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A splendid double debut

Hamer Hall, Melbourne Arts Centre
04/09/2018 -  & April 8 (Sydney), 11 (Perth), 14 (Sydney), 16 (Brisbane), 18, 20 (Sydney), 22 (Melbourne), 24 (Sydney), 2018
George Frideric Handel: Alcina, HWV34: Overture and Dances
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart : Symphony No. 27 in G major, K. 161b [199] – Basta, vincesti... Ah! non lasciarmi, no, K. 295a [486a] – Misera, dove son!... Ah, non son’ io che parlo, K. 369 – Chi sà, chi sà, qual sia, K. 582
Ludwig van Beethoven : Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 in F major, Op. 50 – Ah! perfido, Op. 65
Hildegard von Bingen : Ave Maria, O auctrix vitæ (arr. strings)
Giuseppe Verdi : Otello : Ave Maria
Giacomo Puccini : Crisantemi

Nicole Car (Soprano), Satu Vänskä (Violin)
The Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (Conductor & Violin)

N. Car (© Georges Antoni)

It should come as no surprise that Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) would devise a mesmerising program, using innovative segues, dramatic entrances, intriguing stage effects and including the most wide ranging and diverse material imaginable. Further, to have the extraordinary opportunity to do so with a “double debut” was irresistible: Melbourne Soprano Nicole Car making her ACO debut alongside the gloriously glistening (in every sense) new addition to the ACO family of ancient instruments, the 1726 ‘Belgiorno’ Stradivarius violin. The only surprise after Maestro Tognetti’s masterful leadership of the band as they accompanied Nicole is: When will they offer a full operatic accompaniment from the pit? Perhaps even in conjunction with the national opera company or one of the profusion of brilliant minor companies which now grace our city.

The two sparkling solo instruments: Ms Car’s ravishing soprano and the sumptuous richness of the “new” “Strad” played by Principal Violinist Satu Vänskä would leave any reviewer grasping for superlatives. “Exquisite” undervalues both; “captivating” hints at the breathless silence in the auditorium throughout but neither captures the sensation of floating out of the concert hall, totally enraptured with the entire performance.

Cleverly, the program linked items on the theme of “The Cry” from a woman. From the hints at the darker and malevolent side of woman in Handel’s Alcina Overture and Dances, through Beethoven’s tortured Ah! Perfido; from Hildegard’s haunting Ave Maria to that of Verdi’s Desdemona; and through the series of Mozart concert arias, we learn of the angst-ridden trials of women. The vocal performance was punctuated with instrumentals hinting at human suffering and alluding to the stratospheric rise of young opera star Nicole Car.

Ms Car returns to her home town after triumphs at the Royal Opera, Berlin, Paris and others and the continuing comparison with the late, great diva Dame Joan Sutherland which she resists. Casting aside the ‘home town favourite’ element, this is a staggeringly lovely voice. Rich and mellow in its lower register and burnished, almost metallic in the upper. Accomplished breathing technique and assuredness on the stage combine with an appearance of angelic naiveté and innocence to give Ms Car a riveting stage persona.

The Beethoven Ah! Perfido ran the full operatic gambit: furious, revengeful, tortured, remorseful and heart-broken. Ms Car gave us a complete character, mindful of the hugely disparate emotions of the text and conscious of the opportunity to deliver a mini drama and a full realisation of the role. This reviewer has been privileged to see her on stage in opera performances both with Opera Australia in Melbourne and at the Royal Opera in London, and can attest to her dramatic capabilities which showed throughout this piece.

Paired with the superb voice of Nicole Car, anyone might be forgiven for not noticing the orchestra. But when it features playing of the calibre of Satu Vänskä and her “new” Stradivarius, noticing is not the problem: focussing on the other elements of the program becomes a real challenge.

We heard Ms Vänskä with the whole ensemble; we heard the “Strad” soar above the rest of the band but when it came to the performance of the Romanza the gasps from the audience, the reverential silence, said it all. With poise and elegance she drove this piece into a frenzied rendition. It seemed almost beyond belief that she could place those piercingly high notes so delicately and give us simultaneously a sense of the power and visceral capacity of the instrument and the fragility of its immense age.

The orchestral pieces of this concert were used to set moods and to link the vocal items. Interestingly, the Mozart Symphony was split between the two parts of the program using the first movement for its overture-like structure to augment the Handel introduction. However, the piece of the night had to be the arrangement of Puccini’s Crisantemi. Haunting and powerful, this piece underlined the cries of the women depicted in the concert arias as well as adding another dimension to the dramatically evocative Hildegard Ave Maria. More than usually, the entire orchestra was inspired. It is easy to understand why some reviewers cite this as the best chamber ensemble in the world.

Performed in near complete blackness, the arrangement of this chant-like liturgical piece featured Ms Car off-stage throwing her vocalising into the darkness and giving us a sense of the austere, remote world of the medieval convent. This was a dramatic moment in the concert and a theatrical tour-de-force which again begs the question: when will the ACO give us a fully staged opera under the baton of Richard Tognetti? A tantalising option!

We have become used to the ACO delivering superb concerts, mixing genres and joining forces with virtuosi of world class. Rarely however, might we expect to hear such a superbly unified program, so expertly conceived and so effortlessly delivered.

With numerous dates to follow in other cities as well as a return to Melbourne, do not miss this concert!

Gregory Pritchard



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