★★★★☆ A hugely enjoyable staple of Adelaide’s cultural diet.

Elder Hall, University of Adelaide
July 23, 2017

For an Italian, singing is in the bloodstream. Is there any Italian who doesn’t love opera?

For the past three years, the organisers of Carnavale, the Italian Festival in Adelaide, have put together a feast of opera delights showcased as Operativo. The recipe is simple, the ingredients mostly delightful and delicious: to a basic mix of opera’s best loved numbers add a quartet of singers, a pianist and a master of ceremonies, all from Italian backgrounds. It’s a sure-fire recipe for success. Judging by the enthusiasm which filled the Elder Hall at the University of Adelaide on a dismal mid-winter afternoon, the audience keeps coming back for more.

To be frank, the singers are not evenly balanced, but they are all seasoned performers and know how to milk an opera aria and strut their stuff. Let’s move the metaphor from milk to wine, another great Italian preoccupation, almost from the day of birth.

Teresa La Rocca’s soprano is like a big, full-blooded cabernet, florid and blustery, that takes command of the palette. Catriona Barr’s mezzo-soprano is a less demonstrative merlot, somewhat more demure and self-effacing. Brenton Spiteri’s tenor is a cheeky, spritzy drop, a young sauvignon blanc. Mario Bellanova’s baritone packs a wallop, a mature shiraz that takes no prisoners.

The determining factor in this vintage is the cellar itself. Elder Hall boasts the most generous and felicitous acoustics in the country, beloved of string players and singers alike. A word spoken or sung from that stage can sound like the Sermon on the Mount. It cajoles a singer into thinking he or she must fill its glorious resonance to the brim. It’s almost too easy to sound well in that hall, and therein the danger. Overall, Operativo’s quartet traversed the gamut of dynamics from loud to very loud. (The audience lapped all this up, of course, egging the singers on further.) A pity there were so few moments of poetic nuance in the presentation of this banquet.

For this listener, some of the most beautiful moments were provided by the pianist Michael Ierace, particularly in the two solo pieces which provided the aperitifs for both halves of the programme: an Offenbach-ish waltz dished up by an elderly Rossini and a brisque waltz borrowed from Puccini’s Musetta. Ierace’s nimble fluidity and understated, unflappable poise provided the most consistently rewarding music-making of the entire afternoon.

And it was indeed a very long afternoon. Aside of Ierace’s two solos, there were 13 numbers, split down the middle by a 33-minute intermission (pity the poor organiser who attempted to prise the audience from the wine counter in the foyer). If one number had to be cut, I would have excised the very first solo, Che faro from Gluck’s Orfeo, which only barely made it to an all-Italian table and which was marred by poor diction. But this minor disappointment was swept aside by the music which followed, the famous love duet at the close of Monteverdi’s Poppea (which, ironically, scholars like the late Alan Curtis now tell us may not have been written by Monteverdi at all). How wonderful to acknowledge Monteverdi in this year to celebrate the 450th anniversary of his birth! Many in the audience may not have heard a note of his music before; it doesn’t quite fit the Pavarotti white-handkerchief mold. It did not matter that it was more Verdi than Monteverdi; musicology was not on the menu of this programme.

What filled out the programme was familiar fare from Verdi, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Verdi, Bellini, Verdi, Delibes and more Verdi to end – the famous quartet from Rigoletto which has become something of a staple dessert course at Operativo banquets. Like the other offerings, it was tossed off with great panache and gay abandon, sweeping the willing audience along in its wake.

But there was more dessert to follow the desert: La Traviata’s intoxicating Brindisi with a few too many splashes of vermouth was followed by a roistering rendition of Funiculi, funicula. The audience lapped it all up, hand-clapping but, strangely, not quite joining in the familiar chorus.

The master chef of the event was the indomitable and irrepressible Eugene Ragghianti, who is the Carnevale and Special Events Manager of the Italian Co-ordinating Committee. His witty and at times risqué narration blended the elements of the banquet like the perfect Italian masterchef-maestro that is his alter ego. Ragghianti has a large and winning stage presence; he has so much more to offer than mere narrations behind a podium. Let’s hope that future Operativi can coax him out to centre stage for some song and even dance, but with fewer Donald Trump gags, please.

A fourth Operativo has been announced for September 2018. The event is always hugely enjoyable. It is already a staple in Adelaide’s cultural calendar-diet and greatly appreciated by its largely Italian audience. But Operativo should not be allowed to rest of its laurels. Like the Monteverdi duet this year, it would do well to seek out more that is novel and unfamiliar, to refresh its time-honed formula.

If there are no similar equivalents in other Australian cities, there should be. Ragghianti would do well to set up a network of franchises. Heaven knows, Adelaide needs to export its wares to the wider world.


Classical Music, Arts