Opera review: A Celebration of Opera by Voxalis

The finale to Voxalis’ inaugural program for 2022 offered a tantalising mix of opera favourites with some welcome lesser-known repertoire.

Voxalis is the brainchild of two talented young musicians, both recent graduates of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, Griffith University (QCGU). Co-Founder and General Manager, Matthew Schwarz, and Co-Founder and Artistic Coordinator, Camilo Lopez, created Voxalis earlier this year with the aim of reinvigorating the storytelling genre of opera and creating important performance opportunities for the next generation of singers.  

Predominantly aiming to engage local and young emerging opera singers, many of the Voxalis performers have either trained at the QCGU or are still studying there. With five concerts already under its belt in 2022, A Celebration of Opera introduces the voices of 12 talented Brisbane-based singers in Voxalis’s largest and most ambitious program to date with overwhelmingly positive results.  

Sung in Italian and accompanied on piano by the highly skilled Mark Connors, the repertoire was unapologetically mainstream. The program offered arias, duets, quartets and ensembles from 18th and 19th century Italian opera by Mozart, Verdi, Donizetti and Rossini.  

Staged in the Concert Hall of the Old Museum Building with good acoustics, this highly-anticipated program attracted a sizeable and very appreciative audience. 

Five key extracts from Mozart’s Don Giovanni were sung in the first half of the program, in a semi-staged and costumed presentation. Assisted by director, Camilo Lopez, and choreographer, Lois Redman, this staging added a professional and polished context to the work. With some careful musical and repetitive changes to create links between the arias and ensembles, the extracts were also integrated to make a cohesive whole. 

Starting at the end of Act 1 with the glorious aria, ‘Ah! chi mi dice mai’, by the jilted Donna Elvira, well-presented by Rachael Griffin, the performance moved into Leporello’s famous catalogue aria, ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’. This was extremely well sung by talented baritone Aidan Hodder, who made the most of his delivery with a solid and strong voice across the whole range, while injecting much humour into the aria. 

Leading directly into the marvellous Act 1 finale, ‘Riposate, vezzose ragazze’, Hodder was then joined by the Don Giovanni of Cameron Bodiam Taylor, whose powerful voice and strong stage presence brought the full-blooded Don to life. He was accompanied by the timid newlyweds, Gabrielle Diaz’s Zerlina and Jack Bolton’s Masetto, who held their own vocally – the four voices blending well. 

The second half of the scene sees the arrival of the masked Donna Anna (Anna Tafani), Don Ottavio (Ji Zhang) and Donna Elvira (Rachael Griffin). The septet that follows is one of the most famous in all of Mozart’s operas and is technically complex. With well-spaced staging and excellent accompaniment, the singers gave us a fine vocal rendition that demonstrated the heightened emotion and exhilaration of the music. It was very well done.       

Don Giovanni’s aria, ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’, opened the second act and showed us the softer, though no less odious, side of his character. Taylor managed it sensitively and with good phrasing and legato. In the role of Zerlina, Gabrielle Diaz’s light, high soprano followed. Her coaxing and comforting of her husband Masetto in ‘Vedrai, carino’, was fetchingly played and sung with just a hint of mischief. 

Don Giovanni’s demise comes at the end of the opera. Vikram Goonawardena’s dark, deep bass thundered the Commendatore’s lines, ‘Don Giovanni, a cenar teco’ summoning his adversary to respond. Taylor’s defiant Don Giovanni alongside the terrified Leporello of Hodder created a chilling atmosphere on stage, though the icy handshake between Giovanni and the Commendatore was less effective. Moreover, it seemed strange to have the Commendatore seated rather than towering over the proceedings for much of the scene. 

The second half of the concert gave us major arias, a famous quartet and some choral singing from 19th century opera masters. Goonawardena sang Giovanni da Procida’s patriotic aria to his homeland, ‘O tu, Palermo’, from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, with suitable gravitas and well-placed top and bottom notes. He has an impressive, rich and powerful bass.   

Voxalis followed this with Elena’s joyous song of love and happiness from the same opera, ‘Mercè, dilette amiche’. Sung by dramatic soprano, Morgan England-Jones, this was a terrific interpretation of this famous aria, demonstrating not only her large vocal dramatic range, but also her soaring top notes with a lovely creamy coloratura. It was sung with great beauty and passion.    

England-Jones also gave us the ravishing prayer, ‘Deh! Tu di un’umile preghiera‘, from Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and was ably supported by a small chorus. Having been sentenced to death by her cousin, Elizabeth, Mary’s aria is a heartfelt lament that shows off some fine ‘bel canto’ pianissimo and floating top notes to stunning effect.        

Mezzo-soprano, Anne Fulton, took on the pants role of Orsini, in the aria ‘ll segreto per esser felice’ from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. The character is giving a drunken toast at a grand party, and Fulton enacted and sang the aria with style and humour.

Verdi’s Rigoletto offered the Duke’s famous aria ‘La donna è mobile’, which was bravely managed and sung with aplomb by tenor Bernard Wheaton.  The celebrated quartet came after the aria, offering a delightful and well-paced blend of vocals from Wheaton and mezzo-soprano Fulton, as Maddalena. They were joined by England-Jones as Gilda and Goonawardena as Rigoletto, the whole giving us some of Verdi’s most extraordinary music. Vocally, this was one of the highlights of the concert.     

The Celebration of Opera finished on a beautiful chorale piece from the final moments of Rossini’s opera, Guglielmo Tell. The song of praise and triumph over evil, ‘Tutto cangia, il ciel s’abbella’, was lovingly phrased and presented by the entire cast, with some delightful solo lines from baritone Camilo Lopez, tenor Wheaton and mezzo-soprano Fulton. 

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This was a great piece to finish on though the audience clearly wanted more. Unfortunately, no encore was offered, which was a pity as a light and frothy piece to round off the concert would have been well-received and should certainly be considered in forthcoming concerts. Nevertheless, this was an impressive and successful operatic concert from Voxalis and bodes well for its 2023 season and beyond.      

Voxalis presents A Celebration of Opera 
Concert Hall, Old Museum Building, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane  

General Manager/Co-Founder: Matthew Schwarz 
Artistic Coordinator/Co-Founder: Camilo Lopez 
Artistic Adviser and Choreographer: Lois Redman 
Pianist/Accompanist: Mark Connors 

Artists: Rachael Griffin, Anna Tafani, Gabrielle Diaz, Morgan England-Jones, Anne Fulton, Bernard Wheaton, Ji Zhang,Cameron Bodiam Taylor, Aidan Hodder, Camilo Lopez, Jack Bolton, Vikram Goonawardena 




Sunday 6 November, 2022

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She is a freelance arts writer and has been writing reviews and articles for over 20 years, regularly reviewing classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals Most recently she was Arts Hub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer.