NZSM’s “A Night at the Opera” generates a feast

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

Arias, Ensembles and Scenes from Opera
performed by the NZSM Classical Voice Students

Katrina Brougham, Alicia Cadwgan, Emma Carpenter, Declan Cudd, Georgia Fergusson
Jospeh Haddow, Elyse Hemara, Jamie Henare, Rebecca Howan, Luana Howard
Rebecca Howie, Hannah Jones, Brooks Kershaw, Aluapei Kolopeaua, Priya Makwana
Olivia Marshall, William McElwee Katherine McEndoe, Nino Raphael, Tess Robinson
Olivia Sheat, Daniel Sun, Christian Thurston, Shayna Tweed, Luka Venter.

Director: Frances Moore
Music Director: Mark Dorrell
Repetiteur: Heather Easting
Designer: Alexander Guillot
Lighting: Lisa Maule

Adam Concert Room, Kelburn Campus
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music
Victoria University of Wellington

Friday 19th September 2014

Earlier last week I had the good fortune to catch Radio NZ Concert’s “Upbeat” interview with Margaret Medlyn, one of the tutors of Classical Voice at the NZ School of Music in Wellington. She spoke about the then oncoming “Night at the Opera” presentation involving the voice students and featuring arias and ensembles from well-known operas and operettas. She said that the concert’s semi-staged aspect with costumes and lighting was especially valuable for the younger students, as it gave them a chance to experience a theatrical context in which to perform and to put into practice what they had been studying. But she also thought that all the performers as well as the audience would relish the theatrical aspects of the presentation, adding value and interest to the musical experience.

The presentation was in the capable hands of director Frances Moore, a former first-class-honours student at the School of Music here, and subsequently a Fulbright Scholar at New York University, while working as an assistant director with the Manhattan School of Music’s Summer programme. She’s returned to New Zealand to continue studies at Toi Whakaari, and pursue a career as a director of opera. Here, she certainly made the most of the depth and diverse range of talents among the student performers, encouraging them to relish their opportunities by singing out and giving themselves up entirely to their characters and their interactions. She was aided and abetted by Alexandra Guillot’s inventive set and costume designs, and Lisa Maule’s very appropriate, on-the-spot (sic) lighting, both helping to bring the different scenarios of each item to life.

I’d recently attended and much enjoyed “Der Rosenkavalier” in a “scaled-down” performance edition out at Days Bay, courtesy of music director Michael Vinten, so I was more than usually receptive to the similar treatment accorded tonight’s items – the normally orchestral accompaniments were by turns brilliantly realized by pianists Mark Dorrell and Heather Easting, giving the singers, whether solo or in ensemble, complete security of support at all times, the playing’s energy and sense of fun creating many delightful and alchemic moments. I couldn’t see the pianist(s) from where I was sitting in the Adam Concert Room, but I understood that Heather Easting provided the Britten, Mozart, Donizetti and Puccini accompaniments.

Technically, the items went with a hiss and a roar, with only a handful of unsynchronised ensemble moments disturbing the flow, and which the performers simply pulled together again with confidence and élan. The concert began with an excerpt from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, sung in English, and designated as “Act One – finale” in the programme – as I later found, trying to pinpoint that same sequence on a “complete” recording I had of the operetta led to all kinds of discrepancies and confusions which suggested that the work had been mercilessly “hacked about” over the years, and with all kinds of “performing editions” emerging from the fracas. Comparing notes on this matter with Mark Dorrell a day or so later considerably relieved my confusion, and restored my faith in my ears!

The gods as presented here were a rum lot, indeed, with delightfully ungodlike characteristics shining forth for all to savour – each singer relished his or her opportunities, most notably Alicia Cadwgan’s delightfully kittenish Diana and Christian Thurston’s suitably machoistic Jupiter, the perfect foil for the suave Pluto of Declan Cudd, whose manner, apart from his highest notes, was easeful and insinuating, causing a sonorous and forthright rebellion among the ranks of Olympus’s celestial inhabitants! It made me long to see and hear a performance of the complete work, whatever the edition and its corruptions and inconsistencies!

From the fripperies of Offenbach’s satire to the stark realities of Britten’s “Peter Grimes” was a quantum leap for the sensibilities, a “plunge-bath after a sauna” effect, whose marked contrast worked extremely well. This was the quartet sequence “From the gutter” from Act Two of the opera, showcasing the voices of Olivia Marshall, Hannah Jones, Rebecca Howan, and, as Ellen Orford, Katherine McEndoe. Olivia Marshall in particular, as Auntie, impressed with the beauty and steadiness of her line, ably supported by her nieces Hannah Jones and Rebecca Howan; while Katherine McEndoe as Ellen engaged our attention with her strength and focus of utterance. The voices in ensemble readily conveyed that stricken, passionate quality called for by the music – beauty of a disturbing, intensely-wrought kind.

Intensities of a different order were generated by the Act One “Padlock” Scene from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, leading to those exchanges between Tamino and Papageno and the Three Ladies that must be among the most beautiful of all operatic moments. First we had Luka Venter as Papageno with his powers of speech bound by enchantment, his frustration and eventual relief at being released warmly and amusingly conveyed. The Three Ladies, Shanya Tweed, Elyse Hemara and Georgia Fergusson, were terrific! – in fact, a little too much so, in fact, as they needed more light and shade, more ease in their singing – but they were still admirably focused, direct and transfixing in their impact.

Declan Cudd as Tamino, along with Luka Venter, his Papageno, gave us a bit more of the lightness of touch that the music needed – but I was waiting (as I always do) for that lump-in-throat moment begun by the wind instruments in complete performances of the opera, when the women sing about the Three Boys who will guide Tamino and Papageno along their appointed journey. Here, I thought the utterances from all concerned were too rushed, wanting the air and space which would generate a certain “charged” quality, as if, for a moment, creation had paused to witness here a kind of celestial laying-on of hands. The scene still worked its magic – and I did like the appearance of the three “Knaben” high up in the balcony at that point, opening the vistas in a way that the music so beautifully suggests.

I was delighted that we got the chorus “Comes a train of little ladies”  from Sullivan’s “The Mikado” as well as the “Three Little Maids from School” – in the opening chorus the voices truly caught that sense of rapturous wonderment at the words “And we wonder, how we wonder….”, with marvellous surges of tone, and a beautiful dying fall at the end. It was the perfect foil for the “three little maids”, Hannah Jones’s Yum-Yum strong and focused, but the others (Katherine McEndoe and Rebecca Howan) closely in attendance. Their three-pronged exuberance  mischievously nudged and poked at the figure of the bemused Pooh-Bah, who declined (perhaps by way of protesting a little too much!) to “dance and sing” as the three girls confessed (“So, please you Sir, we much regret”) they were, by nature, apt to do. Jamie Henare, strong-voiced as Pooh Bah, had a fine time not quite completely evading their clutches!

The first-half closer, appropriately enough the finale of Act One of Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”, was an ambitious piece of singing and staging which, thanks to plenty of energy, wit and engaging vocal characterisation, backed up by strongly-focused direction and presentation, came across to us most entertainingly. William McElwee’s Count Almaviva was delightful, dramatically outlandish and vocally sweet, if just a bit coloratura-shy in places, while Brooks Kershaw’s Bartolo/Barbaro/Bertoldo responded with plenty of appropriate puzzlement and stupefaction at the count’s appearance as a drunken soldier. Alicia Cadwgan’s Rosina charmed us from the beginning with her quicksilver responses regarding the “letter business”, the characters readily catching the “spin” of the composer’s interactions in their adroitly-dovetailed ensemble.

The arrival of Figaro (Christian Thurston), along with Don Basilio (Jamie Henare) and Berta (Tess Robinson) properly galvanised things to the point where the police were called, and an exciting, tarantella-like ensemble swept us all along, emotions bubbling, simmering and seething with everything ranging from pleasure to bewilderment, ensemble thrills and spills treated as part of the experience. As its riotous way unfolded we were thoroughly engaged by the goings-on – I don’t think the most polished professional presentation could have given us more pleasure than we got here from these exuberant and fearless young performers!

A different kind of sophistication awaited us after the interval with Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music”, the scenario allowing Emma Carpenter’s voice to shine as Anne, both solo, and combining nicely in duet with Alicia Cadwgan’s Petra. Hannah Jones turned in an alluring Desiree, while as a couple Christian Thurston’s robust Carl-Magnus and Tess Robinson’s stratospheric Charlotte also gave pleasure. The performance caught the piece’s essentially “chic” surface nature while allowing us glimpses of the characters beneath the precarious facades – most enjoyable.

“Donizetti’s wonderful Don Pasquale” read the programme-note, and the music certainly lived up to the effusive introduction – this was a committed, no-holds-barred performance of the duet “Tornami a dir” (Tell me once more), which the composer styled as a “nocturne”, performed by Declan Cudd and Olivia Marshall. The former’s tone was freer and fuller in his lower register, though none of his high passages were shirked – while his opposite, Olivia Marshall, brought a confident and secure voice to the music given Norina, his sweetheart. For me, at any rate, the couple’s fervour and commitment easily carried the day.

Back to Mozart and his “Magic Flute” we went, this time with the Three Boys (Olivia Sheat, Luana Howard and Rebecca Howie) very much in vocal focus, delightfully attired in “Davy Crockett from Bavaria” style hats, and turning their tones in well-wrought ensemble towards dissuading Pamina from taking her life over her Prince Tamino’s apparent rejection of their love. As with the excerpt from “Peter Grimes” Katherine McIndoe impressed upon the memory with her focused commitment to the character, conveying her confused emotions with plenty of force and immediacy.

I thought the Rossini ensemble as we saw and heard just before the interval would be hard to beat, but the company at least matched its earlier achievement with the evening’s concluding item, a colourful and heartfelt delivery of the Waltz-Song and Soldiers’ March from Act Two of Puccini’s “La Boheme”. It all came vibrantly together – Tess Robinson’s appealing Musetta floated the insinuations of her melody quite irresistibly, at first angering her estranged lover, Marcello (Christian Thurston), and then winning him back over, to the annoyance of her elderly escort  Alcindoro (a lovely cameo from Nino Raphael), and the amusement of the watching Bohemians.

Though there wasn’t much for them to do as spectators, William McElwee’s Rodolfo and Hannah Jones’s Mimi looked and sounded lovely together, while Luca Venter’s Schaunard and Jamie Henare’s Colline amply completed the Bohemian contingent. Then as the military band approached, it was indeed “half the population of Paris” which seemed to be milling around on the stage as if on holiday, the contingent then marching off to the concluding bars of Puccini’s music in grand style.

All credit to the NZ School of Music’s Classical Voice Faculty and to the students whose performances this evening would have richly justified their tutors’ efforts – it was a great show, whose creative flair and sense of occasion lifted it far above the conventional hotch-potch method of random assemblage of  “vocal gems”, and produced something really worthwhile and memorable. I’m sure Margaret Medlyn, for one, would have been delighted.

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