The scurrying violins of the Overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro set the mood for the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra’s high-energy season opener. With lashing strings, biting accents and punchy brass, the HIP band raised the curtain on a dynamic concert that celebrated the orchestra’s fifth birthday, its late Artistic Director Richard Gill (with whom Rachael Beesley and Nicole van Bruggen started ARCO in 2013, off the back of a Victorian Opera production of Figaro) and its future, which – if this concert was anything to go by – the band is charging into at full tilt.
Jacqueline Porter, David Greco and the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra. Photo © Nick Gilbert
Mozart reportedly delivered the score to the Overture mere hours before The Marriage of Figaro premiered, and ARCO certainly captured its feverish energy before the final bars saw baritone arrive on stage, antique ruler in hand, to begin measuring up his bridal chamber as the titular Figaro.
The baritone charmingly preoccupied, Greco’s Cinque… dieci… venti… duet with soprano Jacqueline Porter – who, oddly given Greco’s ruler, did not have a new hat to show off – was the first of a series of duets and arias from Figaro. Greco shifted effortlessly from the gentle affection of the duet to wry, chuckling humour at the expense of the page Cherubino (whose wooing days are to be replaced with army life) in Ehi, capitano / Non più andrai and finally a stentorian iciness as the lecherous Count Almaviva in the duet E Susanna? / Crudel! Perché finora. Porter brought a silvery soprano to bear on the bubbly Cinque… dieci… venti…, soon laced with anxiety in her duet with the Count, before it took on a steely edge as the Countess in her E Susanna non vien! / Dove sono. The climax of the recitative, the Countess relating her betrayal by the Count, was hair-raising, before Porter slid into a lusher tone for the bittersweet aria, her sound unfurling triumphantly in the final stanza.
Nicole Van Bruggen and the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra. Photo © Nick Gilbert
In a nod to the often eclectic, pastiche programming of the 18th and 19th-centuries, the Figaro highlights were interwoven with the movements of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, performed here on basset clarinet – the instrument for which it was written, which dips into the register now covered by the bass clarinet – by Nicole Van Bruggen. While there were a few technical blemishes in the Allegro, the rapport between Van Bruggen, Beesley and the orchestra was evident and the cadenza was delightfully playful. Van Bruggen’s limpid tone over the swaying strings in the Adagio was particularly exquisite and the Rondo had a joyous lightness. While alternating with Figaro kept the first half’s momentum up, it also robbed the Clarinet Concerto of some of its impact and flow – despite connecting flourishes from Anthony Abouhamad on fortepiano – with the singers’ entries pulling focus from the music.
The energy only increased in the concert’s second half, with a muscular performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 5. The famous opening was delivered with forthright verve, Beesley and the orchestra giving a direct, refreshingly straightforward account devoid of soupy rubato or affections. Like the music of the first half, the Beethoven was performed without a conductor, and while there was the occasional moment where one might have been missed, this was a tight, driven performance. The winds in particular were on top form, Eduard Wesley’s oboe solo in the first movement a moment of peace amidst the first movement’s drama, while the horns blazed in the Scherzo. The lower strings tore into their entries like fiends while the transition to the supercharged fourth movement was handled magically. With the rapturous response the finale received from the audience, the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra’s year is off to an exciting start.
The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra performs Voyage of Musical Discovery at City Recital Hall on March 27