Soprano Emma Matthews remains just as beloved as she’s always been, if the sustained, warm applause that greeted her last Thursday was any indication. Now based in Perth as WAAPA’s Head of Classical Voice and Opera Studies, and largely absent from Opera Australia’s stages for the past few seasons, this was a highly welcome return to Sydney.

Emma Matthews. Photo © Carolyn Mackay Clark

After all, few singers can tease so much pleasure and pathos from an evening of well-worn Mozart arias. Partnered by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Umberto Clerici, its Principal Cellist, Matthews did that and more, creating mini dramas where most recitalists would offer up generalised emotion.

Vocally, the soprano was in fine if imperfect form, sometimes struggling to cut through moments of denser orchestration. Some of the more difficult passagework was also dispatched less fluently than she has shown herself capable of in the past. But no matter – Matthews brought oodles of personality to the stage, drawing from a wide palette of emotion and colour.

Voi avete un cor fedele showed off the richness of her middle voice, which has retained all of its creamy lustre. An insertion aria written by Mozart in 1775 for Baldassare Galuppi’s Le nozze, Matthews forewent the usual soubrette affectations for a knowing quality that made the piece infinitely more involving. Her usual attention to text was on display, while her innate sense of line and rhythm made this more introspective aria acquire a sense of urgency and emotional turbulence.

Mozart’s own Le Nozze di Figaro followed. Though what appeared to be a coordination problem in the closing moments of Dove sono necessitated a do-over, the soprano gave a deeply felt, authoritative reading that makes you long to see her Contessa. She brought a plaintive, yearning quality and a generous breadth of line that did the aria justice.

Matthews’ bell-like tone was meanwhile heard to best advantage in Ah se in ciel, benigne stelle, while her encore, a charming Voi che sapete, was the cherry on top of a satisfying evening.

The soprano received sensitive, tasteful support from the SSO, who also impressed in orchestral music by Schubert. Clerici showed a fine understanding of how to shape the music in extracts from Rosamunde, which had an ebullience and flow that elevated the material’s more pedestrian qualities. The composer’s Third Symphony was given a similarly exciting reading, punchy and athletic with care given to phrasing.