Snell, Castle and Bryony Williams in opera recital at St Andrew’s

St. Andrew’s Season of Concerts and the New Zealand Opera Society

Sarah Castle (mezzo), Martin Snell (bass), Bryony Williams (soprano), Bruce Greenfield (accompanist)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace,

Thursday, 17 March, 7.30pm

A well-filled church greeted the performers; it was necessary for the latter to introduce the items, since programmes had run out. This introduced a level of informality as well as information.

Martin Snell opened the evening’s opera excerpts; his resonant speaking voice made a memorable introduction to the first aria, ‘Sorge infausta una procella’, sung by Zoroastro in Handel’s Orlando of 1733. Hearing the singer in this resonant church the night after having heard him in Xerxes made me realise how much we miss in a large theatre, even in a good seat and in the relatively good acoustics of the St. James Theatre (Rodney Macann says that the best sound is in the upper gallery there).

Enunciation of consonants really tells in this acoustic, as did the marvellous runs and plangent, characterful low notes the singer executed in this robust aria, and elsewhere. Snell did not use a score for this or any of the arias; only in the final item, the trio from Così fan Tutte, did he require the printed music. Neither of the women used a score at all.

It was grand to have Bruce Greenfield accompanying – the man who can sound like an orchestra. It was a hugely taxing programme for him, which he carried off with his usual assurance and brilliance; his technique, flair, and expressive powers are just astonishing.

The Opera Society and the St Andrew’s Season of Concerts organisers are to be thanked for getting such an outstanding concert together, to be performed while Martin Snell was in his homeland to sing in Xerxes. They are to be thanked, too, for providing printed translations of the arias, with titles and brief summaries of the situations in the operas giving rise to the arias.

Sarah Castle followed with one of Sesto’s arias from Giulio Cesare, an earlier Handel opera than the previous one. This was a trouser role – Sarah Castle explained the variety of roles which a mezzo could be called upon to fill. This aria was very fast – perhaps a little too fast. Castle proved to have a fine, rich, well-modulated mezzo voice, considerably developed from when I last heard her sing.

Snell returned to sing a lovely, lilting rendition of ‘Vi ravviso’ from La sonnambula by Bellini, in which he aroused, through the voice as well as the words, the feelings of longing that Count Rodolfo was experiencing.

‘Acerba volutta’ from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvrer was next, from Sarah Castle, who managed to portray a woman this time. This was powerful singing – and an accompaniment so full of notes that it was a spectacle to watch Greenfield play!

Snell’s next role was as a doctor, in ‘O tu Palermo, terra adorata’ from I vespri siciliani, by Verdi. This long aria demonstrated the singer’s excellent breath control. Unfortunately, a beeping watch (the audience had been asked to turn off such devices) distracted the singer, and he repeated the aria, looking over Greenfield’s shoulder towards the end. However, he was now too far from the microphones for the recording for Radio New Zealand Concert to be successful for this particular number.

We now moved from Italian to French, when Bryony Williams sang ‘Le coeur d’Hélène’ from the earlier French version of the same opera by Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes. Williams’s soprano sometimes has a rather metallic sound, especially in the upper register. She needs to open the throat and air passage more; the sound sometimes seemed stuck behind her teeth. Note: we never saw Martin Snell’s teeth! However, in all her items, Williams’s phrasing and characterisation were very good.

Verdi’s aria ‘Infelice, e tu credevi’ from Ernani gave Snell another opportunity to characterise the role of someone who was not just a black and white personality (should that be black or white?).

Sarah Castle returned to sing a lengthy Wagner aria (if those two words can be put together): Fricka challenging Wotan in no uncertain terms in ‘So ist denn aus’ from Die Walküre. The power and strength of Castle’s singing fully met the considerable demands of words and music.

Wagner was the composer of Martin Snell’s next effort, too: ‘Gar viel und schön’ from Tannhäuser. Snell explained that the story of this music drama was based on historical fact. It was sung in a powerful and noble manner, as befitted an aria in a singing contest. The richness of Snell’s voice is more apparent (naturally, perhaps) in the slower arias. There was another aberration here, between pianist and singer, but all was resolved. A tiny flaw was a slightly sharp final note to this stirring aria. His German was impeccable.

The last aria before the Interval was ‘Sein wir wieder gut’ from Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. It was sung by Sarah Castle, whose voice was very flexible and dramatic in this demanding aria.

The second half of the concert featured several ensembles, the first of which was the opening duet of Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss, for Octavian (sung by Sarah Castle, as a boy) and the Marschallin (Bryony Williams, as a much older woman). A little acting, using a stately chair as a prop (and subsequently used by Martin Snell several times), added to the drama and helped this conversational duet along.

Another duet from the same opera followed, with Octavian again being sung by Sarah Castle, and Baron Ochs by Martin Snell. In this, Octavian is in disguise as a maid; thus Castle, a woman, is playing a man playing a woman. The interchange was very funny, with lots of facial expression from Snell. The duet ends with a waltz, tastefully danced by the pair.

The aria ‘Ebben? Ne andro lontana’ from La Wally by Alfredo Catalani (which I had heard on radio that very morning) was sung by Bryony Williams. Again the quality of her sound was variable.

For me, the high point of the performance was Martin Snell’s rendition of King Phillip’s aria in Verdi’s Don Carlos: ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ The tragic utterance of the King when he says that his wife does not love him, was the richest plum in a programme full of sweetmeats. Greenfield’s accompaniment was absolutely remarkable, almost orchestral, while Snell, seated in the kingly chair, gave us cavernous low notes in a superb portrayal of the tragic king. Every note was beautifully moulded and placed, while the words were enunciated flawlessly.

This was a hard act to follow; Kurt Weill’s Nanna’s Lied was characterfully presented by Sarah Castle, with an appropriate level of irony for Brecht’s words.

She continued with the English song ‘Here I’ll stay’ from Love Life by Weill, and then his French song ‘Je ne t’aime pas’. This one was extremely well portrayed through facial expression and the voice.

Bryony Williams sang ‘Ain’t it a pretty night’ from Susanna by Carlisle Floyd. This was effective and touching, but the voice changed its quality too much through its range.

Martin Snell followed with the aria that won him the Mobil Song Quest, back in 1993, and which he sang in the Opera New Zealand production of the opera in 2009: Prince Gremin’s aria from Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky. Sung in Russian, this was a delight.

The concert ended with the well-known trio from Così fan Tutte, ‘Soave sia il vento’. While it is always worth hearing this beautiful music, the trio was not very well matched or blended. It may have been that there was not much time for rehearsal, but this finale was disappointing.

The concert was a rare treat, celebrating the singers’ art, the accompanist’s versatility and expertise, and the opera composers’ brilliance and inventiveness. The singers were thanked with applause and flowers; the professional singers especially were generous for giving their time and talents free for this evening.

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