New Zealand Opera School, Wanganui

New Zealand Opera School, Wanganui

Grand Final Concert in Royal Wanganui Opera House. Monday 12 January

Review by Lindis Taylor

The survival of a musical organization over 16 years is no mean feat.

The New Zealand Opera School has survived that long. It is the kind of musical education institution that the State, in a more civilized country, might well provide; in fact it is not too much to expect that such a summer course might have been established by a university music department.

But the State in New Zealand has not taken many steps to make fuller and more imaginative use, of their facilities during vacations.

A summer school of singing has flourished for many more years in Hawke’s Bay and it has usually overlapped with the Wanganui school. A few years ago attempts were made to coordinate the two schools so they would not clash. But it proved impossible because both depend on overseas vocal tutors who typically have only a short time free at the beginning of January to travel to New Zealand.

But each school caters for singers at rather different levels and pursuing different singing ambitions. The National Singing School in Napier caters for jazz and music theatre and cabaret singers while the Wanganui school has confined itself to singers who have already made progress up the ladder, even having won roles in professional opera productions.

Thus the big public concerts at the end of each school has been an opportunity to hear a number of our most promising singers at an interesting stage of their training and early career.

So often it is one person who has had the energy and leadership skills to initiate and hold together valuable enterprises, inspiring others and giving them a sense of involvement and satisfaction.

That has been the gift of Donald Trott since the school began: erstwhile banker, but better known as a baritone with the Perkel Opera Company and long-serving board member of successive Auckland opera companies.

He presides over the whole enterprise, recruiting tutors and accompanists, negotiating with Wanganui Collegiate School for the use of their music facilities, but most importantly persuading potential funders that here is by far the best investment for funds that shareholders can do without.

His public face appeared on this occasion as compere and general factotum, suave, debonair, generous in his acknowledgements and encouragement, ensuring that the success of the evening brings its rewards to everyone who gives their time to it.

Guided by British vocal lecturer Paul Farringdon, several notable New Zealand voice teachers (Margaret Medlyn, Barry Mora, Richard Greager) and others such as stage director Sara Brodie and Italian coach Luca Manghi, the concert is no mere string of arias.

Several others made for the great success of this concert and the entire running of the school: most notably Donald Trott’s assistant director, Ian Campbell, his wife Sally Rosenberg and Bryan and Marion Wyness; the accompanists, a different one for each bracket: Greg Neil, Phillipa Saffey, David Kelly, Francis Cowan, Iola Shelley and Bruce Greenfield; long lists of sponsors and benefactors; and a group of friends who have managed to raise the school’s profile in the city through recitals, masterclasses, a chapel service on Sunday, during the school: Wanganui Opera Week..

Each bracket of arias or ensembles had a theme and various devices were used to move from one item to the next, so that a feeling of a tenuous story was sometimes created.

The Spoils of War opened with Frances Moore’s performance of ‘Chacun le sait’ from La fille du régiment, accompanied by a platoon comprising the whole company, bearing arms. In another scene involving guns, Jason Slade brought a nice baritonal quality to the tenor showpiece in the last act of Tosca, ‘E lucevan le stelle’. But Catherine Leining captured the false sincerity well in the usual aria from Samson et Dalila, not that it really suited her.

Each group was separated by theatrical business: here, before the group entitled The Things we do for Love, Luc Manghi suffered the first of his comic misadventures which led to Rachel Day’s effective performance in Monica’s aria from The Medium, which was enlivened with quite elaborate production elements.

Elizabeth Daley was not well advised to tackle Ilia’s role in Idomeneo – ‘Zeffiretti lusinghieri’, as it simply calls for more intensity than she can summon now, but is certainly within her reach. From Mozart’s last opera seria, La clemenza di Tito, Felicity Smith displayed some polish and dramatic ability with her ‘Parto, parto’.

The group bearing the name Desire Takes Flight strung together Claire Barton’s performance of ‘O mio Fernando’ from Donizetti’s La favorite and others by Granados (Anna Argyle singing the ‘The Maja – Woman – and the Nightingale’) and Bizet: Brent Read in the Flower song from Carmen.

Then Julia Booth sang an unfamiliar aria from Floyd’s Susannah, invoking tender longing in a quasi-American, near-Broadway idiom. She sang against a backdrop of a starry night sky which also served the quartet from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that showcased four of the evening’s best singers: Kristen Darragh, Barbara Graham, Daniel O’Connor and Michael Guy.

Each expressed the individuality of the lovers, waking from their dream-world of love-making, with careful fairy-like precision.

Naturally, some of the best performances came from seasoned singers like Darragh who will be remembered as Xenia in Boris Godunov: her Lucretia (Britten) was as harrowing as it was fully realised. Michael Guy also sang from an opera in English – Toni’s ‘Here I stand’ from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, combining a Shakespearean style with a sort of histrionic Sprechstimme that was one of the most complete performances of the evening.

The second half began with A Rose by any other Name which put together three arias from Shakespeare-inspired operas.

Two of them were from famous versions of Romeo and Juliet (though the Bellini draws not primarily on Shakespeare but on the 16th century Italian sources that Shakespeare took the story from). Gounod’s ‘Je veux vivre’ was sung with great vivacity by a perhaps Natalie Dessay-in-the-making, Tania Priebs. Barbara Graham sang ‘O quante volte’ from I Capuleti e i Montecchi, displaying a promising bel canto talent: agile and soulful with beautiful sustained lines.

There followed a rarity; the overture of Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor and Falsaff’s drinking song are well-known, but nothing else seems to escape Germany where the opera is still common enough. Alexandra Ioan gave us ‘Nun eilt herbei’, the equivalent of Mistress Ford plotting revenge, in a stylish blend of French opéra-comique and Donizetti.

Under the ‘etiquette’ From Russia with Love, most of the men on hand gave us the unusual experience of hearing arias from all three male protagonists in Eugene Onegin. Daniel O’Connor was a somewhat too unsympathetic Onegin as he declines Tatyana’s overtures, though his singing was indeed very fine; William Parry sang the unfortunate Lensky’s aria before the fateful duel, his voice accurate but not yet well grounded. Prince Gremin’s aria was sung by the splendid Hadleigh Adams, with warmth and vocal assurance.

The last group was entitled Ah! Perfidy, though Louise’s famous aria does not seem to fit into such a characterisation. It was sung prettily enough by Polly Ott. The last item was Eboli’s famous aria from Don Carlo: ‘O don fatale’ from Rachelle Pike, whose voice is big and given to too much fortissimo, though it was clear she had good dynamic control when she chose.

The entire assemblage went through entertaining stage business to perform the Papageno/Papagena duet from The Magic Flute to bring the evening to a most appropriate close.





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