Llewellyn Hall, Canberra
November 19, 2016

Any outdoor event is at the mercy of the gods. Predicted unstable weather conditions meant that Canberra’s Voices in the Forest – now in its sixth year – was held in Australian National University’s Llewellyn Hall rather than at the National Arboretum, despite what turned out to be a pleasant evening. The Hall was filled to capacity, however, with an audience just as eager for the music as they might have been for the forest. The concert began with Strauss’ blazing Also Sprach Zarathustra – the Voices in the Forest Orchestra conducted by Roland Peelman, the brass section standing behind the orchestra – but the momentum was brought to a halt after the first number by the officious welcoming of dignitaries and listing of sponsors.

The warm, mellow voice of Australian mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell brought the focus back to the music, however, with a bright-eyed rendition of the Séguidilla from Carmen, kicking off a series of opera favourites – Una voce poco fa from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Voi, che sapete from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Carmen’s Habanera, L’amour est un oisseau rebelle. She sung alternating slots with American lyric tenor Richard Troxell – a consummate entertainer with a captivatingly powerful, burnished voice that filled the concert hall. His La donna é mobile had a charming bounce to it and he sung his upbeat Questo o quella to the orchestra’s concertmaster Anna McMichael. The orchestra’s brass section were featured once again in Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man before an appearance from the headliner, Korean soprano Sumi Jo, capped off the first act. From the opening vocal flourish of Je veux vivre (from Gounod’s Roméo et Julliette) to its final stunning crescendo, Jo held the audience in thrall with her crystalline tone.

The Voices in the Forest Chorus – an amalgamation of the Canberra Choral Society and the Woden Valley Youth Choir – opened the second act with Va, pensiero, the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco. Tucked at the back of the deep Llewellyn Hall stage, their sound had been slightly muddy during the Habanera, but they fared better in Verdi’s anthem-like chorus, capturing its sweeping passion. While Russell and Troxell propelled the first act, the second was Jo’s, the soprano treating the audience to Vilja from Léhar’s The Merry Widow and Son vergin vezzosa from Bellini’s I Puritani. Jo’s voice is clear delicacy and shimmering flexibility – a brilliantly agile instrument with which she can hit pianissimo notes with pinpoint accuracy and have them unfurl improbably into rich crescendos that soar over the orchestra.

Jo was joined on stage by Russell for Belle nuite, Ô nuit d’amour from Les Contes d’Hoffman and then by the VITF Orchestra’s flute player, Virginia Taylor, for Adolphe Adam’s Bravura Variations on Ah, Vous dirai-je, Maman – better known in the English-speaking world as Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star. The comic-competitive duet saw Jo’s voice effortlessly matching the sparkling virtuosity of Taylor’s flute, as the two musicians chased each other up and done arpeggio figures and matched each other note for note in a playful, unison cadenza.

While much of the music in Voices in the Forest was fantastic, the format was clearly designed for an opulent, outdoor venue: three hours of music – which stretched to almost four in practice – and two generous 25-minute intervals in which to soak up trees and stars. The sprawling picnic/festival approach felt stifling, crammed into the hot concrete of the concert hall. Balance in the space was also an issue, the orchestra overpowering Russell’s low register at times and swamping the more delicate moments in Jo’s performances – though Troxell had no problem making himself heard.

The final act was lighter fare – showtunes. Russell’s performance of Memory from Cats was a highlight, as was Troxell and Jo’s duet Tonight, from West Side Story. Jo capped off the official programme with Glitter and be gay from Bernstein’s Candide before the encores, finishing with Rolf Løvland and Brendan Graham’s You raise me up, had the audience on their feet.

Sumi Jo performs A Tribute to Maria Callas at City Recital Hall, Sydney, November 21 and Melbourne Recital Hall, November 26

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