Wendy Dawn Thompson (mezzo-soprano) and friends at St Andrew’s

Opera arias and songs: Handel, Strauss, Mahler, Brahms, Mozart and others

Emma Sayers (piano) plus Amelia Berry and Bianca Andrew (sopranos), Michael Gray (tenor), Matthew Landreth (baritone). Presented by the New Zealand Opera Society (Wellington Branch)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Saturday 12 December 2009

This was to have been a showcase for Wendy Dawn Thompson, with the support of two younger singers Amelia Berry and Matt Landreth. But because Wendy was ailing (she had to cancel a Messiah a few days before) it was decided to reduce her load by the inclusion of a couple of other singers. They were Bianca Andrew and Michael Gray.

It made a concert of greater variety even if we were deprived of more singing by the main star.

Wendy opened the evening with ‘Ombra mai fu’, Handel’s Largo (actually marked ‘Larghetto’) from Serse (Xerxes), handling the Persian King’s castrato role in a rich, almost fruity voice, for some tastes perhaps a little too heavy with vibrato; no doubt it was a symptom of her ailment. Her higher notes were warm and clear however. She followed it with ‘Behold, … O Thou that tellest’ from Messiah, which revealed a somewhat clearer performance. The rest of her offerings came in the second half of the concert: four Strauss lieder, all love songs of different characters. Gefunden, innocence and simplicity in a Goethe lyric in which a plant symbolizes the poet’s resolve to ensure his love’s survival by digging it up carefully and planting it in his garden. Nachtgang, mildly salacious, and Heimliche Aufforderung which approached R18, Wendy sang with nicely varied timbres and delicate dynamic control. Morgen was the best known song: Emma Sayers’s introduction, as delightfully coloured as throughout, announced a languid tempo with suggestive, expectant pauses with the subtle phrasing that all her performances displayed.

Amelia Berry sang two Mahler songs from his Rückertlieder. They showed some signs of unevenness of tone and occasional suspect intonation, but her voice is attractive and her dramatic talent (I last head her in the title role in the New Zealand School of Music’s production of Handel’s Semele mid-year) a clear asset.  She sang ‘Ruhe sanft’ from Mozart’s Zaïde (which I also heard her sing at the Wellington Aria Competition in August). She brought to it a good feeling for its warm lyricism though the high notes taxed her somewhat. She made a good fist of Baïlero too. In both songs one competes with particularly beautiful recorded renderings, not least by Kiri Te Kanawa: they colour ones impressions though they shouldn’t.

Here, as throughout the programme I found my ear caught by the beautiful, piano playing of Emma Sayers, creating vivid, contrasting orchestral colours in different parts of the keyboard.

Amelia’s last song was ‘Chi il bel sogno di Doretta’ from La Rondine; it wasn’t clear to me what happened at the beginning as she twice broke off to start again after a couple of bars. Much of it lies high and her voice thinned on those notes; though, as with the Mozart and Canteloube pieces earlier, there was a real feeling for the idiom.

Bianca Andrew also sang in Semele, as Ino. She opened her bracket with Cherubino’s aria, ‘Non so piu’, from The Marriage of Figaro, giving full rein to her character’s unruly hormones, with open agitation in her voice. Pastoral calm followed with The Sally Gardens in Britten’s arrangement, two Brahms lieder – Liebestreu and ‘Wir wandelten’. She sang them with an easy charm, occasionally resting her arm on the piano lid, handling the phrasing comfortably; they suited her voice excellently. And though she sang the Habanera from Carmen musically, she didn’t quite capture its dangerous sexuality.

Michael Gray opened his selection with Tosti’s La serenata, confident and polished, though not especially Italianate in character. Britten’s Holy Sonnets of John Donne on the other hand were sung with a sure instinct for their idiom and the poetry; his performance might have erred in the sense of dramatic feeling and emphasis, but for me, who doesn’t warm particularly to this sort of Britten, his performance, with its clear articulation, became meaningful.

In the opera, Don Ottavio’s ‘Il mio tesoro’ seems to hold up the drama, but Gray made a great deal of it.

Matthew Landreth’s share of the evening opened with Lilburn’s cycle of six songs, Sings Harry. (incidentally, there are 12 poems in Glover’s sequence as published in the 1971 edition of Enter without knocking, counting as one the three parts of Songs – ‘These songs will not stand’; if you want to refresh your acquaintance with Glover, look at Gordon Ogilvie’s full-blooded entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography – accessible on the Internet).

Both the colour of his very natural baritone (never mind they were written for tenor) and his instinctive feel for the songs made their performance a delight. The skill of a poetry reader in ‘When I am old’, a deeply nostalgic ‘Once the days were clear’, and those quintessential Glover lines ‘For the tide comes and the tide goes and the wind blows’ he articulated as movingly as anyone I have heard.

Landreth made an effortless job of ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’ from Tannhäuser, with fine pianissimo control; but was not quite as comfortable in ‘Se vuol ballare’.

This concert didn’t draw the audience it deserved, both on account of Wendy Dawn, or of the four others, or the splendid pianist or the intrinsic delight of the happily haphazard programme.

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