Emma Matthews and James Egglestone help the DSO sparkle in front of Ayers Rock.

It’s an unlikely program for the first orchestral concert to be played at the foot of Ayers Rock. No Peter Sculthorpe, no Brett Dean – not even Beethoven, who so often bears the flag when Western art music marches into new territory. The Darwin Symphony Orchestra decided to inaugurate the rock with a gala of Giuseppe Verdi, whose 200th anniversary is celebrated this year. And when you have the magnificent soprano Emma Matthews as a soloist, why not Verdi, after all?
 
It was a concert to remember, not least for the desert backdrop, which looked like a publicity still from Baz Luhrman’s Australia. But the arrival of Emma Matthews was more Lawrence of Arabia than anything else. Perched sidesaddle atop a camel, the brave soprano was trotted to the stage just as the last strains of the overture to Aida were fading. While the crowd ogled the dromedary (named Meryl – she almost threatened to steal the show), Matthews took her place centrestage for her first aria, Mercè, dilette amiche from I Vespri Siciliani.
 
It was the first of four solo arias that showcased Matthews at the peak of her considerable vocal and dramatic powers. Her range does not appear to have a weak link – every note is placed beautifully on the breath and rings with bell-like purity. Her four arias from La Traviata were a particular delight, as she gave Violetta a depth of pathos not always associated with the character. Far from being the anthem of a feckless party girl, Sempre Libera became the cri de coeur of a hedonist who longs for something she can’t find in a champagne bottle. As an actress, Matthews gave a masterclass in doing much with little, able to convey the vicissitudes of her heroines – from Desdemona’s nostalgia to Violetta’s angst – with a flutter of an eyelash here, a downcast glance there. It’s rare to see such dramatically complete performances away from the opera stage.
 
Tenor offsider James Egglestone did a commendable job of keeping up with La Matthews, coyly interrupting La Donna è Mobile to spin a yarn about the Duke’s misadventures at the Sydney Mardi Gras. Egglestone’s voice, while not the most controlled instrument, had moments of thrilling power, especially in the middle of the range.
 
The Darwin Symphony surpassed all expectations one could reasonably have of an orchestra with only five professional members. They accompanied the singers with impressive rigour, although were slightly less disciplined when let loose on overtures and incidental music from La Forza del Destino, Rigoletto, Nabucco and Aida. Still, one got the feeling that their new chief conductor Matthew Wood, who has studied with legendary Finnish maestro-maker Jorma Panula, is only just beginning to build something special with this focussed and dedicated ensemble.
 
At a post-concert supper, some of the international music journalists covering the concert expressed their astonishment at finding such talent blooming in the Australian desert. I was put in mind of Zubin Mehta’s words at the recent Australian World Orchestra concert, where he implored the audience to stop the exodus of talented musicians from this country. So there was a special meaning in seeing a Sydney-based singer such as Matthews give a world-class performance in front of that massive pile of arkose that is the symbol of outback Australia. Here’s a brindisi to the DSO for making it happen.

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