Encore visit to counter-tenor Xiao Ma, with Stephen Diaz and Gao Ping (piano), at Te Papa

Songs, arias by Handel, Chausson, Britten, Mahler, Ravel, Dvořák, Chopin, Rossini, Mozart, Maori songs sung as duets, the music arranged by Ashley Heenan

Xiao Ma and Stephen Diaz (counter-tenors), Gao Ping (piano)

Soundings Theatre, Te Papa

Saturday 18 February, 4pm

I attended this one-hour recital with a friend, with whom I had just had afternoon tea in the 4th floor café at Te Papa.  She insisted that we should queue for Xiao Ma at 3.30pm; in fact, we went earlier, and soon a huge queue built up.  The doors weren’t opened until nearly 4pm, and people poured in till the theatre was absolutely full.

Mere Boynton welcomed the audience and introduced the performers, including a good plug for the opera Hōhepa, to be premiered in the Arts Festival, in which Stephen Diaz will appear, following his just-completed stunning turn of acting and singing in Handel’s Alcina, at Opera in a Days Bay Garden.

He opened the programme with an aria he sang, as Ruggiero, in that opera: ‘Verdi Prati’.  He looked rather nervous, but soon warmed up.  He has a way to go, to being a fully-fledged singer, still being young, but has some of the vital attributes, such as his exquisite control in the quiet passages.

What struck me straight away, and right through the recital, was the astonishing pianism of Gao Ping.  Here is a pianist who caresses the keys rather than hitting them.  It was pleasing to watch him, too.

Next came Xiao Ma, to sing two Handel arias that he sang in his concert on Wednesday night at St. Mary of the Angels: ‘Ombra mai fu’ from Serse, and ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo.  There is a drier sound in this theatre; St. Mary of the Angels church suited him better.  Here, I could hear his breathing quite frequently, which I could not the other night.  This is not to denigrate his superb breath control, especially notable in the second aria.  Both singer and accompanist incorporated decorations in the da capo repeat.

Chausson’s Le colibri (The humming-bird) has always been a favourite of mine, from a splendid rendition by Gérard Souzay on a recording I was given many years ago.  The song (and his subsequent items) was given a spoken introduction by Stephen Diaz.  It was beautifully and sensitively sung.

His next song was ‘I know a bank’ from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This aria is perhaps a little too austere to be sung as a solo divorced from the opera context and setting, despite the rather over-done gestures from the singer.  However, it was competently sung, and the accompaniment was a model of supportive expression.

Xiao Ma returned to sing ‘Oft denk ich’ from Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.   I don’t think he had quite the sense of foreboding required for these songs, and to my taste it was sung a little too fast.

A song I did not know was ‘Le réveil de la mariée’ from Five Greek songs by Ravel; it proved to be a lively song, rather like a Greek dance.

After that came the sublime Dvořák song known in English as ‘Songs my mother taught me’, from Gypsy Melodies.  Xiao Ma sang it in Czech, just one of the seven languages he sang in.  This was an exquisitely sung piece, fulfilling the expectations of all of us who love this song; the accompaniment, my notes say, was ‘out of this world’.  The totality was an ecstatic experience, to which the audience responded very enthusiastically.

Another item unfamiliar to me was ‘The wish’ from Poland Melodies by Chopin.  Sung in Polish it was very bright and lively, with lovely flourishes.

Stephen Diaz returned to sing an aria from Rossini’s Semiramide: ‘In si Barbara’.  Here, the tone was a trifle inconsistent.  This was typical Rossini stuff, with a repetitive accompaniment.  It was florid and powerful, high in the soloist’s voice – it really got the audience going in response.

Xiao Ma followed with the well-known ‘Voi, che sapete’ from Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart.  The singer showed great breath control in this item, and gave a very accomplished performance.

His final aria was another famous one: ‘Una voce poco fa’ from Il barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini.  Xiao Ma extracted maximum humour from the aria, to the audience’s delight, with facial expression and vocal colouring.  It was a characterful performance with plenty of variety of dynamics and vocal agility.  The trills employed were quite brilliant, sending the audience into ecstasies.

There followed three Maori songs, sung as a duet by the two singers.  The arrangements were by Ashley Heenan, and were very lovely; they derive from April 1966, when Heenan arranged five songs especially for a New Zealand youth music concert with orchestra, choir and soloists put on by the government for the Queen Mother, on her visit.  Two sopranos sang the songs then, some of them with choir; one of the duet was Donna Awatere, later famous in spheres other than music.

The richness of Stephen Diaz’s voice came through in these songs.  Both singers use their resonators superbly, being heard even in very quiet passages, without having to open their mouths wide.  Although Xiao Ma took the higher part, Diaz had to sing quite high also.

The first song was the well-known Hine e Hine.  In the second song, about the sound of the locust, Poi kihikihi, both singers used their tenor voices, to great effect.  In the third, Tahi nei taru kino, the singers varied their voices a great deal.  A unison section hardly sounded that, due to the very different timbres of the voices.

As encore, Mozart’s ‘Soave sia il vento’ from Cosi fan Tutte was sung; while beautifully rendered, the lack of a bass to sing the third part of the trio detracted from the performance somewhat.  The harmony was very fine.

A second encore was an attractive Chinese song.  For this, Gao Ping did not need a score.

A thoroughly enjoyable concert was greeted warmly by the audience, with a partial standing ovation.  We do not hear singers in live concerts enough, compared with some years ago; this concert (admittedly, free) showed there is an enthusiasm for such performances.  Soundings Theatre holds approximately 300 people; hopefully this success will encourage Te Papa and other promoters to put on more such recitals.