Only two of the 18 tracks on Elizabeth Whitehouse’s recent recital disc on the Melba label are drawn from operas which have been staged in Australia in living memory – or quite possibly ever.
The disc is subtitled, not without reason, Rare French and Italian Opera Arias: some, indeed, of the composers’ names will strike chords of recognition only in the most learned operatic devotee.
Believe in Love is the main title of the disc, and it presents a varied spectrum of belief or otherwise of a litany of heroines not a few of whom are snapshotted on the brink of oblivion – casting some doubt on the felicity of such beliefs.
While Whitehouse consistently does her repertory proud ... Clearly her conductor, Richard Bonynge, well known to be a student and admirer of such rarities, had considerable input into the selection process when this CD was being compiled … the quality of the input of Whitehouse, Orchestra Victoria … the recording engineers of Melba Recordings … all of whom do the disc proud ...
... there is plenty to admire as one endures the trials and tribulations of this hand-picked litany of mostly obscure operatic heroines in the delicious company of Whitehouse.
Quite literally we jump in at the deep end, along with the title character from Gounod’s Sapho, who, in “O ma lyre immortelle”, is farewelling the world as she prepares to jump into the sea where she plans to sleep forever. Whitehouse’s sound is pure voluptuousness, heard in splendid collaboration with the rhapsodic, ocean-like swells of Orchestra Victoria.
Then Whitehouse broods desperately over the loss of her beloved in an excerpt from Gounod’s La Reine de Saba imbued with an abundance of heart and nuance before turning on the taps to produce an out-pouring of love for Prince Hamlet, “all black and melancholy”, in an excerpt from Franco Faccio’s Amleto where she … seduce[s] the ears to great effect.
In Track 4, from Carlos Gomes’ Salvator Rosa, she’s lying in a nunnery, mourned by no one, as the portals of the tomb yawn before her; in Track 5, from Gounod’s Cinq Mars, she’s afflicted by insomnia in the depths of a dark night, imploring in vain for peace but displaying plenty of lyrical heart.
Next, she bids farewell to vanished dreams, then has but a few minutes to live, and is in desperate sorrow at loss of her virtue before she arrives in some what familiar operative terrain for the first time with Madeleine’s “La mamma morta” from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, where she broods on her misfortunes but ends up thinking of herself quite divine and the embodiment of love.
“Io son l’amore, io son l’amor, l’amor”, she repeats at the end of this heroine’s Act III aria, Madeleine’s only solo chance in the entire opera.
Whitehouse returns to familiar terrain with the title character’s “Io son l’umile ancella” from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreau … A couple of tracks later, in an extract from Cilea’s Gloria, she displays a particularly effective swelling of heart, splendidly underscored in the orchestra, as she sings of a spring of hope and love; but this is promptly knocked on the head when, in the next rack, drawn from the same opera, she laments being halted on her sweet journey by the cruel claw of fate.
In the penultimate track of the disc, from Mascagni’s Isabeau, Whitehouse, as Lady Godiva, laments that the combination of her desire and compassion has brought death to one Folco; but finally she comes to Si, where – as noted above – we find Mascagni’s muse in positively light-hearted mode...