Who could resist a “Puccini Spectacular” subtitled “Love Evolved”, with numerous singers backed by a grand orchestra, performing highlights from Puccini’s operas in an acoustically friendly hall. Celebrating its 40th anniversary, the State Opera of South Australia joined with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in the Adelaide Town Hall for a delightful evening of mostly Puccini favourites.

I was looking forward to an evening where the singers would be the focus, accompanied by grand orchestral music. But what I experienced was singers straining to be heard, and at times smothered under the force of too grand an orchestra, which tended too often to overpower.

Nevertheless the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, seated imposingly on the wide Adelaide Town Hall stage, played brilliantly, Stephen Mould’s conducting was energetic and commanding. They began with the prologue from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, arguably the greatest exponent of the verismo style, evident in so many of Puccini’s operas. On cue, baritone Jeremy Tatchell popped up and with all the gestures and great facial expressions engaged the audience, setting a high standard for the evening. (Rosario La Spina also sang an excellent “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci later in the programme.)

The programme sampled many show-stoppers from eight of Puccini’s operas, most selections coming from those composed in his middle years, La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.

Almost drowned out by the orchestra, Douglas McNicol struggled valiantly with “Si corre dal notaio” from Gianni Schicchi, and his elegant footwork offered him no help, yet Samantha Rubenhold who followed, inspired as her vibrant soprano “O mio babbino caro” soared with pietà-like elegance.

Rosario La Spina, whose beautifully rich powerful tenor voice carried even into the tiniest crevices of the hall gave us “Recondita armonia” from Cavadarossi’s comparison of Tosca, his lover, with the Mary Magdalene he is painting. It was bright and brilliant, his voice rich and true. Even more impressive was the despair he conveyed (helped by a mournful clarinet) as Cavadarossi, atop Castel Sant’Angelo, was about to be executed – the beautiful “E lucevan le stelle”.

Bernard Hull, eyes closed in wonder, was rather wooden as he sung the marvellous “Donna non vidi mai” as des Grieux is smitten with Manon Lescaut. I could imagine him still standing alongside the stagecoach she had arrived in. Also moving was Jeremy Tatchell’s “Vecchia zimarra” from La bohème, the song Colline sings as he goes to pawn his beloved old coat to find money for dying Mimì. There was Teresa La Rocca, in a stunning red dress, who captured the seamstress' soul in “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” singing sweetly, enticingly and intimately. I felt absorbed, as if she was singing just to me. Another ‘Mimì’ emerged in Joanna McWaters, quite different from La Rocca, yet just as authentic, who teamed with La Spina to create a thrilling, exciting conclusion to Bohème’s first Act “O soave fanciulla” as, hand in hand, both walked singing towards the back wall of the hall.

Fittingly, after intermission the orchestra commenced with the large, sweeping expressive Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut, tracking des Grieux' journey that follows Manon to Le Havre, full of emotion and energy.

“Senza mamma” is such a moving aria from Suor Angelica, where the nun grieves the dead child she bore and was made to give up. Teresa La Rocca managed to express such intense grief and desolation that even the orchestra seemed to play quieter as she sang this deeply moving lament, expressing her longing to meet her child in heaven.

Bernard Hull’s voice fitted well into the role of Butterfly’s Lieutenant Pinkerton as he teamed with Joanna McWaters’ Cio-Cio San. Her “Un bel dì” was haunting, her voice, expressing her hope for Pinkerton’s return, floating across the ether. When it came to the Flower Duet with La Rocca, it seemed that they would be better throwing bricks than petals, to compete with the overpowering volume of the orchestra.

Finally, with a choir out of sight behind the grand pipe organ, La Spina launched into a magnificent finale with “Nessun dorma” from Turandot. He sang lovingly, making it his own. I could imagine Calaf singing in front of the Pekig's Imperial Palace. He sang it brilliantly.

A marvellous conclusion to a well-planned Puccini Spectacular.