Twenty-two talented young singers fill brilliant evening at Whanganui’s Opera School Gala

New Zealand Opera School, Whanganui – Gala concert 2013
Great Opera Moments

Twenty-two singers with seven accompanists in arias and ensembles from opera

Staging directed by Sara Brodie and ensembles conducted by Michael Vinten

Royal Wanganui Opera House

Saturday 12 January 2013, 7.30pm

This concert celebrated the nineteenth annual opera school held at Whanganui, in the music rooms of Wanganui Collegiate School during the preceding ten days.

The idea of a training school for promising singers was driven by certain Auckland-based opera figures, most importantly Donald Trott. He has been deeply involved in opera both as a singer and administrator from the days of Perkel Opera and the several opera company metamorphoses, through Auckland Metropolitan Opera, Auckland Opera to the present NBR New Zealand Opera; and this involvement at Whanganui may well be the most rewarding and memorable.

Previous general manager of NBR New Zealand Opera, Jonathan Alver, has now become Director of the school while Donald Trott takes the role of Executive Chairman.

In the early years the principal tutor was the distinguished Romanian soprano Virginia Zeani. Her place has been filled in recent years by English vocal teacher Paul Farrington plus New Zealand teachers Margaret Medlyn, Barry Mora and Richard Greager as well as others coaching language and acting.

In recent years, with the guidance of stage director Sara Brodie, the evening concert has been enlivened by staging ideas attempting to offer linkages between items, making use of the aria’s thrust, the situation dramatised in the aria, the opera’s setting or subject. As is to be expected, it worked better in some instances than others. Sometimes the audience was probably in the dark through not knowing what the opera or the particular aria was about.

A rare ensemble to start
That was probably the case with the opening ensemble. Leoncavallo wrote Zazà in 1900 and it was probably the only work after Pagliacci that met with some success; one can be forgiven for not having heard it though it registered with me years ago seeing a Metropolitan Opera photo of a prominent soprano – Geraldine Farrar perhaps – in the title role.

Its Introduction, presented, as was the entire first half of the concert, as a rehearsal.  It served to open the concert: half a dozen singers in a cheap music hall in Saint Étienne, near Lyon, where Zazà is performing (incidentally, for those who like such connections, it’s the birthplace of Massenet and its opera house has been staging festivals of all Massenet’s opera over many years); strangely, this ensemble does not include Zazà. The music has an odd, un-Italian, latter-day, operetta character. For the operatically curious, it was interesting.

It led seamlessly into Amelia Ryman’s aria from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, ‘O luce di quest’anima’ the best and probably only known aria from the opera. As the first solo of the evening, shaky intonation was evidence of nerves, a condition that affected several of the singers, particularly in the first half dozen pieces.

Mozart and his contemporaries
Then we get an introduction to the subject of Così fan tutte through a spoken exchange between the two naïve young lovers and their Alfonso, who resembled Donald Trott. Tenor Phillip Akau became Ferrando and sang the beautiful ‘Un’aura amoroso’, again displaying nerves, and an attractive voice.

We remained in the Mozart era with an aria from La serva padrona, attributed to Cimarosa; but did he actually write a version of the opera set first by Pergolesi?  Paisiello, on the other hand, certainly did: it’s easy to confuse the two contemporaries. From it, Madison Nonoa gave a spirited account of the aria ‘Stizzo mio stizzoso’.

There followed a bracket Mozart: first some stage business takes place and a letter is passed to Edward McKnight, as Publio, before he sings ‘Tardi s’avvede’ from La clemenza di Tito. After the abortive attempt on his life Tito has sent Publio to try to save Sesto – the failed assassin – from the Senate’s likely decree of execution.  The role of the letter at that point escaped me.

Then there’s a further bit of stage business, an exchange reflecting the wager in Così; but it’s followed by the Count’s petulant reaction in The Marriage of Figaro, ‘Hai gia vinta la causa’, as he faces the imminent marriage of his two servants. Baritone Edward Laurenson’s rather strong and elegant performance missed something of the anger.

Zerlina, on the other hand, is trying to placate her legitimately jealous fiancé in honeyed tones, with ‘Batti, batti’, and Eliza Boom’s attractive voice met its demands a lot more than half way.

The return to Così was long delayed, till the second half of the concert, when Isabella Moore took up ‘Come scoglio’, Fiordiligi’s beautiful hymn to fidelity, as one of the disguised lovers holds out a posy of flowers towards her. Her performance lent her words real conviction and it was distinguished by subtle dynamics, eloquence, clear delivery and agility – it was certainly among the two or three finest items of the evening.

Shakespeare or Bellini
I Capuleti e i Montecchi
is generally assumed to be adapted from Shakespeare, but it draws mainly on Shakespeare’s own source: Matteo Bandello’s 16th century novella (is there a Bandello industry in Italy that gets outraged by thefts and distortions of the works of their great Renaissance writer?). Here we had two arias from Bellini’s first act: the first in the order of the score, Romeo’s ‘Ascolta, se Romeo l’uccise un figlio’. Disguised as his own servant, he meets Capellio (Capulet) and Tebaldo (Tybalt) in the Capulet palace proposing a deal to mend the feud between the rival Ghibelline and Guelph parties of Renaissance Italy through a marriage between Romeo and Giulietta, which is rejected by Capulet. Instead, Capellio insists that her marriage with Tebaldo should take place at once (not, as in Shakespeare, with Paris, who doesn’t, along with several other Shakespeare characters, even appear in Bellini).

Mezzo Elizabeth Harris enters, swinging a sword dangerously, reminding us that she is performing a trouser role, with Romeo’s aria in which she comfortably reached the extremes of her range.

In the following scene of Act I, Giulietta (Shannon Atkin) in her chamber longs for Romeo in ‘Eccome in lieta vesta’, leading to ‘Oh quante volte’. Unlike Shakespeare, there is no preliminary scene with her Mother and her Nurse and no first encounter with Romeo at the Capulets’ ball. Atkin, in a white bridal gown, a bit previous one might say, sang expressively and maintained well shaped lines in the famous aria and, climbing on to a stool, the cabaletta,

Libertines male and female
For the Carmen items the stage manoeuvres relied somewhat on both retrospect and foresight: the music starts with a bit of the habanera from the first act, but continues with Micaela’s arrival in Act III seeking José in the gypsy camp in the mountains. Probably unremarked, Tom Atkins, who appeared as José later in the concert, is among the gathering. After Carmen and her friends have read their futures in cards, they stay as Micaela (Christina Orgias) summoning Dutch courage, sings ‘Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante’; and indeed, she looked far from timid.

Tom Atkins, Don José, in the penultimate aria of the evening, sang the Flower Song from Act II, a fine tenor with distinctive colour and expressiveness in a performance that fully justified its position near the concert’s end.

The role of the sexual adventurer switches sexes for Ann Truelove’s difficult aria, ‘No word from Tom’, from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. Elizabeth Mandeno handled it admirably if not perfectly, expressing the meaning and emotion very well; and David Kelly’s piano accompaniment scored high.

Romantic tales from between the wars
The rest of the first half remained in the 20th century.

There’s more than one worthy stand-alone aria in Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (though nothing quite compares with Marietta’s Lied).  Surprisingly, it turned out to be the only German item in the programme: the Pierrotlied, ‘Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen’ (‘my longings, my delusions’, cf. Hans Sachs’s ‘Wahn, Wahn’). In my Erich Leinsdorf recording, Hermann Prey sings it beautifully and Frederick Jones’s voice found the right colours, with an excellent understanding of its character.

The first half ended with the glamorous, troubled scene at Bullier’s restaurant from La rondine, with dancing, using the revolve with flair; solo voices emerged well though singing from their scores created a oddly static impression,

Some French opera
The second half began with a further instalment of the Così problem, with Donald cynically prevaricating; towards the end of the evening (between the Gounod and Debussy arias) he presents bills to several of the men, counting the goods with numbers seeming to total those in Leporello’s Catalogue Aria.

But somewhat enigmatically the singing continued with Imogen Thirlwell’s ‘Depuis le jour’ from Louise, a lovely romantic performance; and she stayed on stage through the next item, for Oliver Sewell’s singing of ‘Dalla sua pace’ from Don Giovanni, elegantly, expressing well Don Ottavio’s aristocratic ineffectualness.

A camel led across the stage made me momentarily expect Aida, but when Leila Alexander began ‘Se pieta di me non senti’ I recalled that Handel’s opera’s full name was Giulio Cesare in Egitto; it’s Cleopatra’s prayer to the gods to have pity on Caesar in battle with Ptolemy, all sung in high head tones, rather effective. .

Other French arias came later: Valentin’s futile assertion, ‘Avant de quiter ces lieux’, in Faust, that Christian Thurston sang with a tenorish, if slightly constricted quality but it is a voice of promise.

Bianca Andrew chose a rarity, the only sample from Debussy whose sesquicentenary was widely observed last year. His L’enfant prodigue is not an opera, rather a dramatic cantata; I did not recognise the ‘Air de Lia’, and my notes in the dark recorded ‘Massenet?’which was not a bad guess given its early composition. Bianca appeared in stockings and suspenders, her French was very good, clear and her soprano voice firm and true.

A bel canto episode
A feature of this concert was the splendid selection of non-hackneyed arias. One of the nearest to that class was Jesse Stratford’s singing of Nemorino’s ‘Una furtive lagrima’. After a little scene involving a rack of clothes including a wedding dress, his uncle’s will was read and all the women on hand fell upon him; a great white wig had some relevance I suppose, but it eluded me. However, he sang with happy clarity and he delivered his notes accurately, with fine spirit.

Angelique MacDonald then took us back to Bellini, ‘Qui la voce sua soave’ from I puritani. It’s from the mad Elvira in Part II (she’s the daughter of a Puritan and she loves Arturo, a Royalist, condemned to death; thus, she goes mad):  though it was a huge success at its Paris premiere and continued so for decades, Puritani does little to counter the belief that opera libretti are absurd. MacDonald, at first in a stunning, sparkling, deep blue gown, changed into white in mid-aria for the cabaletta, ‘Vien diletto’. It was one of the most stylish offerings of the evening.

Then, after another somewhat puzzling verbal exchange about everyone needing a sponsor, another singer from the New Zealand School of Music, Kieran Rayner, chose I puritani, where Riccardo sings ‘Ah! Per sempre io ti perdei … Bel sogno beato’ from Part I. Rayner has become one of the best-known young singers around Wellington and he invested his baritone voice with solid feeling to portray the man who’d earlier loved Elvira and is given an uncompromising though quite rewarding role.

Later another most effective Donizetti aria appeared: ‘Chacun le sait’ from La fille du regiment, written for Paris. This is the regimental song, and Ella Smith, as Marie, the offspring of the regiment, in loose, orange, quasi-military trousers sings and gestures in vivid military style, it was another real high-point of the evening.

Out of the 26 items, only three were by Puccini (and, in their 200th anniversary year, neither Verdi nor Wagner appeared at all!).

After the Rondine scene, the second Puccini was the last scene of Act I of Tosca in which Scarpia sets his sights ruthlessly on Tosca – ‘Va, Tosca’. Scarpia is Edward Laurenson who had also sung the Count’s impatient aria from The Marriage of Figaro. Here too, was a dark voice that did well expressing the aggressive, controlling character in some male psyches; the scene was complete with organ accompaniment for the Te Deum and cannons from the Castel Sant’ Angelo announcing the escape of Angelotti: an arresting moment in the middle of the second half.

And the final ensemble scene came from Act II of La Bohème, with Musetta’s waltz song sung brightly by Amelia Ryman while the scene involving contributions from all four students leads towards their abandonment of their bill to the foolish Alcindoro. Here again the revolve was sensibly used, and it brought the evening to a brilliant conclusion.

It remains to record the major and very eloquent contributions from the pianists: Bruce Greenfield, Greg Neil, Edward Giffney, Iola Shelley, David Kelly, Travis Baker and Somi Kim; and the occasional on-stage contributions from tutors who have been named in the text above.

In recent years the school has been successful in gaining greater visibility in the city through the work of local volunteers in Wanganui Opera Week, organising daily concerts in the course of the school. The support of Creative New Zealand and the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation, among several other major sponsors, are helping to put the school’s very valuable work on a firmer basis.