Bravo Bellini

AAR-Victorian-Opera-Jessica-PrattAt its best, the operatic art of ‘bel canto’ or ‘beautiful singing’ is an exhilarating experience to behold – a captivating, elegant and dramatically acrobatic style that reached its high point in the early to mid 19th century with composers such as Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini.

English-born Australian soprano Jessica Pratt is among its greatest present-day exponents so it was with much joy seeing her back in Melbourne for Victorian Opera’s one-concert-only, Bravo Bellini.

Poised with calm confidence and grace, Pratt illuminated the Palais Theatre stage marvellously, her crystalline, mellifluous voice and melting signature pianissimi emanating with seeming effortlessness. Victorian Opera, however, disappointingly failed her on Saturday evening.

Only two nights earlier, at the same venue, the company’s one-off concert performance of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio entertainingly debated which is more important, the words or the music?

I had imagined a night of ‘bel canto’ might lean towards the latter. But, too often, the words nudged out the music as Conductor and Artistic Director Richard Mills presided over what, from my perspective, often felt like a musical lecture.

The evening consisted of two parts covering three of Bellini’s operas – Norma (1831) and I puritani (1835) in the first and Beatrice di Tenda (1833) in the second part.

While ‘bel canto’ works haven’t seen the light of more than two fully staged productions, many have dotted the company’s 10 years under Maestro Mills, including Norma and I puritani previously featured in concert performances in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

After a wordy introduction, the music began with the overture to Norma, showcasing the polish and unity of Orchestra Victoria on stage and Bellini’s evocative and richly textured orchestration.

Following, the combined tenors of the more experienced Carlos E. Bárcenas and developing artist Alistair Cooper-Golec lacked giving impact to Svanir le voci! but Bárcenas’s warm Italianate tone and vocal agility flowed through onto Meco all’altar di Venere.

It seemed too long a wait for Pratt’s appearance after a mismatched vocal entree but the senses were rewarded with a profoundly moving rendition of one of opera’s most recognisable arias, Casta Diva.

Pratt made intelligent use of her voice, easily selling its most exquisite middle and upper range while floating notes of the highest purity along the smoothest legato. That was enough to rouse the audience but her mastery of ornamentation and coloratura in the cabaletta signalled assurances that the night could only belong to her.

After the fierce, tension-building orchestral Uragano from Act Three of I puritani and following Romanza by Bárcenas, Pratt joined for the ecstatic duet, Arture? Si, è desso!.

Pratt basked in the music of Elvira while Bárcenas attempted Arturo’s demanding rise to the top as they expressed their love for each other but he looked increasingly agonised in the process. That the same duet concluded the evening in an encore was, like other elements of the evening, especially misjudged. I wasn’t alone in hoping for a solo from Pratt.

Maestro Mills’ excitement at describing Bellini’s lesser known Beatrice di Tenda as a work that needs an Australian production was a very pleasing idea. And better still, if that’s what we got. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to hear the delightfully magisterial Sinfonia, then Pratt at the peak of her game, imbuing the titular character with affecting strength in the Act 1 cavatina and my personal evening highlight, Respiro io qui.

The Act One Finale followed, with Pratt further gilding the stage with flawless technique. The program concluded with the dynamic Act Two Finale in which both Pratt and Bárcenas paired for a more naturally felt moment and affording the audience a sample of Pratt’s excellence before her upcoming role debut in a production at Naples’ esteemed Teatro San Carlo later this month.

Many will have appreciated the prominent English translation of the text above and on both sides of the stage. Once again, it seemed too many words, given that the emotivity of the voice, conveyed more than enough in an atmosphere minus the entire drama. Stage lighting also suffered a number of minuses.

And finally, between lecturing and conducting, Maestro Mills’ early statement of wanting to be “a bit less informal” merely confused the concert’s focus. And that didn’t pan out without the score of Beatrice di Tenda being affected by a lapse in attention.

Less talking, more music-making and more Jessica Pratt, please!

Bravo Bellini
Palais Theatre, Lower Esplanade, St Kilda
Date: Saturday 2 September 2023

Image: Jessica Pratt – courtesy of Victorian Opera

Review: Paul Selar