Diverting variety of opera scenes in New Zealand School of Music’s annual opera fiesta

A Night at the Opera from the New Zealand School of Music

A review jointly composed by Rosemary Collier and Lindis Taylor who each attended one of the performances 

Eighteen singers accompanied by Mark Dorrell – piano;

A list of singers and the scenes in which they sang will be found at the end

Scenes from:
Mozart: The Magic Flute, The Impresario, The Marriage of Figaro;
A Hand of Bridge
by Barber;
Anna Bolena
by Donizetti;
Princess Ida
by Sullivan;
La Bohème
by Puccini;
Die Fledermausby J Strauss II

Director: Jacqueline Coats;
Vocal coach: Lisa Harper-Brown;
Tutors: Richard Greager, Margaret Medlyn, Jenny Wollerman

Adam Concert Room, Kelburn Campus

Friday 28 and Saturday 29 September at 7.30pm

This was a concert of opera scenes, arias and ensembles, a stand-in for the traditional opera production that the school of music has been mounting, with few exceptions, since the 1970s. In fact, considering that the former Polytechnic Conservatorium used also to stage an opera every year, Wellington almost always enjoyed two student productions a year, a valuable addition to the offerings (two or three a year) from the then Wellington City Opera.

The performance space was large with the audience spread round three sides and a huge white screen backdrop covering the chamber organ and the entrance.

Staging was minimal and with only the piano to support them, the singers were certainly more exposed than they would be in a full production. That probably made it harder to create a satisfactory depiction of a fairy-tale scene like Tamino’s meeting with the Three Ladies and Papageno, even with the brave attempt at projecting shadow puppets on the screen behind the performers.

The piano was played by Mark Dorrell who has made a deep impression in the city as an accompanist for singers as well as conductor of the Orpheus Choir. He drew sounds from the piano that seemed as if they had been written by the composer, conjuring such a variety of colours that I scarcely missed the presence of an orchestra.

Some of the singers in both The Magic Flute and The Impresario displayed some lack of ease in their performances, though most threw themselves into the roles with huge energy. Any weaknesses in the first half, however, were probably on account of the demands of Mozart which tended to test them both in terms of vocal refinement and variety, as well as being called on to express emotions of greater subtlety. Thus those same singers often seemed in slightly better control of their voices in later appearances.

Some of the male singers seemed unaware of the need to sing the words as though for the first time, in order to project the meaning and the drama.

The costumes and wigs of the Three Ladies (Christina Orgias, Awhina Waimotu and Rebekah Giesbers) were amazing, suggesting Valkyries perhaps, and they sang with Wagnerian strength. After one has become familiar with the Flute, any early impression that the roles of the Three Ladies are secondary is dispelled: not only are they vocally demanding but each needs individual characterisation, and the three singers showed a lively awareness of that, even if ultimate polish proved a bit further off.

The performances by Jesse Stratford and Rory Sweeney as Tamino and Papageno also showed that combination of good understanding and an awareness of what they aspire to.

The famous vocal duel between the two sopranos in Mozart’s one-act The Impresario (Der Schauspieldirektor) was a surprising offering, a particularly challenging scene to bring off with the necessary amount of hilarity.

The two roles are, of course, quite scary, and there was no concealing that in Esther Leefe’s and Tess Robinson’s daring and vivid performances of Madame Silberklang (Silverklang) and Miss ‘Sweetsong’ (Mlle Herz in the original), there were weaknesses which the nature of their ego-driven roles actually accommodated. In fact, the only other sung role in the original is that of Vogelsang, the company tenor who attempts the mediation. Here, that singing role was ascribed to ‘Eiler’, the banker, who, in the original, takes a non-singing role, threatening in the end to pull the funding in order to force the two vying singers to back off. The other spoken role is that of Frank, the impresario.

Esther Leefe, as the aging prima donna, wore a blond wig and carefully failed in her repeated attempts at top Fs. Tess Robinson’s voice was a little unsteady at the start but both did a great job. In the role of ‘Eiler’, William McElwee’s vocal colouring was a bit under-developed, but he showed more accomplishment in his later appearance as Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus, with fine comic flair.

The scene from Figaro was from the riotous second act in the Countess’s room from the point where Cherubino has jumped from the window as the Count and Countess return to break into the wardrobe where the Count thinks and the Countess fears that they’ll find him, through to the entrance of Basilio, Bartolo and Marcellina. Though all were costumed in period, the lack of stage amenities demanded more vigorous employment of audience imagination.

Angélique MacDonald’s Countess was visually and histrionically attractive though initially she was a little unstable in pitch. Robert Gray, the Count, didn’t really display the fury and frustration that is his hallmark in the entire scene, though his vocal quality is agreeable. Amelia Ryman created a spirited Susanna and Figaro (Christian Thurston), in a plum, velvet jacket, took his role excellently. Antonio the gardener was sung by Daniel Dew, who looked and delivered in perfect style.

The scene ends after the entrance of Basilio, Bartolo and Marcellina (respectively: William McElwee, Jamie Henare and Rebekah Giesbers) who reveal the earlier marriage contract between Marcellina and Figaro; their smaller roles at this point were very effective. The whole extended scene was carried of with as much wit and delight as could reasonably be expected.

After the interval Awhina Waimotu, Christina Orgias, Fredi Jones and Rory Sweeney entered chatting in good American accents before sitting down to a round of Bridge. It must be the shortest opera in the repertoire, allowing just one major monologue each to the four players, revealing their inner lives and suggesting two hopeless marriages, masked by social conventions. The performances were varied and variable, from the confident Bill of Fredi Jones to the pathetic lament of Geraldine excellently sung by Awhina Waimotu. In between were the slightly self-conscious performance by Rory Sweeney as David, dreaming of becoming rich, and the empty-headed Sally, whose childish longing for a fancy hat almost made us feel sorry for her.

The great scene from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in which the name role (Amelia Ryman) and the woman who will be Henry VIII’s next wife, Jane Seymour (Angélique MacDonald), was a dramatic high-point of the evening. It rests as one of the pinnacles of the bel canto era, and one of the great scenes in opera. The Queen’s long solo grew in intensity and credibility as it unfolded, while Seymour’s responding monologue well displayed their entrapment. They were splendidly costumed, sang strongly if not with the ultimate degree of polish and accuracy, but compensating with the total conviction with which they invested their performances.

The scene from Princess Ida, one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lesser operettas, did not much amuse me [comments in this paragraph are Lindis’s], though the three men (Daniel Dew, Jesse Stratford and Jamie Henare) carried it off with real flair, exposing individual delineation clearly, though they share the age’s ridiculously passé attitudes to women’s higher education. So the fundamental silliness of the piece rather got in the way of enjoying the quite well-executed nonsense.

The last scene of Act I of La Bohème gave two of the most experienced voice students a great opportunity: Tom Atkins as Rodolfo and Isabella Moore as Mimi created near professional performances, accurate in pitch, well phrased and finely detailed in timbre and dynamics. We heard both the great arias and the duet ‘O soave fanciulla’ splendidly sung, as well as the calls from the other three students from the street below, all of whom had featured in earlier excerpts.

The evening ended with the last phase of Prince Orlofsky’s party in Act II of Die Fledermaus. As with all the previous scenes, it was sung in the original language, with spoken parts in English, though the final ensemble was also in English. Imogen Thirlwall proved a most accomplished Rosalinde and Fredi Jones allowed himself to be gently disgraced in a convincing performance  of Eisenstein; we noticed earlier William McElwee’s well portrayed role as Orlofsky. All eighteen singers came to the party for the final ensemble which might have been one of the few places where the Straussian delight could have been heightened even more with the support of an orchestra.

The singers and their scenes:

Christina Orgias          Flute                Bridge
Awhina Waimotu        Flute                Bridge
Rebekah Giesbers       Flute                Figaro
Jesse Stratford            Flute                Ida
Rory Sweeney             Flute                Bridge
Esther Leefe                Impresario
Tess Robinson             Impresario
William McElwee       Impresario       Figaro              Fledermaus
Amelia Ryman            Figaro              Bolena
Robert Gray                Figaro
Angélique MacDonald Figaro            Bolena
Christian Thurston      Figaro              Bohème
Daniel Dew                 Figaro              Ida
Jamie Henare               Figaro              Ida                   Bohème
Fredi Jones                  Bridge             Bohème           Fledermaus
Tom Atkins                 Bohème (Rodolfo) I
sabella Moore            Bohème (Mimi)
Imogen Thirlwall         Fledermaus (Rosalinde)

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