Whanganui hosts a sell-out opera school gala concert

Seventeenth New Zealand Opera School at Whanganui. Director of the school: Donald Trott; Performance director: Sara Brodie

Royal Wanganui Opera House

Thursday 13 January 2011

For the first time, the gala concert to end the summer opera school was a sell-out. A brilliantly contrived TV item may have been partly responsible, with a rehearsed ‘ad hoc’ performance in a street market a couple of days before featuring the brindisi from La traviata.

In recent years a group has become established, Wanganui Opera Week, which helps popularise and make visible and audible the school’s activities in the city. And year by the year appreciation of the rare distinction that Whanganui enjoys in the survival of its Victorian opera house grows. A house not only of considerable architectural interest but also with excellent acoustics.

The last four summer opera schools have had the benefit of staging and, shall we say, dramaturgical embellishment by choreographer and opera and theatre director Sara Brodie. And it was this element, in addition to the widely acknowledged rise in vocal skills, that dominated audience conversations. In contrast to last year’s concert which comprised a series of tableaux each with something of a common theme, this concert was guided by two ideas.

The first was an audition session from the inside, with Sara Brodie playing the key role in the assessments. The first candidate, Bianca Andrew, sang a vivid ‘Parto, parto’ from La clemenza di Tito, all the taxing roulades cleanly delivered, and she was rewarded with an immediate, ‘You’re hired!’.

The auditioning process recurred from time to time throughout, but it was overlaid by a French cabaret or revue setting, and the colour blue seemed to be a constant image, along with the sensuous use of large feather boas; they became a sort of trade mark. The joint MCs of the revue scenes were Bianca Andrew and Cameron Barclay; he later sang the aria from Les Troyens.

Nothing could have been more French than the four excerpts from Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann and the panel’s conferring about the singer led to the Students’ drinking song from the Prologue to that opera, sung by the men – I counted nine. Was this a record? I don’t think there have been so many excellent male singers at the school before.

The first ‘Act’ closed with the Barcarolle – the duet from the Giulietta act, with the surprise inclusion of the Sri Lankan counter-tenor Stephen Diaz, who had attracted wide attention last year. He took Nicklausse’s mezzo role, inauthentically, as a female mezzo normally sings the part of Hoffmann’s male friend. His performance was immaculate and authoritative. Bryony Williams sang Giulietta, well, though the two voices seemed to inhabit quite different acoustic spaces; was it a quirk of the theatre or was there some subtle amplification taking place?

Diaz had earlier sung an aria by one of the great composers of the castrato era – Riccardo Broschi, the brother of Carlo, more famous as the castrato Farinelli, from his opera called Idaspe (Venice, 1730). Though this year’s aria (‘Ombra fedele anch’io’) was unknown, it made no less impact than Handel’s ‘Ombra mai fu’ did in 2010. Though Diaz made his performance with its dazzling embellishments look easy, it was not merely the uncommon vocal register that made him stand out, but also his musicianship and lyrical gift, his natural expressive powers, the penetrating strength and subtlety of his singing that placed him in a class of his own.

Bryony Williams’s solo aria was in the second half – Catalani’s greatest hit, ‘Ebben? Ne andrò lontana’ from La Wally. Here, in a long blue gown, Wally enters being chased from her father’s house because she persists in her love for the son of her father’s enemy. Her polished voice and arresting stage presence did full justice to this evocative aria.

The second offering from The Tales of Hoffmann was the Kleinzach chorus, sung in English, with the final sound of both that name and the Bach town of Eisenach pronounced ‘k’; no need to anglicize to that degree. However the singing was spirited. It was followed as if there was some narrative connection, by ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Samson et Dalila; Elisha Fai sang it in French, showing a few flaws though hers is a pleasing and promising voice.

A Samson presented himself at her feet during her performance, which was followed by the metamorphosis from Samson to Hoffmann to a continuation of Kleinzach. Darren Pene Pati’s voice exhibited colour and real beauty as well as impressive control.

We did not hear him in an extended aria till his beautiful performance of ‘Che gelida manina’ (Bohème) near the end of the concert. His was one of the highlights of the concert and it received a well merited ovation. His Mimi, Xing Xing Wang, followed it naturally with ‘Si, mi chiamano Mimi’ in a perfect interpretation that was vocally affecting and histrionically poised and moving. Applause for her was hardly less enthusiastic.

The third piece from Hoffmann was the above mentioned Barcarolle; the fourth, fittingly, was the septet that brings the opera to an end, as it did the concert itself, with the entire assembly singing with huge gusto and enjoyment. Bruce Greenfield accompanied all the Hoffmann excerpts, lending the spirit of the fantastic and the recklessness that characterizes the story of Offenbach’s hero.

Other French pieces included a lovely aria that is familiar but whose provenance is probably obscure: ‘Oh! Ne t’éveille pas encore’ from Jocelyn by Benjamin Godard, a contemporary of Fauré and Chausson. Oliver Sewell did not altogether avoid the danger of allowing its charming sentiment from sliding towards the sentimental; a good voice but as yet little stage presence.

In ‘Act II’, the first French aria came from a rather neglected quarter: Berlioz.

Cameron Barclay repeated his successful recipe from last year, with something very unfamiliar. In 2010 he sang an aria from Copland’s The Tender Land; this time it was Iopas’s aria ‘O blonde Cérès’ sung to console Dido in Act IV of Les Troyens. His French was good and the quality of his voice promising as he found the right idiom and phrasing for Berlioz’s sometimes unusual metres.

There followed two familiar arias from familiar operas, Carmen and Faust, but first, and most remarkably, the final scene from Poulenc’s devastating opera Dialogues des Carmélites. (Note the proper title of the opera is without the definite article). Here, in the opera based on Georges Bernanos’s novel, all 11 women in the school took the parts of the nuns, falling dead in full view on stage as we hear the swoosh of the guillotine, in one of the many terrible acts of fanaticism perpetrated during the Terror following the French Revolution. In the only live production I’ve seen, the nuns are led out one by one to be executed out of sight; the effect is, as always, far more chilling and powerful than for violent acts to be portrayed graphically, a fact to which most theatre and film directors today seem oblivious.

It was perhaps the most dramatic and memorable item on the evening.

School director Donald Trott reminded those of the audience unaware of the career of founder tutor of the school Virginia Zeani, that she had sung the major role of Blanche de la Force at the La Scala world premiere of Carmélites in 1947 – the opera made such a remarkable impact that productions followed in the same year in Paris, Cologne and San Francisco.

Kieran Rayner followed that with Valentin’s aria from Faust pleading that God watch over his sister Marguérite while he is away at war. As with his brindisi from Thomas’s Hamlet in 2010, aria Rayner showed his flair in the French repertoire, striking presence and a robust attractive voice. Oddly, I found some of his French vowels a little eccentric.

From fifteen years later, Carmen made its appearance in Micaela’s second aria, ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’.Rachel Day chose it well for it lay comfortably for her even though her top notes were a little shrill.

Other nationalities were represented in a few items.

American operas had interesting exposure, starting with Bernstein’s Candide. Here was a splendid vehicle for promising coloratura Olga Gryniewicz who sang a Rimsky-Korsakov aria in 2010. In truth, some of the high notes in ‘Glitter and be Gay’ showed her at a little below the polished and assured brilliance of some earlier performances, but there is both fine musicianship and vocal virtuosity here; and she is a vivid actress.

Menotti is American rather than Italian and the aria from The Old Maid and the Thief opened ‘Act II’; Bridget Costello sang the droll ‘Steal me, sweet thief’ with clear diction and straight-faced irony; her voice is well schooled, has excellent dynamic control and she inhabited the role well.

The third American opera was Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah from which Amelia Berry sang ‘The trees on the mountain’. She sings with skill and confidence, her voice firm, accurate and expressive. In choosing this aria she demonstrated both adventurousness and a musicality that should take her far.

Two singers had chosen Britten.

Rose Blake sang the Embroidery aria from Peter Grimes, a long and difficult piece to interpret musically and with lyricism, yet her well-supported voice and secure high notes complemented her musicality.

Considerably less familiar is Britten’s Rape of Lucretia though its first appearance just after World War II led to many productions. The former Wellington Polytechnic produced it about a decade ago. It was not the title-role we heard – made famous by Ferrier and Baker – but the part of Tarquin, as he contemplates the sleeping Lucretia. Thomas Barker’s baritone was beguiling and attractive rather that expressing the violent lust that drives him.

Stravinsky’s The Rakes’s Progress can also be classed as English for Stravinsky set this operatic interpretation of Hogarth’s set of engravings in English. Imogen Thirlwell sang Anne’s poignant aria, ‘No news from Tom’ with clarity and some sensitivity.

Since the last gala concert of the opera school, several of these singers were heard in one or both of the operas in Rhona Fraser’s Days Bay garden: The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s The Journey to Rheims. There they all demonstrated their ability to handle not just individual arias but sustained performance in a real opera.

Mozart in fact out-numbered Offenbach, with six singers in a variety of well-known arias from four operas. There were two arias from Figaro.

Isabella Moore sang the Countess’s ‘Porgi amor’, her first appearance at the beginning of Act II. I thought her red dress offered the wrong image for the betrayed wife, but her singing showed her understanding nevertheless.

A little later in Act II the young page Cherubino, a mezzo trouser role, seeks the help of Susanna and the Countess in understanding his unrelenting priapism: ‘Voi che sapete’, and Ceit McLean sang it well enough; as yet she has not developed the flair and confidence to carry such an aria off with real elan.

I mentioned Bianca Andrew’s ‘Parto, parto’ from Tito, which opened the concert.

Tavis Gravatt sang the baritone role of Guglielmo from Così fan tutte: ‘Donne mie, la fate a tanti’, in a sturdy, capable performance, not yet invested with much charm.

Another baritone, Anthony Schneider, sang the first of two arias from The Magic Flute: Papageno’s ‘Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja’, natural seeming; the by-play seemed a little de trop, as the Three Ladies made their appearance which would have made sense only to those familiar with the story. There were glosses on several other performances that would have had meaning only to the initiated. Schneider carried it very well.

The tenor ‘hero’ Tamino in the Flute is less funny than Papageno, and so makes quite different demands. A somewhat rapturous reaction is called for as he looks at a vignette of the princess Pamina, and neither Jamie Young’s costume nor his demeanour quite met the requirements; the by-play was again a little distracting but his actual singing portrayed Tamino effectively.

Accompaniments were uniformly splendid; in addition to Greenfield, they were Greg Neil, Iola Shelley, Evans Chang, Travis Baker, Mark Dorrell, and Philippa Safey. Michael Vinten conducted choruses. The tutors were Prof Paul Farrington, Margaret Medlyn, Barry Mora, Richard Greager; Flavio Villani tutors in Italian and Kararaina Walker was production assistant and delivered the opening Karanga.

In a country so isolated from the musical, especially operatic, resources and performances available in Europe and even in North America, more than usual efforts need to be made to provide opportunities to hone skills and cultivate talents and interpretive insight as well as taking part in live performance. This now 17-year-old opera school at Whanganui provides some of the scarce experiences of the first kind.

The Whanganui project is the result of extraordinary efforts on the part of a few dedicated enthusiasts, led by Donald Trott, dependent on huge fund-raising efforts which ought to be taken up to a far greater degree through the state-assisted tertiary education system.

We need both advanced training and journeyman experiences for our rising singers, plus professional companies that can stage more than two productions a year to provide a basic livelihood in their own country.

While New Zealand often seems content to congratulate itself for producing gifted musicians and others in the arts, little attention is paid to the stark fact that this country is right at the bottom of the OECD in terms of arts funding at all levels and in all the serious genres. What initiatives the Government does take seem, extraordinarily, to be devoted to energy and money-wasting ‘reviews’ and consultative processes, to cutting and imposing ever-increasing barriers and demands on poverty-stricken, already struggling enterprises.

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