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Baroque Festival: Handel and Vivaldi Arias

Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall
04/04/2024 -  
Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto in D, RV 562a – Dorilla in Tempe, RV 709: “Rete, Iacci, e strali adopra” – Ottone in Villa, RV 729: “Leggi almeno, tiranna infedele” – La fida ninfa, RV 714: “Alma opressa da sorte”
George Frideric Handel Concerto grosso in B‑flat, Op.3 No.2, HWV 313 – Rinaldo, HWV 7: “Molto voglio” & “Lascia ch’io pianga” – Agrippina, HWV 6: “Ogni vento ch’ai porto lo spinga” – Concerto for Organ in D minor, Op.7 No.4, HWV 309 – Theodora, HWV 68: “With darkness deep, as is my woe” – Samson, HWV 57: “Let the bright seraphim”

Samantha Clarke (Soprano)
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Erin Helyard (Conductor)

S. Clarke (© Courtesy MSO)

Renowned Australian conductor and virtuoso keyboard performer Erin Helyard has gained local and international acclaim as Artistic Director of Pinchgut Opera and the Orchestra of the Antipodes. His recognised excellence in the operas of the Baroque period has lead performances in receipt of numerous awards and widespread acknowledgement. As Artist in Residence with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO), Maestro Helyard leads two of the three concerts for this “Baroque Festival” for the MSO and this exhilarating and joyous collaboration with Australian/British Soprano Samantha Clarke is the second of the series.

Helyard is exuberant and great fun and his pleasure in leading the streamlined MSO is on display from the moment he takes the podium. He conducts flamboyantly and brings an elevated vigour and energy to the ensemble. In the Vivaldi Concerto which serves as a prelude to the operatic offerings, he shifts mood and tempi with ease and flourish adding depth of shade and glistening brightness to the separate movements. As a showpiece, this thrust the individual performers of the orchestra into prominence while accentuating the dazzling virtuosity of Zoë Black’s violin. It was clear from the start that this is an ensemble of virtuosi who relish the intricate details of the music they create.

Vivacious from the opening notes of her first aria, Samantha Clarke took immediate ownership of the music, endowing it with a sense of fun to compliment her supremely versatile voice. She bounced her way through the difficult Act 1 aria from Dorilla as if it were a plaything. Soaring to sparkling upper register and plummeting to rich, dark chest voice, nothing seemed to beyond her virtuosic powers from the outset.

The contemplative and restrained Act 2 aria from Ottone in Villa provided ample opportunity to contrast the high spirits of the opening offering. It also showed another side to the composer’s extensive repertoire. Ms Clarke held the huge audience in the palm of her hand as she negotiated the controlled and delicate vocal line of the piece. In the third and final aria of this Vivaldi set, the highly complex and demanding Act 1 aria from La fida ninfa calls for rapid‑fire coloratura and hugely extended vocal lines while juxtaposing shade and moods within the piece. Unsurprisingly, this item drew enormous audience response and Ms Clarke left the stage to rapturous applause.

The change to the music of Handel was a tectonic shift in the program. Immediately, the swelling strings, the lushness of the orchestration and the inherently Germanic nature of the music were on display. Probably dating from the composer’s pre‑London period, it must have felt like a retrospective glance towards his homeland when it was published more than 20 years after his move to England. Violinist Zoë Black was glorious in this rendition. Swift, light and richly nuanced, her playing was an elegant focal point within the body of the orchestra.

The Handel arias were divided into two sets: three from operas Rinaldo and Agrippina and the latter two from oratorios Theodora and Samson. While all five pieces were beautifully sung: full‑voiced and richly decorated, almost inevitably it was “Lascia ch’io pianga” which stole the show. Exquisite in phrasing and deeply moving in presentation, it reduced the audience to cheers and shouting with applause which threatened not to end until Maestro Helyard regained control. As much as the ravishingly lovely singing and virtuosic playing, it was Mr Helyard’s finely paced and adroitly judged direction of the evening’s program – performed as a run‑through without interval – which marked this MSO performance.

As an interlude between the Handel vocal sets, Mr Helyard led from the keyboard as soloist in the Opus 7 Concerto for Organ. Ranging from dark and moody to vibrantly animated, this concerto was as delightful a portrait of an orchestra of gifted soloists as was the introduction to the program. Gorgeously rich and pulsating cellos; thrillingly bright violins and the ‘modern’ embellishments of brass and percussion created a memorable support for Helyard’s masterful handling of the petite on‑stage organ.

To conclude the performance, Ms Clarke returned for the two Handel oratorio arias. While her rendition of “With darkness deep” of Theodora skilfully plunged us to the depths of the character’s despair, the introduction of a solo trumpet to accompany “Let the bright seraphim” provided a shimmeringly brilliant finale. The flexibility of Ms Clarke’s voice is quite remarkable: as firm and full at the top as it is confident and graceful in the lower register, with a seamless transition between. This was a rousing interpretation with shades of the younger Sutherland’s bell‑like tone and controlled amplitude.

This concert was a joy from start to finish. The eloquent performance of the ensemble as a whole; the remarkable virtuosity of the soloists and a cleverly curated and paced program devised under Maestro Helyard resulted in a memorable evening.

Gregory Pritchard



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