Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Lexus Song Quest 2009, Auckland, and Wellington recital

By , 30/04/2009

Reviews of the Final of the contest in Auckland and the recital in Wellington by the three prize-winners

1. Auckland

Six finalists with New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Lloyd: Julia Booth, Aivale Cole, Kristen Darragh, Andrew Glover, Wade Kernot, Polly Ott.

Auckland Town Hall. Thursday 23 April

In the second half of the contest, when all six finalists sing opera or oratorio arias with the NZSO, it was the fifth singer who caused the sensation. She sang an aria from Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, not very familiar, entitled ‘Es gibt ein Reich’. She sang it with extraordinary insight, passion, care with its pace and articulation: in short here was a stunning, real Strauss soprano, of which we have only produced one other – Kiri Te Kanawa. Yet this singer has an arresting beauty of voice, an earthiness and power that is different from – I hesitate to say greater than – her great predecessor.

Her name is Aivale Cole and she is from Wellington. I recall first hearing her in a small opera called Classical Polynesia at the 1998 International Arts Festival, and have watched her progress over the past decade, among other things gaining first prize at the prestigious Australian Opera Studio in Perth. And she has started to win principal roles in major opera houses.

The audience burst into a frenzy of shouting and applause as her Strauss aria finished and you could sense a general feeling that most people present knew the result then. And when she sang ‘Ritorna vincitor’, Aida’s great aria from the opera of that name, the big audience did a repeat performance.

Adjudicator, the great German tenor Siegfried Jerusalem, awarded her first prize.

The other finalists were not at all to be dismissed however. Auckland bass Wade Kernot gained second prize; as he had in the 2007 contest. He has a powerful, resonant bass voice that remains firm below the bass stave, but is at its most attractive in the middle baritone range. The first half of the contest comprised lieder and songs, accompanied by pianist Terence Dennis, and Kernot impressed at first with a Brahms lied, ‘Verrat’, investing it with convincing drama. His arias were ‘Se vuol ballare’ from The Marriage of Figaro, effective if not spectacular, but the great monologue of Philip II of Spain in Verdi’s Don Carlo, ‘Ella giammai m’amo’, did seem to put him in serious contention, with its deep insight into a lonely king reflecting on the path his barren life had taken.

Of the three not rewarded, I felt Kristen Darragh had been unlucky, for her song by Hahn was gorgeous, the aria ‘O mio Ferrando’ from Donizetti’s La Favorita arresting, and she gave a very impressive rendering of Lucretia’s aria from Britten’s opera on the Shakespeare poem. However, she was vindicated by inclusion in a principal role in L’Italiana in Algeri shortly afterwards.

This was one of the strongest contests of the many I have attended: all we need now is enough real opera activity to employ all the talent that emerges from our academies and universities.

(an edited version of the review for The Dominion Post)

2. The winners’ recital in Wellington. Aivale Cole, Wade Kernot and Julia Booth with Terence Dennis (piano)

The Opera House, Wellington; Thursday 30 April

There was a big audience at the Opera House for the Wellington recital by the three place-getters at the Lexus Song Quest held the previous week in Auckland.

This was the first time the contest has presented such recitals, believed to be compensation to the rest of the country because Lexus has stipulated that the finals should be held every time in Auckland. It will be recalled that Mobil, based in Wellington, had rotated the final around all the main cities and that, ironically, some of the smallest audiences were usually in Auckland.

The recital was a quite different experience from the competition final. The atmosphere allowed singers to respond more openly, in a more relaxed manner without the competitive tension. The singer who responded best to this was runner-up Wade Kernot. His Brahms lied, which had been dramatic enough, but monochrome, was now a most interesting and varied narrative. In addition he sang a droll Beethoven song, ‘Der Kuss’ with sufficient gestural accompaniment to make its ironical points amusing.

Instead of ‘Se vuol ballare’ which he’d sung in Auckland he sang the Catalogue aria from Don Giovanni which was a brilliant showcase for his studied comic skills and for a voice capable of pointed tonal variety. On the other hand, his great Don Carlo monologue was rather more involving than Fiesco’s ‘Il lacerato spirito’ from Simon Boccanegra which he sang in Wellington. And ‘Ol’ Man River’ suited him, not merely because of its low notes but because he could invest it with such a feeling of defeat.

Away from comparison with the other three singers, the gap between Julia Booth and the first and second place-getters was more noticeable; she seemed to have lost some stature on account of the greater maturity and assurance of the other two singers. In ‘Die Forelle’ her voice seemed smaller and less warm than in the Auckland Town Hall and her second lied, Böhm’s ‘Still wie die Nacht’, sort of lesser-Schumann, though nicely sung, was less interesting. In comparison, her adventurous Britten song, ‘A Poison Tree’ had marked her Auckland performance as well-schooled and well-understood.

Her arias in Wellington were generally more comfortable. She sang none of the same pieces as in Auckland: now it was the touching ‘Il est doux, il est bon’ from Massenet’s Herodiade (made familiar on CD by Gheorghiu), and ‘Ain’t it a pretty night’ from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. Her voice tends to thin at the top, but her middle register is attractive and expressive. After Cole’s and Kernot’s consummate duet ‘Bess you is my woman now’, Julia was not well placed for her singing of Gershwin’s early song ‘The Man I love’  (originally for inclusion in Lady Be Good of 1924). An interesting tune for sure, but in Booth’s hands too fragile.

The third prize went to soprano Julia Booth, Canadian-born to New Zealand parents, a Waikato University graduate. She probably gained credit for a challenging Benjamin Britten song, ‘A Poison Tree’, which she handled very intelligently; and perhaps for Dvorak’s Song to the Moon, and Liu’s last aria from Turandot, ‘Tu che di’ gel sei cinta’.

Ensembles were an interesting feature. The Flower Duet from Lakmé was a fetching blending of Julia Booth and Aivale Cole, the trio from Così fan tutte, slightly less so, alongside Wade Kernot’s imposing Alfonso.

I was anxious that my opinion of Aivale Cole’s triumphant singing of the aria from Ariadne auf Naxos (‘Es gibt ein Reich’) would be vindicated by her singing in Wellington. While in this piece her voice was more even and opulent in the recital than in her earlier items, it was perhaps the one time that I missed the Strauss orchestra, as wonderfully supple and sensitive as Dennis’s accompaniments were.

But before that she had sung the three songs from Korngold’s Op 22; the first two were good if not really demonstrative of her quality, which appeared more convincingly in the flowing melody of ‘Weil ist stille eingeschlafen’. Her other opera offering was the famous La Wally aria, ‘Ebben? Ne andrò lontana’, which, rather expectedly, displayed her talents at their best, her tone dramatic, vividly expressing her anguish.

In her last bracket of American songs, her choice, apart from her duet from Porgy and Bess with Kernot, was ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’, arranged by John Carter, easy and fluent; again it revealed a voice and a musical sensibility capable of finding the authentic style and spirit of almost anything.

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