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The power and the passion: Melbourne’s ‘accidental Verdi festival’

By Barney Zwartz

Natalie Aroyan feels like she was born to sing Verdi. The music fits the glamorous Armenian-Australian soprano’s voice “like a glove”.

“What I love most about Verdi is that his operas have so much passion and power, and he really knows how to show off his musical muscle and genius,” Aroyan says.

Melbourne is about to be immersed in Verdi. As film director Bruce Beresford calls it, we’re having “an accidental Verdi festival”. Opera Australia has brought its acclaimed high-tech digital Aida, opening on May 6, followed by Ernani on May 13. Melbourne Opera is staging Macbeth, directed by Beresford, from May 18.

It’s a “full circle moment” for Aroyan, she says: Verdi launched her career when she won the Herald Sun Aria competition in 2009, singing the heroine from Ernani, the role she will now sing in full for Opera Australia. The company last performed in Melbourne 18 months ago. Artistic director Lyndon Terracini wanted to bring two powerful grand operas to relaunch in the city. “They are both big statements to make, and I wanted to show that we are committed to Melbourne,” says Terracini.

For Aida – the story of doomed lovers in ancient Egypt, written for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1871 – the set features 10 LED panels, 7.5 metres high and 2.5 metres wide, which move in several directions and produce images so vivid they are “like another character”, says Terracini. “We realised we needed some big singers to compete with that – otherwise you could sit there watching and almost forget there’s someone singing Celeste Aida.”

Ernani is Opera Australia’s first co-production with La Scala (Milan). “People say you need the four best singers in the world for Il Trovatore [also Verdi], but you probably do for Ernani too,” Terracini says. Verdi’s fifth opera (of 26), written when he was 30, Ernani marks the beginning of the composer’s middle phase, Terracini says. It is quite adventurous harmonically, and Verdi may have shocked himself because some aspects do not reappear until many operas later. Terracini sees Aroyan – now fully established and something of a Verdi specialist – as a protege, having brought her into Opera Australia after she won the aria competition. “She’s a genuine Verdi soprano,” he says. “She can sing Ernani, Attila, Aida – very few people can. I can say without any bias that she sings Ernani far better than the soprano at La Scala. She has been incredibly diligent – and also patient.” Aroyan has sung about a dozen Verdi roles in just a few years and says “they are not the easiest walk in the park. You have to have the stamina to be consistent from beginning to end, not just the arias. Elvira [Ernani] has a lot of high and powerful singing, where I have to soar above the orchestra, soar above the chorus and ensemble together, and keep the high Cs going the whole time.” Macbeth, according to Beresford, is one of the most dramatic of operas because the libretto follows Shakespeare closely. “With the death of King Duncan, Banquo and Macbeth – there’s blood all over the place,” he says.

The orchestral, vocal and choral writing are masterly. “You think, could anything be better than this?” Beresford says. “The play usually has three witches; he has 30. It’s quite a logistical job to place them all and work out what they are doing.”

Beresford has directed about 14 operas now, as well as dozens of movies. He fell in love with opera at 15. The challenge is quite different to film, he says, because the audience is always watching it in a “wide shot”.

The drama comes through extraordinary music. “I find opera so emotional and the music in this opera is so incredibly affecting; when I listen to it being rehearsed even with just the piano, I get a tingly sensation all over,” says Beresford.


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