Opera Scenes at New Zealand School of Music

Opera Scenes: Passionate Choices: Love & Duty from Purcell to Britten via Mozart and Strauss (with a dash of Offenbach)

Fifteen Voice Students

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University

Saturday, 2 October, 7.30pm

While it is a pity that there was no university opera this year, after the brilliant Semele last year, the concert in which 10 opera scenes were performed was quite an ambitious undertaking.  There was considerable variety, but enough of each opera to give more than a taste, and to allow the singers to really get into the characters.  It is good news for music in this country that there are so many singers who are capable of performing these roles.

The audience were placed facing towards the southern end of the Adam Concert Room.  Behind the area used as a stage were two beautiful red and black shot- silk curtains of ample proportions; the performers entered through the space between them.

The evening began with the quintet from Act I of Così fan tutte, by Mozart.  This contains the famous and beautiful trio for Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Don Alfonso ‘Soave sia il vento’.  The singers were very assured and the men, particularly, were excellent – Norman Pati, who had a nice turn of comedy, and Joshua Kidd, who was not quite so confident.  Dorabella (Elitsa Kappatos) produced a more mellow tone than did Angelique MacDonald as Fiordiligi (perhaps to be expected since the former is a mezzo role), but both knew their parts and their movements well, and were able to enter into the story fully.  Indeed, this was true of all the performers throughout the concert.  The placing of Don Alfonso (Thomas Barker) behind the two women for most of the trio was a disadvantage for his projection, and the ensemble between the three singers.  Costumes of 1920s appearance were excellent, and fun.

The sextet from later in Act I followed.   Now Fiordiligi was sung by Bryony Williams, while the other parts were taken by the same singers as in the quintet.  All the singers were powerful, and the parts were well characterised. 

It is wonderful what can be done with minimal sets, minimal props, beautiful costumes and beautiful, well-trained voices.  Bruce Greenfield accompanied.  I did not think he was up to his usual very high standard – perhaps it was the piano?   I found the Mozart over-pedalled, and much of the accompanying too loud.  This is probably largely due to the polished wooden floor and wooden ceiling.  I have seen, both here and at St. Andrew’s on The Terrace, heavy fabric placed under the piano to achieve a quieter tone.

Two scenes from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and two from The Turn of the Screw by Britten, were directed by one of the performers, post-graduate student Laura Dawson.  She appeared first as the Sorceress in ‘Wayward Sisters’, that wonderfully chilling witches’ incantation.  The ensemble singing with her fellow witches (Emily Simcox, Amelia Ryman, Joshua Kidd and Isaac Stone) was superb.  I would have found a deeper voice better for the Sorceress; Dawson sang much better where the music was in the higher register.  Imaginative stage business was a tribute to her invention.

The famous Dido’s Lament scene followed, after Bruce Greenfield had played (as happened elsewhere in the programme) some of the orchestral music between the scenes, which not only gave more of the feeling of the operas, but gave time for the crew (the singers themselves) to change the props, while two cloaked characters walked through with large placards stating the names of the operas and the locations of the scenes.

Laura Dawson sang Dido, Thomas Barker, Aeneas, and Belinda was very well acted and sung by Emily Simcox, who was in fine voice.  The whole scene was very effectively done, including the use of props.  The famous Lament was beautiful, except for the pronunciation of the word ‘earth’, which cut off the sound quite unnecessarily, and overdone ‘t’s – there is no need for this in a small auditorium.

That brings me to another point: it is a pity that the students do not have a ‘proper’ auditorium in which to put on opera, or scenes from opera.  They have all learned to project their voices and their words well (although some singers needed more vocal support), but projecting as if in an opera house in the Adam Concert Room leads to quite unnecessarily loud volume.  It is to be hoped that the planned new School of Music on the Ilott Green will go ahead, and include a theatre.  In the meantime, is the Theatrette at Massey University (the former National Museum Theatrette) not suitable?

The scenes from the Britten opera were, of course, something completely different; Britten was a great admirer of Purcell, and is regarded as the best English opera composer since Purcell.

The spooky mood of the opera came over well, partly due to excellent projection of the words.  The performers made the scenes thoroughly involving.  Bridget Costello as the governess and Laura Dawson as Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, were very believable characters in ‘The Window’ from Act I, and again in Act II’s scene about the ghost of the former governess.  It was very well directed, and Costello was outstanding both vocally and in her acting.

After the interval the mood changed completely, with three excerpts from Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne.  What was innovative here was that the libretto had been devised and written by the cast and director.  Therefore they gained experience in developing characters.  There were two tables at a café in Paris (presumably out-of-doors, since one man was wearing a hat – I’m always puzzled by New Zealand operas having men wearing hats indoors, a no-no in polite society of former times).  At one table sat an English family on holiday; at the other, two extravert young French women.

These were stereotypical characters: the English in tweeds and cardigan, the French in mini-skirts, smoking and chatting volubly and expressively.  Three scenes, ‘Paris c’est l’amour’, ‘Poor Fellow’ and Septet (not Sextet as in the printed programme) ‘And there will be a Lighted Candle’, involved seven singers in funny lyrics to Offenbach’s music, and amusing stage business, to make a thoroughly enjoyable little story. 

Particularly outstanding was Emily Simcox as Gertrude, the mother in the English family.  Her husband George was sung by Simon Harnden.  He opened proceedings speaking – and what a resonant speaking voice he has!   This little piece of theatre was so involving and so well done that it would be hard to isolate any one or two singers as outstanding over the others.  The emphasis was very much on clarity of words and acting, and all passed with flying colours.

The other characters were performed by Angelique MacDonald, Isaac Stone (whose acting was very amusing), Thomas O’Brien, Bridget Costello and Amelia Ryman.  The names of the two French girls were the French forms of the singers’ names – the last two in this list.

The final scene was more problematic.  Surely the final trio and duet from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier are too demanding on the voices of singers as young as these?  Not only is Strauss opera generally a hard sing, this must be one of the most difficult. 

Whether it was done to give the impression of an older woman I do not know, but I thought Bryony Williams as the Marschallin had too much vibrato for a young singer.  Bianca Andrew as Octavian was in great voice, and thoroughly convincing.  Imogen Thirwall was a very competent but somewhat anxious Sophie.  The duet was quite lovely.  Nevertheless, the volume was overpowering in the trio; singers should moderate their dynamics to suit the resonance and size of the venue.  The small role of Faninal was sung by Isaac Stone.

Set changes were very well done, and the whole production was achieved in a professional manner.  Everyone knew their parts thoroughly, and musically, the performances were enjoyable, aside from my reservation about the level of sound in some items.

How fortunate we are to have so many promising singers – and so many experienced, competent teachers at the School of Music!

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