Standard continues to rise at New Zealand Opera School at Whanganui

Great Opera Moments 2012

New Zealand Opera School, Final concert

Royal Wanganui Opera House

Friday 13 January, 7.30pm

The 18th New Zealand Opera School at Whanganui has most of the things going for it that make some of the great music festival of Europe such lasting attractions: all it needs is a real festival to give it context.  Excellent music is performed by many talented and some highly polished musicians, in an old theatre that has been taken care of over the decades, in a city that was one of the earliest to be settled by Europeans, which has been spared too much latter-day growth that is usually accompanied by philistine destruction of what previous generations created; and yet it has developed an attractive, traditional main commercial street with plenty of cafes and restaurants, even at least one excellent little book shop.

And there are things to do during the day: one of the best provincial art galleries in New Zealand and an excellent museum; the river that till recently supplied minor shipping facilities, with a real paddle steamer that runs regular trips upstream or offers a river road with interesting Maori sites including the village of Jerusalem. A few miles north-west is the well-preserved homestead at Bushy Park with its fine native forest reserve.

This concert is almost always the first event of the year in my calendar, and it has always been a highlight for me – I think I have been to every one since it started.

In recent years the final concert has taken the form of a series of scenes cobbled together by finding linking elements in the various arias and ensembles that participants have sung.

Once again, Sara Brodie was on hand to make as much theatrical sense as possible out of hugely disparate operatic elements.  This time the theme was the opera school itself: with most of the 24 singers on stage, watching, being coached, dealing with the odd misunderstanding or dispute, as comedy elements in which the school’s director, Donald Trott, played an occasional role.

Recent schools have also succeeded in making their presence felt in the city through the work of the local volunteers and sponsors of Wanganui Opera Week (WOW), which present many concerts and recitals during the ten days, at Wanganui Collegiate School (where the school takes place) and elsewhere in the city.

After the traditional karakia, the ensemble took the stage with the Westphalia Chorale from Bernstein’s Candide. This itself presented an impressive display of the way a disparate collection of voices can be assembled in a chorus that could grace many a professional opera performance, individual voices audible, but in a way that heightened the impact and attractiveness. All the work of chorus master Michael Vinten.

Candide supplied the first solo item – Dr Pangloss’s sanguine assurance, ‘Best of all possible worlds’, sung by the one singer in suit and tie, Kieran Rayner: his assurance, clear diction and stylishness matched his attire.

Rayner returned in the second half to sing another aria from the English language repertoire: Billy Budd’s tragic acceptance of his fate in Britten’s opera, that gained its pathos with a voice of great naturalness and expressiveness; there is particular quality in his upper register.

The first of two numbers from Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) was the trio between the two vying divas (Amina Edris and Imogen Thirlwall) and their impresario, Oliver Sewell. It’s a piece that seems to presage the flamboyant later style of Rossini and Donizetti, and they carried it off with real conviction.

Amina and Imogen returned later for two arias from the later era: ‘Ah, non credea…’ and ‘Ah! Non giunge’ from La Sonnambula. The first lacked a little of the brilliance that was more evident in the more familiar show-piece, ‘Ah! Non giunge’.

After the Mozart trio came two arias by Handel. The first, ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ from Alcina (shortly to be produced by Opera in a Days Bay Garden in Wellington), became famous in Sutherland’s performance, and soprano Ella Smith showed a good understanding of the Handelian style. Baritone Anthony Schneider then sang from Orlando, ‘Sorge infausta’, with a sturdy, attractive voice; my ear was caught in this by the delightfully fluent playing of his accompanist, Somi Kim.

The highlight among the three Handel offerings however was from the remarkable counter-tenor, Stephen Diaz, who made such an impact in 2011. Now he sang, towards the end of the concert, from Serse (one of New Zealand Opera’s last year), ‘Se bramate d’amar’, His performance was again commanding in its presentation and overwhelming in the sheer beauty of the voice and the artistry that he has developed; no little contribution came from David Kelly’s accompaniment that was always agile, alert and tasteful.

Claire Filer moved the scene forward by round 130 years to Gounod’s Faust, in the trouser role of Siébel: ‘Faites-lui les aveux’, making play with the flowers that have been the victim of Méphistophélès’s curse.

Bellini’s I Puritani provided a splendid vehicle for what proved to be one of the most imposing voices of the evening – Moses Mackay. His performance of ‘Ah! Per sempre’ was arresting and his Italian had both real flair and clarity.

Amelia Ryman came on stage to sing Elvira’s great aria, ‘Mi tradi’ from Don Giovanni, swinging crutches. It was not till later that I could relax my efforts to ascribe them to some arcane interpretation, being told that she had suffered an accident, yet was determined to carry on. That proved thoroughly justified; her intonation is precise and she sings with great assurance.

Emma Newman also sang Mozart – the Countess’s ‘Porgi amor’ from The Marriage of Figaro. Here, her props – a bed roll and orange kit bag – did not really explain themselves to me; if her dynamics were not very interesting, her singing was well projected, accurate and emotionally involved.

Other Mozart offerings came from Isabella Moore, Elizabeth Mandeno,  and Emma Fraser. Isabella’s aria was from the other principal soprano in Don Giovanni, Donna Anna’s ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ which she got inside emphatically, if without great subtlety.

Elizabeth Mandeno opened the second part – Act II – with the one well-known (and ‘startlingly beautiful’ in the words of one writer) aria from the unfinished opera Zaïde: ‘Ruhe sanft mein holdes Leben’, given its modern popularity by Kiri Te Kanawa. It is Zaide’s first aria, sung to the sleeping Gomatz, the newly captured slave of a sultan. Elizabeth’s voice captured (ha ha) the rapturous emotion with a ringing, rather beautiful voice, and her light turquoise chiffon dress suggested the sensuality of a sultan’s harem.

Emma Fraser sang the last solo item in the concert, ‘Ach, ich liebte’ from Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Her striking, insistent delivery captured Constanze’s determination to remain true to her betrothed most persuasively.

There were several Verdi pieces too.

The first, from Tavis Gravatt was Fiesco’s lament for his dead daughter in the Prologue to Simon Boccanegra, ‘Il lacerato spirito’. Tavis, in a dark cloak, presented it dramatically, capturing rather well the complex character of Simon’s antagonist.

Act I ended with the famous chorus from Nabucco, ‘Va, pensiero’, another chance to relish the emotional punch that the 24 voices delivered.

Amitai Pati’s baritonal tenor, rich and polished, invested Alfredo’s Act II aria, ‘Dei miei bollenti spiriti’, from La Traviata, with a mixture of the untroubled rapture he feels with a touch of unease; his Italian sounded like a native, both distinct and unaffected.

Another sample of less familiar Verdi came from Bryony Williams, singing ‘Ernani, Ernani, involami’ (from the eponymous opera) the recitative is followed by a charming waltz-rhythm aria, which was both emphatic and pretty; although her voice projects almost too strongly, her diction was not as clear as it might have been.

And the final Verdi item was Azucena’s ‘Stride la vampa’ from Il Trovatore, sung by the impressive Elisha Fai-Hulton, with a voice that is firmly placed and true, making vivid dramatic sense of the extraordinary tale she tells.

Returning to items in the first part of the concert, two Puccini arias paved the way to one of the best known pieces from Menotti’s The Consul.

In Mimi’s aria in Act III of La Bohème, ‘Donde lieta’, Bernice Austin, her voice occasionally lacking control at the top, caught much of the pathos and anguish that Mimi expresses.

Angelique MacDonald’s aria was Liu’s simple, poignant declaration of her faithful love for Calaf, in Turandot; clothed in pure white, she displayed a voice that was polished and carefully managed, though it thinned a little at the top; her soft notes were particularly affecting.

Menotti is more often represented by Monica’s aria in The Medium; but here, Christina Orgias sang ‘To this we’ve come’ from The Consul, one of the crisis points in the chilling story of bureaucratic indifference. The demands in intensity and emotional extremity she handled well (even if Menotti extends the experience a little excessively), following the meaning with her intelligent variation of dynamics and colour.

Another American work, much less familiar, was chosen by Bridget Costello: the 1956 opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, by Douglas Moore. Her voice is not large, but she delineated her complex emotions in the letter scene with mature  insight, rather successfully.

Nineteenth century opera occupied the rest of the programme.

The famous tenor aria, ‘Je crois entendre encore’, sung by Nadir in The Pearl Fishers was delivered by Oliver Sewell, lying on his back. That may have led to a slight nasal quality and to his voice thinning at the top, but it was an attractive and understanding performance.

Tom Atkins sang ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from L’elisir d’amore; a promising tenor, though perhaps he didn’t quite capture its show-stopper character by overdoing the expressive intensity; for Nemorino, it represents a moment of wonderment, as he hardly dares to believe what he sees.

Also from the bel canto era was Rossini’s most famous female aria, ‘Una voce poco fa’ (The Barber of Seville), which Bianca Andrew sang with the help of a particularly witty accompaniment by Bruce Greenfield. (In addition to the pianists mentioned in the text, others contributed admirably: Iola Shelley, Greg Neil, Travis Baker, Grace Francis and Flavio Villani). Here was a very attractive mezzo voice that struck just the right balance between superb self-confidence and lovable charm. Hers is a voice that is even right across its range, and capable of varied colour, timbre and dynamics.

The concert ended as it had begun, with ensemble pieces from Candide: ‘Universal good’, and finally a further appearance by Amitai Pati and Emma Fraser as Candide and Cunegonde respectively, singing the classic cop-out finale, in ‘Make our garden grow’, instead of a more cynical and ethically realistic denouement.

In the circumstances, it was a heart-warming way to end a splendidly devised, produced and executed concert.

Tutors at the school were Professor Paul Farringdon (this was his seventh appearance), Margaret Medlyn, Barry Mora, Richard Greager, with Italian language tutor Luca Manghi and performance assistant Kararaina Walker.

Yet a tinge of sadness lingers, that so many gifted and accomplished singers (not to mention musicians in every other sphere) emerge from our universities and academies, to face such limited opportunities in professional music in their own country, let alone the rest of the world, faced with the utterly inadequate acknowledgement and support from the only realistic source of funding for the major performing arts – the Government.


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