★★★★½ Tognetti’s crack band backs classy Russian mistress of the roulades.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
October 8, 2016

How easy it is to take something for granted. Having heard Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva a couple of years ago in Hobart, and followed her subsequent career on record, I’d forgotten just what an impact this crowd-pleasing singer can have on an audience. Possessed of a cast iron coloratura technique, a remarkable purity of voice and a warm, unassuming presence, it was a delight to revisit her special brand of magic in the ideal accoustic of Sydney’s City Recital Hall, especially when sensitively supported as she was here by the Australian Chamber Orchestra under Artistic Director Richard Tognetti.

For the first half Lezhneva focussed on the divine, with contrasting sacred works by Porpora and Handel. The former composer, one of the Baroque’s most famous pedagogues whose pupils included Farinelli and Haydn, is becoming better known these days and a work like his charming solo cantata In Caelo Stelle Clare Fulgescant (May the Bright Stars Shine in the Heavens) should win him more fans. Lezhneva, lovely in pale blue silk with a silver cloud motif, sold both that and Handel’s Salve Regina in committed performances.

Her voice has matured a little of late, the middle and bottom of the voice growing fuller, but it’s the crystalline brilliance of the top that still occupies the foreground – that and the clean, effortless accuracy of the runs, negotiated without any recourse to the various jaw-waggling tricks employed by some to get around such speedy roulades. The sunny Porpora, with its references to stars, grass and brooks, conjured forth nifty trills and exquisitely decorated da capos, Lezhneva’s doll-like stance adding to an emotional sense of naïvety and devotion. The concluding Alleluia was dazzling in its vocal dexterity. Handel’s slower-moving work was a lyrical lament, winding up with a bubbly, organ led celebration of the Virgin and a pin-drop ending.

Playing on gut strings, the 13 players of the ACO included exemplary guests Erin Helyard on chamber organ and harpsichord and Axel Wolf on theorbo. For Bach’s First Orchestral Suite they added an exceptional pair of oboists, Benoit Laurent (from the Brussels Conservatoire) and Ludovi Achour, and a fine bassoon in Jane Gower (from John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique).

Led by Tognetti they proved an ideal band, tight as a drum in ensemble, yet with plenty of imagination at play. This is polite, graceful music, possessing the contrived perfection of an English formal garden while laced with the gallant spirit of France. Laurent and Achour dipped and glided, as if Terpsichore herself had invaded their souls, while Tognetti’s sure hand guided the elegance of the minuets and held sufficient in reserve early on to invest the Forlane with a rumbustious folksiness and go hell for leather in the spikey Bourées. They proved equally stylish in a Handel wannabe violin concerto (his Sonata No 5 in B Flat), the players huddling round Tognetti as soloist, his elegant reading topped off by a lovely micro-cadenza. 

For the second half, Lezhneva changed into an eye-catching persimmon chiffon and went operatic, with a couple of numbers from early Handel cantatas, and arias from his more mature opera Alessandro. Adopting her serious face, she rattled triumphantly through Un pensiero nemico di pace from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno – a real showpiece arie di furie. Delicious plucked strings and solo oboe decorated a pastoral treat in Felicissima quest’alma from Apollo e Daphne, Lezhneva’s ravishing top notes beautifully touched in. Her two final arias from Alessandro contrasted a gorgeous, trilling Alla sua gabbia d’oro with its bird imagery and fluttering strings with the sparkling Brilla nell’alma, a show-stopping aria laden with joy and more rapidly passing notes than you could care to count.

With two encores – a signature Di tuo amor mio cor from Hasse’s Siroe (a flawless series of vocal pearls strung on a thread of silver) and a crowning Lascia la spina (the sacred version of Lascia, ch’io pianga from Rinaldo) – this was a generous programme by a winning artist, still only 26 years of age. Catch her if you can.

Julia Lezhneva sings in Sydney on October 12 and 18, and tours with the ACO to Brisbane (October 10) and Melbourne (October 15).

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