Tobias Cole.

Porter and Kleeman seemed best suited to Mozart’s music in The Marriage of Figaro, not only with their enchanting voices, but also with their fine acting across five arias. Porter sang with superb expression and emotion as the Countess, contemplating her lost happiness in Dove sono i bei momenti. And as Figaro, Kleeman devising a scheme to outwit the count certainly had the audience convinced in Se vuol ballare, signor contino.

Later on, in two arias from La Bohème, the two soloists showed just how versatile they are – Kleeman, as Colline, pawning his overcoat to buy medicine for Mimì, who is on her deathbed (Vecchia zimarra), and Porter, as Mimì, in an earlier scene, sadly and reluctantly telling Rodolfo they must separate (Donde lieta uscì).

The voices of both soloists filled the large auditorium effortlessly, Kleeman’s rich timbres and Porter’s crystal clarity floating above Cottis’ perfectly measured orchestral volume.

In a concert, the CSO once again showed that it is the jewel in Canberra’s artistic crown.

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