Mulled Wine at Paekakariki: singing with cello and piano

Handel arias: ‘Cara speme’ (Giulio Cesare), ‘Credete al mio dolore’ (Alcina); Schubert: ‘Du bist die Ruh’, Suleika and Suleika’s 2nd Song;

Dorothy Buchanan: The Man who sold goldfinches (to words by Jeremy Commons);

Fauré: ‘Après un rêve’ for cello and piano, songs ‘Clair de lune, Nell’, ‘C’est l’extase’. ‘Notre amour’; Duparc: ‘Chanson triste’, ‘Extase’, L’invitation au voyage; Poulenc: ‘C’, ‘Fêtes galantes’.

Rhona Fraser (soprano), Richard Mapp (piano), Paul Mitchell (cello)

Paekakariki Memorial Hall; Sunday 29 March 2009

Once a railway township and down-market beach settlement, Paekakariki has become an artists’ haven in recent decades, with good reason, for it has most of the virtues sought by those for whom material goodies are not a priority. The sea, wide coastal open spaces, mountains to the east, the home of a railway preservation society and a nearby tramway museum, both with functioning trains and trams together with a bravely preserved and restored railway station, perhaps the last survivor of the grand refreshment stations from the tragically devastated passenger network that we now need more than ever; and of course, the presence in the village of others of like minds and values.

Let’s focus on the music.

At the concert’s heart was a newly written collaboration between opera historian and occasional impresario and librettist Jeremy Commons and composer Dorothy Buchanan. They have worked together before, notably in another Mansfield opera, an opera trilogy based on three of her stories. This time Commons combed the Wellington stories for words, impressions, events and the very words of the stories and on which she may have reflected in her last days in the institute run by the probable charlatan (though her biographer Anthony Alpers thought not) Gurdjieff, near Fontainebleau.

The result was a sort of prose poem, The Man who Sold Goldfinches, that Buchanan set to music that I felt rather failed to ignite, to achieve memorableness: perhaps the emphasis on the obvious phrase about the goldfinches rather revealed a struggle to find musical inspiration.

Yet the setting had its integrity, accompanied sensitively, appropriately, by Paul Mitchell’s cello (Katherine herself played the cello), and it was that, as much as the perceptive singing of Rhona Fraser that sustained interest through the performance.

The rest of the concert was a happy opportunity to hear an under-exposed singer whose career has included singing with English National Opera and elsewhere in Europe. Since returning to New Zealand I’ve heard her, notably, as Galatea in New Zealand Opera’s production of Handel’s masque Acis and Galatea a few years ago. 

It indeed included a couple of dramatically sung Handel arias: ‘Cara speme’ from Giulio Cesare and ‘Credete al mio dolore’ from Alcina, drawing some too strident high notes not well treated in the hard acoustic of the hall. The other songs – Schubert, Fauré, Duparc, Poulenc – were beautifully sung, with considerable dynamic variety and tonal colour, none more brilliant than Poulenc’s Fêtes galantes. Her encore, the lovely ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi, simply posed the question why she is not in high demand by our opera companies.




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