Verdi at Uluru
The first ever orchestral concert at the iconic landmark was an event to remember, writes Rebecca Franks
Two trains, three flights, five films and 25 hours of flying isn't how I ordinarily get to concerts, but then this concert was not exactly ordinary. Last week, along with three other European journalists and a 750-strong audience, I heard the first orchestral concert to take place at Uluru (also known as Ayer's Rock), in Australia.
Surreal doesn't begin to sum up how it felt to land in the centre of Australia, in the seemingly endless desert. The sun was strong, the heat fierce. Nothing stirred in the surrounding bushland. With its distinctive red sand and the huge monolith of Uluru in the background, the outback could have been Mars. And I was there to hear... Verdi.
It was in many ways an unexpected choice for this event, but 2013 is the Italian composer's bicentenary, and, really, Wagner might have been stranger. And 'Viva Verdi' offered a chance to showcase two singers, which was perhaps wise given that the Darwin Symphony Orchestra is a volunteer ensemble, with only a few pros flown in for the occasion. The soloists, soprano Emma Matthews and tenor James Egglestone, made an entrance – arriving on camels. A gimmick, for sure, but an amusing one and not so out of place given they made their way in at the end of the first item on the programme, the 'Triumphal March and Ballet Music' from Aida - set, of course, in Egypt.
If for a moment it seemed as if Meryl and Ned might upstage the singers they carried, Matthews's first aria 'Merce, dilette amiche' from I vespri Siciliani quickly showed the camels they'd have to do more than flutter their long eyelashes at the cameras.
And Matthews proved to be the star of the show. A national treasure in Australia, she has a finely focused, superbly controlled and beautifully clear voice. On good form in the first half's chunk of Rigoletto, she was outstanding in the second half - an ineffably moving Desdemona, singing the 'Willow Song' from Otello; and a Violetta of depth and complexity in the extracts from La traviata. Matthews conveyed every nuance of the doomed courtesan's character: from her champagne-swigging love of the high life, to the tenderness stemming from her love for Alfredo. Violetta's decision to fulfil the wish of Germont, Alfredo's father, to leave his son alone ended in a heartbreaking 'Addio'.
Alfredo to her Violetta, and the Duke to her Gilda, James Egglestone couldn't match the effortless musicianship of Matthews. At times the Australian tenor strained for the high notes, and fudged some of the fiddlier twists and turns. But there were moments of beauty, in the more lyrical passages. A shame that cheap gags at the start and in the middle of 'La donna è mobile' undermined an otherwise credible portrayal of the lustful Duke.
The Darwin Symphony Orchestra provided adept accompaniments to the singers. The other two orchestral only numbers, the Overtures to Nabucco and La Forza del Destino, were well rehearsed and full of feeling, but missed the gleam of a full string sound. Still, this always enterprising orchestra - it gave one of its first concerts on floating pontoons in the Katherine Gorge - looks set to enjoy exciting and ambitious times under the baton of its new chief conductor Matthew Wood. This year Verdi at Uluru; next year Wagner?
To read my blog about the second concert at Uluru, click here