Lisa Harper-Brown frames fine Opera Society recital

Lisa Harper-Brown (soprano) in Concert with Christie Cook – mezzo soprano, Stephen Diaz – counter-tenor, Cameron Barclay – tenor, Kieran Rayner – baritone
Bruce Greenfield – piano

Songs by Debussy and Rachmaninov, Montsalvatge, Brahms and Elgar; arias and ensembles by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Rossini, Saint-Saëns, Handel, Monteverdi, Bach, Bellini and Bernstein
(Vocal recital by New Zealand Opera Society, Wellington Branch)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Tuesday 20 November, 7.30pm

Once upon a time the Opera Society used to present regular recitals, every month or so. Then, as opportunities multiplied for singers to appear in professional and amateur productions and in recitals at the university schools of music, the screening of opera films slowly became more common and the society’s recital programme diminished. Instead, there are monthly screenings of operas on DVD.

British-born, Lisa Harper-Brown has worked in Australia for some years and has recently been appointed to a position in the vocal department of the New Zealand School of Music. She provided the professional element in the recital, singing no opera but instead, brackets of songs by Debussy and Rachmaninov.

Judging that most of the audience was probably unfamiliar with Debussy’s five 1889 settings of Baudelaire poems (called ‘Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire), Lisa spoke about them, singing them in pairs. Her remarks were scholarly and perceptive, touching on Debussy’s affinity with Baudelaire, with symbolist poetry, the impact of Wagner and philosophical thought of the time.  Though the songs come early in Debussy’s career, before any of the best known piano and orchestral music, it is good to be reminded that before this set, in his first decade of work – the 1880s – he wrote around 60 songs.

Her opening of the first song, Le balcon, burst on the audience like a thunder clap; it demanded attention but also suggested that she did not at first have the measure of the acoustic, and almost at once modified her delivery. As the song continued (it is very long) it also became clear that Lisa had a complete grasp of the young composer’s aesthetic and his command of wide dynamics and huge pitch range. The singer encompassed it, if not with ease, then at least with astonishing virtuosic skill, none of which obscured the essential voluptuous, and sometime decadent, quality of Debussy’s creations.

The songs tax not only the singer; they also make huge demands of the pianist whose task is to simulate an orchestra, for in them the recent impact of Debussy’s visit to Bayreuth as well as the influence of eastern music can be heard, in both voice and piano. Bruce Greenfield’s contribution was highly impressive, exhibiting subtlety and luminous Impressionist colourings.

Christie Cook graduated on music from Otago University and is now studying with Flora Edwards, planning to do further study overseas. She sang three widely varied songs: one of Montsalvatge’s Five Negro Songs (Cuba dendro de un piano) capturing well enough its singular quality; then Brahms’s Die Mainacht, which seemed to have been perfumed oddly by the previous song, giving it an unbrahmsian voluptuousness; and then one of Elgar’s Sea Pictures (Sea slumber song) which seemed to me free of a routine English contraltoesque quality; instead she invested it with her experience of singing in foreign languages.

Later in the concert Christie returned to sing Isabella’s fear-filled aria, ‘Cruda sorte’, from The Italian Girl in Algiers. Her excellent lower register and the sheer weight of her voice were more evident here, and I was reminded of a comparable voice such as Marilyn Horne’s, as she handled this taxing aria. The second-most-familiar aria from Samson and Delilah, ‘Printemps qui commence’, followed; her duplicitous role was quite persuasively portrayed, in an excellent performance. A stylish, risqué  number (The Physician) from Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant ended her bracket, the musical line well done though clarity of diction might have been better.

Cameron Barclay is an Auckland graduate but has been heard this year in striking performances of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and the concert performance of Candide in Wellington. He sang ‘Il mio tesoro’ from Don Giovanni, in well-judged character, and a pathos-tinged Eugene Onegin aria: Lensky’s ‘Kuda, kuda’, contemplating his likely fate in the duel.

Kieran Rayner joined Barclay next to sing the duet from The Pearl Fishers. It came off splendidly, the two voices blending beautifully even though (perhaps because) the two have timbral similarities.

Rayner’s other offerings came in the second part of the concert. His sturdy baritone was a fit instrument for Bach’s ‘Grosser Herr, o starker König’ from the Christmas Oratorio. If this displayed his capacity in a joyous religious context, his bel canto offering from Bellini’s I puritani (‘Ah, per sempre io ti perdei’) offered profane matter into which he injected a degree of passion.

The runner-up in this year’s Lexus Song Quest, Stephen Diaz, entered to sing two arias: ‘In se Barbara’, a trouser role for contralto, sung by Arsace in Rossini’s Semiramide; and ‘Verdi prati’ from the castrato role of Ruggiero in Handel’s Alcina which he sang in the wonderful production by Opera in a Days Bay Garden earlier this year. Both arias were among the best things of the evening and brought expected vociferous audience response.

Christie Cook returned to sing with Diaz the duet ‘Pur ti miro’ from The Coronation of Poppea.  I can’t help hoping that modern scholarship is mistaken in the belief that it’s not by Monteverdi – it’s one of the loveliest pieces in the opera! The pair sang it with a rapturous beauty that totally disguised the couple’s villainous behaviour that got rewarded with happiness (brief in the event), and earned another outburst of enthusiasm.

Lisa Harper-Brown returned to conclude the concert with three Rachmaninov songs (Lilacs, Op 21:5; In the silence of the night, Op 4:3; Spring Waters, Op 14:11) which she sang in Russian, without a score in front of her. Both her impressive diction and her well-conceived musical interpretations suggested suppressed passion as well as classical elegance. The last song, Spring Waters, with its keenly evocative piano accompaniment (in case we needed reminding of the near uniform excellence of Greenfield’s playing), was a powerful testament to the genius of Rachmaninov as a song writer, making me wonder why his name is not included routinely when people speak of the world’s great lyrical composers.

The ensemble piece (Cook, Diaz, Barclay, Rayner in ‘Some other time’) from Bernstein’s On the town was a sort of anti-climax after the beauties of Rachmaninov and a great many of the earlier pieces. Recalling those affirmed this as an exceeding happy experience.


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