Impressive Opera School concert at Wanganui

The Sixteenth New Zealand Opera School, Wanganui

Grand Final Concert. Principal tutors: Paul Farrington, Margaret Medlyn and Barry Mora; tutor, voice and languages: Richard Greager; Director of Performance: Sara Brodie; Italian language tutor: Luca Manghi; Performance assistant: Kararaina Walker

Royal Wanganui Opera House, Wednesday 13 January 2010

Twenty-four singers took part in the Final Concert of the 2010 opera school, reportedly the equal largest number. The difference between earlier line-ups and this was rather in quality than in quantity, though one could reasonably expect an increase in excellence of candidates over the years. The large number of participants meant that no singer gave more than one solo performance, though a few took also part in two ensemble pieces from Don Giovanni. This was probably the biggest audience I have seen at these concerts, boosted no doubt by the timely highlighting of the counter-tenor who had attracted national news coverage.

The evening began with a kairanga delivered by Kararaina Walker and introductory comments from school founder/director Donald Trott, who called for tutors and then the team of administrative volunteers to be acclaimed on the stage.

The recital began with three items under the heading ‘La belle époque’ (broadly the Third Republic period – 1870s till the First World War): first, Rose Blake sang the recitative and aria ‘Je marche sur tous les chemins … Obéissons…’ from Manon, risking hubris as she exalted in her shallow, glittering new life. It was stronger in stylistic grasp and energy than in finesse perhaps.

Bianca Andrew’s aria was from Gounod’s late opera, Cinq Mars, like Manon, in the decade after the Franco-Prussian War, ‘Nuit resplendissante’, A creditable effort with an unfamiliar piece, under good dynamic control if not as robustly romantic as it might have been. Oliver Sewell also sang Gounod – the familiar ‘Salut, demeure chaste et pure’ from Faust. It’s an uncomfortable piece to interpret, to overcome the audibly false sentiment and stagey gestures that are intrinsic to it; Oliver didn’t manage it without a degree of stiffness, both in voice and gesture. Nevertheless, one could read his final falling dramatically to his knees as a proper portrayal of an ultimately hypocritical action.

There followed six Mozart items, ending with a piece from William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge, tenuously linked with Lorenzo da Ponte’s later life in New York.

David Wallace chose to present an untidy, uncouth Figaro for ‘Se vuol ballare’, though he sang it excellently, with a passion. Zerlina’s ‘Batti, batti’ from Don Giovanni was incarnated admirably by Emma Newman; though her dynamics and colour were rather unvaried, her voice is firm and even and her stage presence vivid. In comparable soubrette guise, Cherubino’s ‘Non so piu’ from The Marriage of Figaro was presented by Sheridan Williams rather convincingly, iffy intonation notwithstanding.

She stayed on stage to become the victim of Figaro’s admonishments, taunting Cherubino’s for his imminent departure in the army: ‘Non piu andrai’. Tavis Gravatt’s interesting, grainy baritone, excellent low range, gave it a vigorous authority. Here the rest of the singers provided a comic, never-mind inauthentic, audience to assist in Cherubino’s discomfort. It was one of the many enlivening touches contributed by director Sara Brodie who was responsible for making a sort of coherent performance from each ‘tableau’ that comprised themed numbers.

A change of opera next: Così fan tutte with Despina’s ‘In uomini’, where she urges her two mistresses to take their chances. Amanda Barclay’s voice was agile, true and she was pretty enough to cause her charges to worry. It was one of the best performances thus far.

An ensemble followed, ‘Protegga il giusto cielo’, a quintet of the five leading characters in Don Giovanni. Gravatt reappeared as Leporello with other yet to appear singers, notably Daniel O’Connor as the Don. It was another of Sara Brodie’s vivid and effective little scenes.

Then came the rather incongruous little ode to New York from the Arthur Miller/William Bolcom opera, A view from the Bridge: a reminiscence rejoicing in the superior beauties of New York over Naples, Venice and other ugly Italian cities such as Mozart’s librettist would have been happy to have escaped from, spending his last years in New York. Tenor Brent Read had it under control, with a voice of even quality throughout its range and a grasp of style.

‘On Tenterhooks’ was the title of the next tableau, excerpts exploring moments of crisis, anxiety, impending loss, perhaps a glimmer of hope. These were accompanied by Bruce Greenfield who demonstrated a mastery of the accompanist’s art that had not been quite as marked earlier.

Francesca Geach, in a knee-length green dress, sang Lauretta’s overexposed ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi, but it was fresh: quite slow, each word considered, unaffected in delivery. An aria from a second American opera followed: Cameron Barclay sang Martin’s Song from Copland’s The Tender Land, managed its difficult line, awkward intervals, competently though there were disquieting moments; he did well. Daniel O’Connor returned to sing Billy Budd’s lament: ‘Look, through the port’. The very first notes grabbed the audience’s sympathy, speaking of his command of its singular, unimaginable anguish, with clarity and studied care with every word, and immaculate intonation. Here Greenfield’s playing was particularly valued.

Jamie Young had difficulty matching Billy Budd with his ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from L’elisir d’amore: his demeanour and vocal delivery were a little stiff and unsteady, though the voice has a basic attractiveness and range. Don Giovanni reappeared as vehicle for another ensemble: the minuet which cover’s the Don’s first attempt on Zerlina’s (dubious) virtue at the end of Act I. Alexandra Ioan’ as Zerlina and Kieran Rayner as Masetto, the Don blatantly laying the blame on Leporello. It ended the first half on a high.

As the evening wore on the ‘Sun, Moon and Stars’ changed places and were illustrated by pieces that used the heavens to symbolize human conditions.

As a result of media attention the first singer in the second half sparked a certain excitement: counter-tenor Stephen Diaz had become the talk of all at the school, not so much as the first counter-tenor in the school’s history, but more particularly on account of the sheer quality of his voice. ‘Ombra mai fu’ was preceded by its recitative, ‘Frondi tenere’ in which there was an initial slip, but by the third bar, the audience knew that the rumours were well-based. Not only did he handle the stage demands of this curious opening piece to Serse, sitting on the floor, his back against a leg of the piano, but there was a beauty and naturalness in the voice that spoke of musicianship of high quality. His voice is both strong, penetrating and expressive, and able to command a wide dynamic range and an already wide range of colour.

Diaz did not leave the stage but stayed to watch the next singer, Olga Gryniewycz who sang the Hymn to the Sun from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel; the link(?), I suppose, through its setting in the fantastic world of Russian fairytale, that is, generally south-east of Moscow, in Xerxes’ part of the world.

Gryniewycz is a bright, sparkling little soprano with a very high vocal extension who attracted attention in Handel’s Semele last year. This aria suited her well, though there was little substance in her high notes and unresolved vocal problems are still audible. But here was a vivid actress with excellent Russian and good musicianship.

Another famous Slav opera followed: Dvorak’s Rusalka – the Song to the Moon, sung by Rachel Day. Her voice is accurate, a sound, conventional soprano with agreeable warmth at the bottom of her range; she used striking facial expressions to suggest the curious nature of her dilemma.

Mimi’s ‘Si, mi chiamano Mimi’ seemed connected to the heavens only dimly. However, she sang well, if a little loud towards the end: a somewhat unlikely Rodolfo was on hand to supply a clinch as she finished.

Then came ‘Promises, Promises’, beginning improbably with Hamlet’s non-Shakespearean invocation to wine (‘O vin, dissipe la tristesse’) as the means to rid his heart of grief at Ophelia’s death: in the 1868 opera by Ambroise Thomas with librettists Barbier and Carré. French companies are unearthing such neglected works and Kieran Rayner, with a well-schooled voice and natural stage presence, presented an excellent case for this one, waving a wine bottle about the while.

The second promise also derived from Shakespeare, but even more tenuously. Thomas’s opera took serious liberties with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Bellini’s librettist committed no such offence with Romeo and Juliet; Felice Romani (who probably wrote more libretti for the great operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini than anyone else) simply went back to the same 16th century Italian romance that Shakespeare himself had indirectly borrowed from, and further distanced himself by calling it I Capuleti e i Montecchi. The soprano here in the role of Giulietta was Alexandra Ioan singing the popular aria ‘O! Quante volte’; she can act and she looked the part of the delicious young teenager that the young Capulet presumably was; every word, delivered quite slowly, was carefully placed, filled with meaning as well as emotion.

Don Ottavio is usually seen as an ineffective, quailing avenger of the dishonouring of his betrothed, Donna Anna, given instead to sententious, chivalric speeches. Michael Gray had the job of investing his promise of vengeance with conviction; his voice had the right quality, a baritonal flavour that allowed one to discover a little more grit in his vow; he produced some fine pianissimo notes too.

The final bracket was entitled ‘Lovers’ Tryst’, a rather miscellaneous group ranging from Federico’s Lament in Cilea’s account of the same Daudet play that Bizet wrote incidental music for (L’Arlesiana). Andrew Grenon had all the requisites: good stage presence, an attractive voice that he used expressively and under good dynamic control.

Amelia Berry chose one of the classics of 20th century opera, Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, based on a novel called Bruges-la-morte. Marietta’s Song reflects the small-time decadence of post-WWI Austria, a story of obsessive mourning mainly portrayed through the dream of the protagonist. Amelia’s voice was an impressive vehicle in the role, pure and even and rich in the upper register. She seemed transfixed by the words she was singing, just as the audience was.

The only excerpt from The Magic Flute in the concert was Tamino’s salute to the picture he is presented of Pamina, ‘Dies Bildnis…’. Bonaventure Allen Moetaua, whose good tenor voice has more than a little baritone character, took it slowly though at a rather unvarying forte.

Polly Ott was a finalist in the 2009 Lexus Song Quest and brought the evening to a close with the best-known aria from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, ‘O luce di quest’anima’. She re-created Linda, a pretty peasant girl with a sweet, little girl’s voice, accurate, agile, reaching, not without some thinning, to some notes above top C. It was a beguiling performance that the audience loved.

Six accompanists shared the work: Greg Neil, David Kelly, Bruce Greenfield, Mark Dorrell, Francis Cowan and Iola Shelley.

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