‘Hideous Love’ offered by Brio, opera ensemble

Excerpts from Handel’s Acis and Galatea, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and Verdi: Un ballo in maschera, Il Trovatore, Rigoletto

Brio: Janey MacKenzie, Jody Orgias, John Beaglehole, Roger Wilson; piano: Robyn Jaquiery

St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Wednesday 26 August 2009

The success of the somewhat heterogeneous range of voices comprising the vocal ensemble Brio lies in their energy and histrionic flair and the plain delight they four take in what they undertake. On this occasion Roger Wilson replaced the ensemble’s usual baritone Justin Pearce.

Acis and Galatea was given a semi-staged performance by New Zealand Opera a few years ago in the Opera House. It is a hybrid work, classed as a masque, a hybrid dramatic form that possibly has more in common with the French opéra-ballet, practised by Lully and Campra. First performed in 1718, it was Handel’s first dramatic venture in English; his only other dramatic piece in English, a true opera, not counting oratorios, was Semele.

Roger Wilson began with Polyphemus’s aria, ‘O ruddier than the cherry’ – one of those arias that one wishes was in Czech or something we didn’t understand. The odd case of a love song that seems more designed to dismay than to seduce. I was as struck by John Beaglehole’s tenor aria – as Acis – ‘Love sounds the alarm’, a vivid, penetrating performance.

Towards the end of the aria Janey MacKenzie, as Galatea, and Wilson joined in with a display of theatrical ferocity that truly shook the altar.

If the final quartet, now including Jody Orgias, didn’t offer the most beautiful blend, it was dramatic, diction was clear and it did what is most valuable – encouraged us all to rush to the library to borrow score or recordings.

The Italian version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (why the reference to Berlioz’s 19th century version?) might not have exemplified hideous love, but Jody Orgias, as Orpheus, evoked a bereft figure and her unusual timbre did grief very well. The following duet, ‘Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte’ between Orgias and MacKenzie was the more credible, given the marked contrast in their voices. Beaglehole took over the role of Orfeus to sing ‘Che farò senza Euridice’ with feeling and minor intonation flaws.

The rest of the concert was Verdi’s. First, the night scene in Un ballo in maschera where Amelia consults Ulrica with Riccardo observing. Jody’s singing captured Ulrica splendidly, filled with foreboding, while Janey captured the timorous Amelia’s anxiety very well.

The next case of unlikely, if not hideous, love was that between the Conte di Luna and Leonora in Il Trovatore. Roger Wilson as the unhinged count, expecting to get Leonora on condition of freeing Manrico, again summoned fearful Verdian rage, while MacKenzie’s part gave her an opportunity for some impressive bravura singing.

The last excerpt was the great quartet from the last act of Rigoletto, where each character reveals starkly different emotions, and here they were delineated with remarkable vividness.

The group’s regular pianist, Robyn Jaquiery supported all the singing colourfully: the piano was raised to the middle level of the steps that rise to the sanctuary: an excellent improvement both in visibility and sound.