Great voices and a concert setting helps make sense of plot.

Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre

August 23, 2014

In his aptly titled book Opera, musicologist and Cambridge professor Edward J. Dent wrote “…noise and vulgarity were foreign to [Bellini’s] temperament, and his music shows a delicacy and refinement that were indeed rare in the Italian theatre of his time”. Vincezo Bellini’s Norma, first performed in 1831 at La Scala, Milan, featuring the legendary soprano Giuditta Pasta, is testament to this delicacy and refinement, requiring a small but talented troupe of singers. On the whole, for this concert performance, Victorian Opera amply delivered. Without sets, costuming, or choreography, Norma was stripped back to its essence: beautiful music, and flowing lines of melody. Rather than a hindrance, we as the audience were afforded the luxury of focusing entirely on the drama of the music, and the expression of the singers, without distraction.

Spanish soprano Saioa Hernandez made her Australian debut in the title role of Norma. Hernandez’s voice is altogether attractive, with a dark and luscious tone. In Act II Hernandez really demonstrated the power and beauty of her voice and her fine dramatic skills. With pathos aplenty she launched into the dramatic recitative Dormono entrambi … non vedran la mano, during which Norma battles with the decision to kill her children, or allow them live with the shame of their illegitimacy. Here, and for the remainder of the opera, Hernandez’s singing was consistently beautiful and heartbreaking, receiving a rapturous ovation from the audience. However, despite some moments of sheer beauty, Hernandez’s interpretation of Casta Diva suffered due to cumbersome coloratura, and some inconsistency between her upper and lower registers. The weight of her voice occasionally dragged down her intonation, sounding at times more labored than glorious.

Australia’s Rosario La Spina gave a lovely performance of Pollione, shining especially in his Act I cavatina and cabaletta Meco all’ altar di Venere. La Spina’s voice is sweet and expressive, with an Italianate quality perfectly suited to Bellini. Although a concert performance of an opera requires little more than for singers to stand and deliver, La Spina gave an earnest and moving interpretation of Pollione, inspiring sympathy from his audience, even though his character is quite a manipulative and fickle one. Likewise, Daniel Sumegi, stalwart of the Australian opera scene, was a solid and consistent Oroveso. His loud and penetrating voice resounded in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, and commanded full attention in his opening Ite sul colle, o Druidi. I had worried that, giving so much of his voice at the beginning of the opera, Sumegi might have run out of steam, but I needn’t have feared: his Oroveso was steady and well-sung throughout.

If Bellini had been in the audience for this particular performance, I suspect he might have renamed his opera Adalgisa, because Nicole Car was without doubt the star of the show. Her voice is at once rich, sweet, crystalline, moving, focused, and her onstage presence superb. Robed in regal purple and virginal white Car made her entrance, and even without sets and costumes to aid our imaginations, we as the audience were drawn into the temple of Irminsul, to find Adalgisa praying at the altar. Although the role is often performed by a mezzo soprano, the music comfortably fitted Car’s voice, and her opening aria Sgombra e la sacra selva was a lesson in bel canto singing: consistent in tone from the bottom of her range right to the top, and unceasingly lovely. Car is already among the top operatic performers in this country; a fantastic achievement considering she’s not yet 30. Following her recent win at the Nueue Stimmen International Singing Competition, Car’s star is likely to rapidly rise, and we can consider ourselves fortunate to have witnessed such a fabulous artist at this exciting stage of her career.

Carlos Bárcenas’ and Lee Abrahmsen’s brief appearances as Flavio and Clotilde respectively were both worthy of notable mentions. Scientist-turned operatic tenor, Bárcenas is blessed with a sweet voice, and fantastic breath control allowing him to sing uncommonly long phrases and to  project his voice without ever sounding too loud or strained. Similarly, Abrahmsen’s brief moments on stage afforded the audience a glimpse of her luscious lyric soprano. The chorus, prepared by Pheobe Briggs, was generally pretty solid, bringing the opera to a close with their rousing interjections during Deh! non volerli vittime. Of note were the men of the chorus, featuring a small but mighty cluster of tenors, whose collective singing rang out above the orchestra. Although occasionally wayward, Orchestra Victoria, led by Richard Mills, gave an energetic reading of the score, particularly during the dramatic overture. Lisa-Maree Amos’s flute solo during Casta Diva was a memorable highlight, performed with requisite ‘delicacy and refinement’.

On the whole, those present in the sold-out auditorium were treated to an excellent evening of singing. The simplicity of a concert, rather than staged, production of Norma allowed the audience to make sense of a sometimes convoluted and incredible plot, and meant Melbourne concert goers could have the opportunity to attend an otherwise rarely performed opera. We were lucky to have a cast able to deliver a high quality and consistent performance, featuring the crème of Australia’s operatic crop, with a young international star to boot. The bar has been set high for next year’s performance of Bellini’s I Puritani, with its infamous mad scene, starring Jessica Pratt as Elvira. 

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