The front cover of this Hybrid Multichannel SACD, decorated in a beautiful shade of pink with a rose/lace motif, proclaims that this is an album of “Rare French and Italian Opera Arias”. But even the liner notes admit that this is not completely true.
Yes, some of the arias are fairly obscure, but composers such as Charles Gounod and Camille Saint-Saëns are not exactly strangers to regular opera attendees, and we even get selections from reasonably well performed operas such as Andrea Chénier and Adriana Lecouvreur.
But that’s being pedantic. What really matters is that obscure or not, this is a delightful collection of soprano arias, rendered with considerable style and flair by Tasmanian born Elizabeth Whitehouse, and graciously accompanied by Richard Bonynge and Orchestra Victoria.
Most people will recognize Richard as the husband of Dame Joan Sutherland (and a well regarded operatic conductor in his own right), but may be less familiar with Orchestra Victoria. Well, the orchestra was formerly called the State Orchestra of Victoria and accompanied the Victorian State Opera until it folded in 1996. The orchestra was also the resident orchestra of the Victoria Arts Centre, but renamed itself as “Orchestra Victoria” when it separated from the venue in 2001. As for Elizabeth Whitehouse, some may remember her wonderful performance as the Feldmarschallin in an Opera Australia production in the 1990s.
All the selections are very listenable, and the venue (Robert Blackwood Hall at Monash University) complements the music very well, adding a nice “bloom” to Elizabeth’s voice without muddying the bottom end (in fact, I was surprised by how clear the deep notes sounded in some of the tracks).
Even though this is a full 5.1 mix (all channels appear to be utilized), some may be a bit surprised that Elizabeth’s voice images distinctly to the left of the soundstage (rather than coming from the centre which is the “norm” on many recordings). But this would seem consistent with the placement of the vocal soloist on most live performances (because as we all know the centre spot is taken up by the conductor!) so I didn’t mind one bit.
The rear channels create a very nice enveloping effect if you are listening in 5.1. But even if you are listening to the stereo mix, the soundstage is very reverberant and three dimensional. The overall effect is "intimate", somehow I feel like Elizabeth and the instruments are very close to me, which is an interesting effect since in reality the hall is rather large. But it suits the type of music perfectly.
Melba Recordings is rapidly establishing itself as “the” quality label for classical music, featuring Australian performers. Currently Melba is the only domestic Australian label that has embraced the SA-CD format, and this is a very worthwhile addition to its small, but growing, collection of SA-CD releases. I also like the new design (using the services of graphic designer Ken Cato) and packaging.
Let’s hope the titles keep on flowing!
Performance: 5 stars (*****)
Sonics: Stereo 5 stars (*****)
Multi-channel 5 stars (*****)