Pure bel canto
Vincenzo Bellini: I puritani
Jessica Pratt (Elvira), Jeremy Kleeman (Lord Gualtiero Valton), Paul Whelan (Sir Giorgio Valton), Celso Albelo (Lord Arturo Talbot), Carlos E Bárcenas (Sir Bruno Robertson), Nathan Lay (Sir Ricardo Forth), Tania Ferris (Enrichetta di Francia)
Victorian Opera Chorus, Orchestra Victoria, Richard Mills (Conductor)
(© Charlie Kinross)
To describe Jessica Pratt’s vocal prowess is to run short of superlatives. Brilliant, lustrous, seductive – all without doubt – but for this reviewer, ‘transfixing’ comes closest to the power she exudes and her ability to entirely convince. Even in this concert performance, Ms Pratt acted brilliantly, capturing many of the colours and emotions of her character; painting a detailed portrait of Elvira driven to the edge of sanity over the fate of her betrayed love.
For one performance only, Victorian Opera brought Jessica Pratt back to Australia after her national and role debut with them last year in La Traviata. While additional performances would have been welcome, it is difficult to imagine any ensemble being able to replicate the energy, power or fearlessness with which last evening’s was produced.
Under the baton of esteemed Australian Conductor/Composer Richard Mills, Orchestra Victoria and the Victorian Opera Chorus shaped a powerful and vigorous reading of the score. The subtlety with which the martial marches, the threatening strings, and the variation of gorgeous melodies were managed speaks of his exquisite understanding of the musical complexities of this piece. Throughout, the small chorus worked tirelessly to generate shading and light in the demanding choral numbers. Their sound was cohesive, varied and sensitive, which when matched with brilliant clarity of diction, made them a commendable match for many a larger ensemble. The orchestra gave some stunningly good passages, blending the many shades Bellini incorporated into this turmoil of a text. They matched military precision and emotional chaos with lilting sentimentality and dire threat at a pace which drove the action despite there being no staging to appreciate.
Minor roles were sung with accuracy and gusto. Jeremy Kleeman and Nathan Lay as the Lords Valton and Forth respectively acquitted themselves commendably well. Both young Melbournians have promising voices delivering power and potency in both solo and ensemble numbers. Australian mezzo Tania Ferris sang Queen Henrietta with conviction and dignity adding richness and colour to the ensemble in this brief role. Melbourne tenor Carlos Bárcenas gave Sir Bruno authority and passion in his performance. New Zealand Bass Paul Whelan as Sir Giorgio had a commanding presence. He delivered us a multi-faceted statesman – assured and confident at the same time as tender and loving to Elvira. His voice is rich and sonorous with great power; his character assertive and secure.
Inevitably however, the roles of the two leads are the stars of this show and both Jessica Pratt and Celso Albelo ‘walked away’ with this performance. Mr Albelo brought a huge variety of experience to the podium and delivered an Arturo who is every centimetre the hero of the piece. His voice is immense yet despite this he demonstrated superb control in ensembles. His solos were marvellous. His ringing top notes, crystal clear diction and complete fearlessness when reaching into a remarkable upper register made this an exhilarating performance and one which brought ripples of thrills throughout the audience. He is the shining knight and even without staging to support his interpretation, we were absolutely convinced of his power of attraction, tender affection and authority.
Reprising her Elvira from this year’s Maggio Musicale in Florence, Jessica Pratt took absolute command of the podium. She is as confident in this difficult role as it is possible to be. Her presence exudes energy and poise while capturing the fragility of Elvira’s mental state. Overall, the lasting impressions of her reading are depth and variety. Ms Pratt’s support of fellow singers in the ensembles was restrained and richly nuanced. Her Elvira is a subtle and coherent character with many sides to her personality and in this sense we feel that we are being taken inside the mind of a real person. Even without stage action, Ms Pratt acted the role – every fine distinction of the role is brought to life, from a tightly controlled tremor to a slight hesitation, she used every element of the score to accentuate the personality of her character.
Together, these leading singers brought lustre and dazzle to their duets. He, the knight in shining armour and she, the delicate girl on the brink of madness; but together, they made a magic happen which dazzled. Their combined understanding of the music was a text book lesson in how to “wow”; vocal pyrotechnics seemed effortless in their elegant pairing, culminating in dazzling upper notes which brought the hall to its feet in acclamation.
This performance was as “belle” as bel canto can get: intensely rich in its musical inventiveness, controlled and coloured in its interpretation and overall utterly thrilling in its astounding exploitation of the human voice. Victorian Opera made a huge statement of confidence to mark its tenth anniversary.