There were two debuts at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday afternoon: Nicole Car’s first appearance with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and the first public outing of a new (or rather, old) violin acquired on loan by the ACO: the 1726 Belgiorno Stradivarius, wielded by Satu Vänskä.

Nicole Car © Georges Antoni
Nicole Car
© Georges Antoni

It was a programme stitched together by a key motif of musical and cultural history: the figure of the lamenting woman, spectacle and object of pathos. Two dramatic recitatives and arias from Mozart and one from Beethoven – the fifteen-minute showpiece “Ah, perfido!”, a setting of opera seria king Pietro Metastasio – sat alongside works by Handel, Puccini, Verdi, and Hildegard von Bingen, which revisited this core theme in more or less explicit ways. Works generally segued straight from one to the next, the aim presumably being the articulation of a continuous musical and thematic texture. 

Handel started us off with the overture and dances from Alcina, the titular protagonist of which is a mythical sorceress who is abject and awe-inspiring in equal measure. Richard Tognetti’s animated direction from the violin shone here, as did the ACO, who gave us foot-stamping Handel that was emphatic and vivid. This was rustic and forceful playing, with plenty of mud and beer, Handel at his most rambunctious. The Tamburino got a percussive hit from cello and bass players drumming away on their instruments, while spiky strings and piccolo careened about above. It wasn’t just all sound and fury though: the Sarabande had plenty of Italianate sighing and spare melancholy. 

Mozart’s Symphony no. 27 in G major was spread across the programme, the first movement of this slight symphony in the first half, and the latter two the penultimate work before the codetta of Mozart’s short aria “Chi sà, chi sà, qual sia”, which brought Car back to the stage. The ACO’s performance of the symphony was just as lively as the Handel, with witty dynamic contrasts and a madcap, breakneck final movement. Indeed, Tognetti and the ACO pointed up the dissonances and clashes in Mozart’s sometimes surprising melodic shapes, especially in the last movement, whose main theme orbits unnervingly around a tritone. This forthright approach to texture and tempo certainly kept the audience on its toes. It did want for lyricism and restraint from time to time, particularly in the slow movement, where we needed more light and air. 

The second half opened with an arrangement of Hildegard von Bingen’s Ave Maria, the lights turned all the way down and Car’s voice floating in from offstage over an unearthly bed of muted strings. Then this melted seamlessly into Desdemona’s Ave Maria from Verdi’s Otello, which Car delivered with velvet roundness and purity of tone. 

Puccini’s Cristantemi for strings segued directly into another flower-themed bonus feature, the tearful imploring that opens Act 3 of La traviata, which Verdi adapted from Alexandre Dumas fils' La Dame aux camélias. Perhaps both pieces were a nod to Car’s recent star-turns in La bohème (at Covent Garden) and as Violetta here in Sydney.

This was Nicole Car’s afternoon, and the programme’s centres of gravity were her three concert arias. Her voice in its upper register was polished steel, with a penetrating ring, and muscular support from the ACO in the Beethoven showstopper made for a fulsome and defiant spectacle. This was Beethoven foreshadowing Verdi, though there was some loss of intensity when Car visited her lower register, where the volume and definition seemed to drop off a little. Her Mozart was more restrained but consistently compelling. K468a, “Basta, vincesti”, is a pleading setting of Metastasio’s version of the Dido and Aeneas story, and Car’s phrasing and delivery of the text struck a fine balance between despair and tenderness. In the second half too her “Misera, dove son!” brought lyrical warmth to the more hot-headed, febrile Mozart the ACO gave us elsewhere. 

Indeed their emotional candour in their approach to both Beethoven and Mozart was exemplified in former’s Romance no.2 in F major, a lyrical forerunner to Beethoven’s great violin concerto written some years later. F major represents a different kind of Beethoven, redolent of bright tranquility and lyrical exuberance, it being the key of his lighter piano sonatas and the Pastoral Symphony. Satu Vänskä and her Stradivarius gave us a ringing and expansive upper register, and clearly relished what she called the “diamond clarity” of this instrument. The darker episodes had plenty of emotional heft and guts, and Vänskä navigated the considerable difficulties posed by Beethoven’s music in terms of phrasing and colour: animating the spare scales and arpeggios that Beethoven offers as melodic material is no small task, and thin gruel in the hands of a less-capable soloist.