Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
April 9, 2018

Beethoven’s great concert aria Ah! perfido is a tall order for the most accomplished of singers. Its shifting moods require a soprano of imagination, who must move believably between fury, tenacity and despair while also retaining a sense of the aria’s overall arc.

Soprano Nicole Car, in her debut appearance with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, seems to understand this challenge, and met it with spirit. Usually sung by more dramatic sopranos (to give you an idea, Nilsson and Varnay both recorded it), Car’s lighter timbre was tested by some of Beethoven’s difficult writing, with the closing chromatic runs not as glitteringly precise as they could be. Her Italian could also be punchier, particularly in the imperious opening recitative.

Nicole Car and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. All photos © Nic Walker

Yet Car impressed with her obvious dramatic commitment, bringing a lovely pathos to the cantilena where her peachy tone was at its most attractive. Paying particular attention to the phrase ‘Risparmiate quel cor, ferrite il mio’ (‘Spare that heart, strike at mine’), Car shows us an aggrieved woman still very much in love – her rendition shows great promise. Meanwhile, the ACO was on top form here, maintaining the ebb and flow of tension with ease, with the strings finding a lighter sound that demonstrates the debt Beethoven owes Mozart. Nice clarinet solos as well.

The orchestra opened the concert with a fluid account of the Overture and Dances from Handel’s Alcina. Lyrical in approach, care was taken with the smaller details but balanced with a sense of the architecture and pacing of Handel’s writing. They seemed on shakier ground with Mozart’s Symphony No 27, divided in two parts – while the Allegro was energetic, the fugato writing in the final movement could have been brought off with greater finesse.

Satü Vänskä and the ACO

Satü Vänskä had ample opportunity to show off the ACO’s newest family member, a 1726 Stradivarius, in a rich account of Beethoven’s Romance in F. With a sweetness of tone and some affecting phrasing, she brought pearliness to the high notes, easily handling the intricate interplay with the orchestra. The ACO was in fine fettle here, paying attention to the tricky double-dotted notes.

Elsewhere, the ACO ranged further afield with Puccini’s Crisantemi (you’ll recognise some of its themes from the final act of Manon Lescaut) and the Prelude to the final act of La Traviata, a nod to Car’s recent role debut. The orchestra acquitted themselves well in both, capturing the elegiac quality of Puccini’s long melodic lines and Verdi’s pathos laden writing.

Verdi made another appearance on the program, with Car giving us the Ave Maria from Otello. While she sidestepped the final pianissimo with a fuller throated note, and her reading of the recitative will reach greater heights with more time, this was a heartfelt account that showed promise. Particularly noteworthy was the way Car slightly bleached the colour from her tone in the repeats of ‘prega per noi’ (‘pray for us’). Desdemona must surely be on the horizon for her.

She also impressed with Hildegard’s Ave Maria, which led into Verdi’s with its long, melismatic lines. Dim lighting and sympathetic playing from the ACO made it a particularly atmospheric selection.

Richard Tognetti, Nicole Car and the ACO

However, Car’s first aria, Mozart’s Basta, vincesti – Ah non lasciarmi, was taken cautiously, with her middle voice sounding occluded in some parts. Although not as expressive as she was in the later selections, she still managed to bring a sense of dignity to Dido’s entreaties.

Elsewhere, Car did justice to Mozart’s Misera, dove son! Ah! non son io che parlo, which played to her strengths. Singing with taste and dipping into her lower register, she delivered the challenging work with assurance, showing commendable control in navigating the legato lines and declamatory outbursts. Impassioned and precise, her singing was particularly special here.

Though you sense that Car has outgrown, in temperament at least, Mozart’s Chi sá, chi sá, qual sia, she brought out its playful qualities while still putting across the consternation of the piece’s heroine. And in an encore, Beethoven’s No, non turbati… Ma tu tremi, o mio Tesoro? was given a committed reading, the rosy bloom of Car’s soprano meltingly lovely.

Nicole Car is on national tour with the ACO until April 24