Glories of the French Baroque opened with the lively overture to Jean-Philippe Rameau’s penultimate opera Les Paladins, first performed in 1760, dispatched with vigour by students of the Australian National Academy of Music led by Benjamin Bayl at the harpsichord. Playing on modern instruments, with violinist Shaun Lee-Chen in the concertmaster’s chair, the students brought charming life to the lilting inégale of the opera’s Air gay Loure and robust panache to the drums, tambourines and trilling flutes of the Air trés gay.
Dance music formed a significant part of Rameau’s opéra-ballets, and in this concert his dances proved an apt device for framing the arias, performed by American soprano Brenda Rae, making her Australian debut.
Soprano Brenda Rae. Photo © Kristin Hoebermann
Rae is a soprano in demand. She sang the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor with Santa Fe Opera earlier in the year and kicked off her 2017/2018 season with a Queen of the Night for Bayerische Staatsoper on tour in Japan, and she’ll return to the company in November to sing the title role in Barrie Kosky’s production of Die Schweigsame Frau.
Hearing her in the Melbourne Recital Centre it wasn’t hard to see why her star is on the rise. Welcomed to the stage by the flutes, she more than matched them for sparkling agility with her shining coloratura in Je vole, Amour – a fluttering aria in which the opera’s heroine Argie, held captive by her wicked guardian, is entreating love to lend her wings. Rae brought exquisite shape and expression to every phrase and a seemingly effortless vocal security across her range.
She brought a darker hue to Tristes Apprêts, páles flambaux, Télaïre’s beautiful grief-stricken aria from Castor et Pollux, her entries delicate before her sound unfurled with anguish, while La Folie’s Formons les plus brillants concerts from Platée was infused with a bright, quirky madness, Rae delivering the recitative from a platform behind the orchestra before moving to the front of the stage for the aria’s laughing melodies. Rae’s cadenzas were both brilliantly funny and spectacularly executed. Bayl passed the soprano an umbrella for the stormy Orage that played her off, Rameau’s vivid orchestral painting conjuring wind, rain and thunder from the percussion against wildly agitated strings.
From the muscular overture to Zaroastre, the second half of the concert featured the ANAM musicians’ wind section more prominently, sighing motifs from the flutes punctuating fiery exchanges in the strings. The ANAM bassoons deserve a special mention. Rameau had them working like dogs across the entire evening, but Matthew Ventura, Carol Wang and Jenna Schijf handled the relentless flurries of notes with aplomb.
Rae’s Sur nos coeurs épuise tes armes danced with virtuosity, while her Un horizon serein (Alphise’s aria from Les Boréades) saw her mood pivot dramatically from clear, crystalline stillness to tempestuously lashing storms. The finale featured two excerpts from Les Indes galantes, itself a collection of standalone acts. Vaste empire des mers (vast empire of the sea), saw Rae and the band navigating more of Rameau’s storm-music, while the exultant aria Régnez, plaisirs (reign of pleasures) brought the concert to a close with trumpet fanfares and Rae shooting up into the vocal stratosphere.
Throughout the evening the ANAM musicians played with a fierce vitality and for the most part a tight, uniform precision. The orchestra’s high-intensity sound was particularly effective in Rameau’s storm scenes, but there could have been some quieter moments, and the robust playing in the strings meant some of the subtler colours of the orchestration were lost. There were moments when the details of Rae’s more delicate passages were obscured under the ensemble’s sound.
But this was a fantastic concert and it’s a shame it was one night only. Rae was stunning and we can only hope she returns to Australia again soon. Though she never spoke a word between arias, she was a marvellous, characterful entertainer, bringing loads of personality to each role. At the end of the night, she kicked off her shoes for an encore that saw her drop down from the stage to sing up and down the aisles, before sliding with impossible grace back up on to the stage (no mean feat in a floor-length dress) to wind up standing with a smile next to the conductor as the final chords struck – all with the impeccably sparkling sound she’d delivered all night.