As a Greek-Australian soprano it's only natural that Elena Xanthoudakis should have as her twin idols Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. And when the opportunity came along to record arias from the bel canto repertoire with that master of the craft Richard Bonynge, she must have thought all her Christmases had come at once. After a few days of run-throughs and discussions at the maestro's Swiss home, the resulting 10 tracks recorded in England with the Royal Northern Sinfonia share that palpable sense of freshness and excitement that a major new talent often brings to familiar material.
Xanthoudakis was born in Victoria and as a youngster she trained as an elite gymnast. Her athleticism clearly extends to her voice, which has a light timbre and gives the impression of effortlessness in the rapid runs and wild vocal leaps.
After a slightly pallid opening to 'Quel guardo, il Cavaliere', from Donizetti's Don Pasquale, Xanthoudakis soon hits her straps and shows she has a gift for the impish playfulness which makes up much of Norina's character. There's also plenty of dramatic depth, as in her beautiful handling of the recitative and aria 'Regnava nel silenzio' from Lucia di Lammermoor (featuring Catherine Carby as the maid Alisa), or the famous sleepwalking scene from Bellini's La Sonnambula.
We get three Rossini arias—two without the added cadential top notes he disapproved of, and one with, namely 'Tace la tromba altera' from Matilde di Shabran. An unexpected but welcome inclusion is a bit of Verdi, a composer not usually associated with the bel canto genre, but 'Egli non riede ancora!' from Il Corsaro is perhaps the closest he got.
Bonynge is effusive in his praise of Xanthoudakis, describing her as 'really cluey' with a lovely technique. 'She's a very accurate singer and she takes the trouble to learn … Elena has beautiful high notes but she's not wanting to sing them all the time,' he says. 'She thinks of the whole voice and it's a very even voice from top to bottom and that's wonderful, you don't find that too often.' She also researches her subject, as her highly readable cover notes show.
It's hard to argue with Maestro Bonynge's summation that if she sticks to the roles that most suit her—Mozart, Handel and, of course, the bel canto repertoire heard here—she will have a terrific career. This is an outstanding debut album from a young singer who will hopefully attract a new generation of bel canto fans.