Opera Society’s year-end gala concert

Opera arias and Liebesliederwalzer, Op 52 by Brahms

The New Zealand Opera Society, Wellington Branch.

Year End Gala Recital with Madeleine Pierard (soprano), established and rising singers accompanied by Bruce Greenfield and Julie Coulson.

National Library Auditorium, Wednesday 10 December 2009

The New Zealand Opera Society is one of New Zealand’s longest-lived musical institutions, founded at the same time as the first home-grown opera company, the New Zealand Opera Company, in 1954. Its purpose was to be friends of the company. The company died in 1971, but the society knew that it still had a job to do, supporting opera wherever to emerged in New Zealand. It has survived one other major national company, based in Auckland, which lasted a mere three years.

Since the 1970s the society whose main strength was, and still is, in Wellington, it publishes the monthly magazine, New Zealand Opera News and its Wellington Branch presents regular recitals and opera events of many kinds. In recent years it has also run screenings of opera on film and DVD but has struggled to attract audiences to live recitals.

Wednesday the 10th of December was a singular exception when there were few empty seats at the National Library auditorium.

The reason obviously, was Madeleine Pierard whose rise to celebrity has even overcome the general level of media neglect of classical music. Hardly out of her studies at the Royal College of Music in London, she has already been cast in significant roles at Covent Garden and other important opera houses. Back in New Zealand this past week, she has sung in the meretricious Paul McCartney concoction, Ecce Cor Meum as well as in a magnificent, full-house Messiah with The Tudor Consort in the Town Hall.

For the opera society she was in the spotlight with two brackets of arias.

The first comprised excerpts from opera seria: from works by Handel, Mozart and Rossini. The second bracket comprised ‘Mon coeur ne peut changer’ from Gounod’s Mireille and Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt.

Madeleine’s absolute command of style and technique held the audience spell-bound in the aria from Handel’s Alcina, ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ Without denigrating the supporting singers, here was a star, not just in the making, but made, though there are areas in which she will develop, for example in cultivating greater warmth and lyrical qualities. In the strange artificiality of Handelian belcanto, she brought an electrifying dramatic sense, utter security, agility and brilliance. In music closer to recognizable human emotions, in the aria ‘Deh se piacer mi vuoi’ from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito: there was fury and ambition. It was interesting to hear her mezzo soprano range still strong and natural. Finally, in Rossini’s famous Semiramide aria, ‘Bel raggio lusighier’, she demonstrated a virtuosity that I would risk saying might be unmatched by any other New Zealand singer.

Madeleine moved onto Kiri Te Kanawa territory with Marietta’s Song from Die Tote Stadt: very different indeed: the velvet and lyricism replaced by a crystalline, almost spectral quality which captured the opera’s decadent, Freudian obsessiveness.

Finally, a welcome exposure of Gounod’s other opera – Mireille, some rank it ahead of Roméo et Juliette as his second finest work. This aria, ‘Mon coeur ne peut changer’ has been recorded by Malvina Major on her CD Casta Diva. Madeleine sang it with the right combination of wistfulness and sparkle.

The concert was by no means simply a showcase for Ms Pierard however.

Georgia Jamieson Emms opened the evening with Norina’s ‘Quel guardo il cavaliere’ from Don Pasquale, with a degree of uncertainty in both style and panache, but her later arias – The Queen of the Night’s Act I aria and Zerbinetta’s stratospheric aria from Ariadne auf Naxos, displayed considerable flair both vocally and histrionically.

The other solo performances were from Daniel O’Connor, a young baritone who has acquired a natural ease of delivery and attractive stage presence. The notes of ‘O du mein holde Abendstern’ (Tannhäuser) may not be hard to find, but it can be a dull and stiff affair; with O’Connor it was anything but that, and there was an intelligent grasp of the Wagner idiom. Then he sang Onegin’s Act II aria, in fine Russian, with a proper degree of empathy and gentleness. Perhaps he is on the same path as T T Rhodes.

Barbara Graham is a young singer who, like O’Connor, has been on the New Zealand Opera‘s emerging artist programme. She had both the personal assurance and the musical talent to carry off, if not at especially breakneck speed, the brilliant ‘Glitter and be gay’ from Candide.

Throughout, the singers had the benefit of the most sensitive and finely judged accompaniments from Bruce Greenfield. His page turner throughout the recital had been Julie Coulson who eventually took a seat at the treble end of the keyboard to share the duet accompaniment for Brahms’s Liebesliederwalzer. None of the young featured singers took part in that performance: instead four of Wellington’s leading resident singers joined forces: Lesley Graham, Linden Loader, Richard Greager, Roger Wilson.

Individually, they brought life and affection to these somewhat pale imitations of what Johann Strauss II was wowing the world with at the same time (to be fair, Brahms did call them ‘innocent little waltzes’ to make clear that he did not aim to ape Strauss, whom he greatly admired); but as a vocal ensemble, their voices were not particularly engaging. It does not reflect on individual vocal qualities, but could as easily happen if you put together four of the world’s greatest singers: the art of selecting voices and managing them so that they blend is a delicate matter, and the smaller the number of singers the more difficult the job.

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