Delightful, witty Così fan tutte from Wanderlust Opera

Così fan tutte (Mozart) in concert
Wanderlust Opera: produced by Georgia Jamieson Emms

Musical director: Bruce Greenfield (piano)
Narrator: Kate Mead
Georgia Jamieson Emms (Fiordiligi); Bianca Andrew (Dorabella); Imogen Thirlwall (Despina); Cameron Barclay (Ferrando); Robert Tucker (Guglielmo); Matthew Landreth (Don Alfonso)

English translation by John Drummond, Ruth and Thomas Martin and Georgia Jamieson Emms

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 15 August, 7:30 pm

It’s best to start with comment about the somewhat unfortunate timing of this wonderful enterprise. A clash with the university school of music’s double bill, running four performances from Thursday to Sunday. On top of that, many vocal enthusiasts would also have been torn by having to choose between the last day of the Big Sing, the choral competition/jamboree/gala of secondary school choirs, held this year in Wellington.

Because of conflicting commitments among the cast, no alternative date could be found however, and the audience (around 100) was a bit smaller than I’d expected: it certainly deserved a full house.

Though it was not a fully staged performance, there were many other features that contributed to a sparking, highly entertaining show; the mere absence of sets and costumes of the era didn’t deny the singers plenty of histrionic scope. Recitatives were replaced by a ‘performance’ by Kate Mead, named ‘narrator’. She was much more than that; in a flamboyant black and silver costume, she entered arm-in-arm with Bruce Greenfield, took her place on a platform on the right while Greenfield went to the piano, which served very well as orchestra.

He launched impulsively into the overture, hitting the keys with staccato ferocity. But after only a minute the overture was cut short and Kate took over to set the scene, with detail rich in witty hyperbole, insight, oxymoron, cynicism and meticulous Neapolitan geography. (If you’re interested, Piazza Carolina is close to the great San Carlo Theatre; their five-storey house is on the corner of Via Gennaro Serra – check it out next time you’re in Naples).

Kate’s dramatic elan ran the risk of upstaging more than one of the real performers. Like the singers, she spoke in English, which, in theory, negated the need for surtitles; but as usual, they’d often have been a help, as voices vary in clarity and carrying ability. (I have to confess a very strong preference, always, for the original language, with surtitles of course). So the scene was promptly set for a comedy in which there was no hope of rational intelligibility.

The other most important actor was the one-man-orchestra, the piano, which did get in the way sometimes, and made it hard to catch some of the Italian-inflected English. But it was always worth paying attention to the sheer brilliance of Greenfield’s playing of the delicious score.

However, the more important thing is the singing.

The three men, in dinner suits, established their characters at once, voices very distinct, though Cameron Barclay’s self-confident Ferrando was at first a little better projected than the Guglielmo of Robert Tucker whose well-grounded baritone slowly distinguished itself. The sisters’ several duets were nicely differentiated in timbre, and models of emotional excess. Bianca Andrew as Dorabella, the more susceptible of the sisters, used her fine penetrating mezzo wonderfully; Georgia Jamieson Emms benefitted as a result of the different character of her voice and personality, easily capturing the nature of Fiordiligi. They both wore glamorous, timeless, ball dresses.

Matthew Landreth as Don Alfonso did not, early on, quite command the nonchalant, Figaro-factotum character that Da Ponte and Mozart envisaged, but by the advent of the quintet, ‘Sento, o dio’, he was fitting comfortably into the texture of the performance.

It’s true that quite a lot was left out (there were 17 numbers listed in the programme from a total of 31 usually numbered in the score), though none of the well-known arias and ensembles was missing, like the divine trio ‘Soave sia il vento’, Fiordiligi’s ‘Come scoglio’ with a conspicuously splendid piano accompaniment; or tenor Ferrando’s touching ‘Un’ aura amorosa’. As an opera without a chorus, it is famous for its beautiful duets, trios and quintets, and they were often more beguiling than the solo arias.

With Alfonso’s pecuniary persuasion, Despina (Imogen Thirlwall) has entered the fray; her performance is vivacious and her initial hesitation to be complicit in Alfonso’s scheme quickly falls away.

The implementation of Alfonso’s plot is followed by a big sextet, as the two Albanians are introduced, and offer the most taxing of all suspensions of disbelief with the most improbable of disguises in all theatre, sporting moustaches and with unstable fezes (plural?), still wearing dinner suits, but with loosened ties.

Despina assumes great importance in Act II, starting with her perky ‘Una donna a quindici anni’, in her attempt to modify the girls’ self-denying virtue. With a few cuts in the score, we miss the agonising vicissitudes of the four as Despina’s principled counsel slowly takes root, especially in the Fiordiligi, the more virtuous of the two, leading precipitately to a double wedding officiated by Despina the notary.

To be sure, one missed the often hilarious, accelerating marital climax that a well-staged performance can offer, but the combination of fine singing and nearly believable acting was not a bad substitute. The outcome from the collapse of earlier assumptions about human behaviour is often left obscure; though I feel that an enigmatic outcome makes better dramatic, psychological sense, here the return to the original pairing was clear (perhaps it would be more acceptable in the provinces).

This splendid, entertaining, Wanderlust Opera enterprise is a serious attempt to find a way to bring opera to wider audiences. Georgia Jamieson Emms and her co-conspirators are to be congratulated on their courage and success which, given some financial support, has the potential to relieve operatic starvation in parts of the country.

The plan is for this performance to become fully staged under director Jacqui Coats and to travel next year to Wanganui, the Kapiti Coast, New Plymouth and Carterton. What is clearly needed is a change of attitude by Creative New Zealand which has a wretched history over many decades of rejecting applications for assistance by admirable, small opera groups.


The Big Sing Finale Gala Concert at the Michael Fowler Centre

(New Zealand Choral Federation Secondary Schools’ Choir Festival)

Twenty-four choirs competing in the Final Gala

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 15 August 2015, 6.30pm

It is marvellous to find so many young people taking part in choirs and obviously enjoying it.  The fact that all the choirs learn all their pieces by heart is staggering to us mere adults who sing in choirs, to whom this is an almost overwhelming difficulty.  An excellent effect of memorisation is that for the most part, words come over clearly – not always the case when singers are constantly glancing down at printed copies.   Every eye here was on the conductors – except for those few choirs who were able to perform without anyone standing in front of them to direct things.  Overall, the performances were of a high standard.

This year, nearly 10,000 school students from 150 schools participated in local performances, and for the first time, there were three regional finales, so that the national Finale did not become unmanageable.  24 choirs participated in this Gala concert.  As always, the excitement in the hall and the large, enthusiastic audience made for a memorable occasion.  There is no other buzz like that at the Gala concert of The Big Sing Finale! I observed with interest that, whereas Finale choirs from the North Island were exclusively from Auckland (10) and Wellington (6), those from the South Island were much more spread in their representation.  Christchurch produced four choirs, but in addition, Blenheim, Nelson, Timaru and Dunedin all had one representative choir.

A significant feature was the number of languages in which the choirs performed.  In this concert there were, in addition to English, songs in French Spanish, Latin, Maori and German, plus more unusual languages: Hebrew, Finnish, Bulgarian, Hungarian and a language new to me; Visayan, from the Philippines.  These were only those used in the Gala concert; there were many other foreign-language songs performed throughout the Finale sessions.  It was a pity that without translations in front of them, the audience couldn’t get the import of the songs beyond a brief introductory description from Christine Argyle, the compère.

Judges were Carl Crossin, Professor of Music and Head of Vocal, Choral and Conducting Studies at the University of Adelaide, Judy Bellingham, soprano soloist and Associate Professor in Voice at the University of Otago, and Michael Fulcher, former Director of Music at the Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, and currently involved in church and community choral music-making in Melbourne.

A slightly disturbing element this year was that a couple of choirs used adult professional string players to accompany them.  This seems inappropriate for such a festival as this, when many choirs had student piano accompanists. The repertoire chosen for this concert from what the choirs sang over the previous two-and-a-half days was extremely varied and musically interesting. The awards are based on performances on those days, not on Gala concert performances.  I did not envy the judges their task.

Another important feature is the scale of the organisation, whereby choirs at this concert are ready to move onto the platform the moment the last choir moves off, and all take their places without a hitch.  Christine Argyle has her introduction at the ready, and stage crew have unobtrusively done what was required in no time at all.  Elizabeth Crayford and her team from New Zealand Choral Federation Wellington Region are to be congratulated on their management and organisation skills.  Not least of their accomplishments is producing a handsome programme for the three days, with the names of all choirs, all choir directors and accompanists, items to be sung and names of all choristers printed.

For the final concert, a sheet is produced with the order, choirs and items listed – this can only be done, presumably, after the last choirs have sung on Saturday morning.

Euphony, an all-girls choir from Kristin School in Auckland began the programme with a song in Maori, by David Hamilton, ‘A Charm for Rain: He Tua I Te Rangi’. While it was difficult to pick up the words, though this did improve, the piece was delightful, with a lovely accompaniment of rain sounds, and a charming section sung by a small group.  Euphony won a gold award, and also sponsor Tour Time’s award for the best performance of a classical item.

Gold was the award also for Burnside High School’s Senior Chorale, a large mixed choir, who sang ‘Kalá Kallá’ from Five Hebrew Love Songs by American choral composer Eric Whitacre, who proved to be the most popular composer in the concert, with four items.  This choir also won the ultimate award, the platinum.  The male singers had a distinctive tone, while the accompanying violin solo added interest, as did tambourine.  A joyful piece, full of variety of moods, made for a classy performance.  Appearance was also classy; all the girls had their hair up, making for a very neat turn-out.

Sings Hilda, the choir from St. Hilda’s Collegiate School in Dunedin, chose a work by New Zealand choral composer David Hamilton (another popular composer throughout the festival): ‘Läksin mina kesäyönä käymään’.  This item was in the Finnish language.  How does a New Zealand composer become sufficiently conversant with that language to be able to set it so well, presumably with correct emphasis and stress?  It is about a girl siting on the shore for her loved one to return.  It began with a solo voice and accompanying wordless vocalisations. and was unaccompanied.  The choir appeared to have mastered the words; and the tricky music was sung well, without music score, of course. There were lovely nuances, phrasing and dynamics.  The choir won bronze.

Stella Nova, the choir from Nelson College for Girls, performed a Bulgarian traditional song, ‘Kafal sviri’.  In smart red dresses, the singers formed into groups of three.  Their singing was startling – they used no vibrato, but a deliberate, strong, forward tone for this folk music.  This voice production was strikingly different from that used by all the other choirs.  Although my Bulgarian is a little rusty, I found the choir had superb enunciation. For their pains, they won a silver award, and the award as Youth Ambassadors: the NZCF prize for the choir ‘that in the opinion of the organisers demonstrated outstanding engagement with all elements of the Finale’.

A change now, to a choir with the ominous, punning name ‘Menasing’: boys from St. Kentigern College.  Like many of the lighter music items in the concert, ‘Leaning on a lamp-post involved well-executed movement.  A very stylish performance with piano accompaniment, clear words and splendid singing in both unison and harmony were features, as was playing on numbers of toy instruments, not to mention air guitars and violins.  The choir produced gorgeous pianissimos, and its presentation was easy and precise.  Their efforts won them a gold award.

Teal Voices from Wellington Girls College was notable for singing without a conductor; teacher Nicola Sutherland played the piano.  Words were clear in their performance of ‘I say a little prayer’ by Burt Bacharach, and the singing was in appropriate style.  However, I felt more dynamic variation was required.  They gained a silver award.

At this point I had to leave the hall to attend another function, so the remainder of the programme I heard either on radio, or on tapes from the radio broadcast.

Macleans College Choir sang unaccompanied a fast song, ‘Rosas Pandan’ very proficiently. It was in the Visayan language (of which I had never heard) of the Philippines.  Clarity of words was notable, and very bright tone.  A bronze was their reward.

Resolutions is the choir from Rangi Ruru Girls School.  They sang unaccompanied and in the Hungarian language ‘Táncnóta’, arranged by Kodály. This song about dancing revealed a good dynamic range, although there was some strain on higher notes.  The pace sped up towards the end, and the choir was rewarded with silver.

Dilworth School in Auckland contributed its choir Fortissimo, who sang (accompanied) ‘Taku Kahurangi’ by Joby and Otene Hopa.  It opened with splendid deep tone, and continued with excellent enunciation of the Maori words and wonderful subtlety of phrasing and changes in tone. It earned them bronze, plus the award for the best performance of a work using Maori text.

Altissime is the choir from Samuel Marsden Collegiate School.  Their contribution was a Mexican song ‘Les amarillas’, which incorporated the sound of an egg shaker, plus clapped rhythms, some of them (deliberately) off-beat.  The piece had unusual tonality, and sounded quite difficult, especially the high singing.  It was lively, but the sound was not well blended.  A silver award was the result.

The St. Cecilia Singers from Auckland Diocesan School for Girls gave us ‘Ain’t misbehavin’’ a Fats Waller favourite at The Big Sing over the years.  This was accompanied, and sung brightly and confidently, with an excellent solo part.   The choir achieved a gold award.

Wellington College Chorale performed ‘Audition Day’ by student Joshua Hopton-Stewart, without a conductor.  I found the melody and harmony rather limited, but it was sung well, including a short section in falsetto.  The conception and the words were fun, and along with actions, all was executed well.  A silver was earned, and the Hutt City Trophy for best performance of a New Zealand or Pacifica composition.

Paradisum from Epsom Girls Grammar School chose Eric Whitacre’s ‘She weeps over Rahoon’ a setting of a poem by James Joyce.  It was performed with a cor anglais lending its plangent tone, along with piano.  It was a difficult work with tricky harmonies, but the singing was excellent, and justified the gold award.

Bel Canto from Burnside High School sang two items – a traditional Ecuadorean song in Spanish ‘Cancion de los tsáchilas’, played with drum accompaniment and some wonderful whistled bird-song.  This mixed choir was very skilled, and revealed a great range of dynamics. They also sang ‘Requiem’, the prize-winning composition, by Rosa Elliott of their school.  The accompanied piece seemed very singable.  It was based on the well-known poem by Robert Louis Stevenson that begins ‘Under the wide and starry sky…’; perhaps appropriate in the year in which we recall the many graves on Gallipoli.  The choir earned a gold award.

After the interval, Saints Alive from St. Cuthbert’s College performed a traditional French song, ‘La Maumariée’.  Fast and lively, with an oboe accompaniment, it was rendered in very good French.  A silver award resulted.

Voicemale is from Westlake Boys High School, and is a 50-strong choir of accomplished choristers.  They sang Eric Whitacre’s ‘Lux aurumque’.  They lived up to the great reputation that this school (and its girls’ equivalent) has built over the years.  When I heard them on Thursday, they performed a humorous item, with actions. Their Latin item wasn’t quite up to that standard, but was nevertheless well sung and effective, and they earned a gold.

Cantala from Wellington East Girls College sang in appropriate pop style ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ by Alan Menken, but I couldn’t tell what language they were singing in till part-way through, when I picked up a few English words.  They gained a silver award.

Christchurch’s Collegium is formed from Christ’s College and St. Margaret’s College. ‘Beati quorum via’ by Charles Stanford is a beautiful unaccompanied piece, but here the tone was variable, the males’ sound unattractive, and intonation was sometimes suspect.  A bronze was awarded.

Craighead Chorale followed, with ‘Salmo 150’ by Ernani Aguiar.  A Spanish piece, it was unaccompanied, revealing some very good voices.  Tuning, rhythm and enunciation of words were all very good, and a silver award was earned.

St. Patrick’s College Wellington has often ‘produced the goods’ at the Finale, and its choir Con Anima did so on this occasion, with ‘Hol’ you han’’, a Jamaican traditional song, in Jamaican English.  It was given an idiomatic rendering with marvellous enunciation. The boys accompanied with various sound effects; they sang as one in a very professional manner.  A silver was awarded.

Blue Notes from Tawa College followed, with ‘Richte mich, Gott’ by Mendelssohn. This mixed choir made a good beginning, the voices clear and well-produced.  The German was rendered well, but there was not much expression in this unaccompanied performance, and intonation was astray occasionally.  However, they made a full-bodied sound.   They received a bronze award.

Cantare from Westlake Girls sang a Debussy anti-war song, Debussy’s last.  Fine French pronunciation  and a very good performance were let down by top notes just missing the mark a little.  A silver award was made.

All the King’s Men from King’s College in Auckland chose a work by another prominent American choral composer, Morten Lauridsen: ‘Dirait-on’, from Les Chansons des Roses.  There was splendid gradation of dynamics in this French song; the choir gained a silver.

The concert ended with Whitacre; Marlborough Girls College’s Ovation sang ‘The Seal Lullaby’ with smooth, blended tone.  It would indeed send a baby to sleep – especially at the end of a long programme!  It was awarded bronze.

The presentation of awards followed, after some remarks from Carl Crossin on behalf of all three judges.  He emphasised the importance of well-chosen repertoire that suits the individual choir’s strengths and weaknesses.  He stressed also the necessity to adapt to the acoustics of the venue, and congratulated the choirs on doing so at the Michael Fowler Centre.  He said all choirs had been successful, but praised the artistry of the most successful.

In addition to the awards mentioned above, there was the composition award, to Rosa Elliott of Burnside High School for her ‘Requiem’.

The massed choirs, comprising 730 singers, then sang ‘Ride the chariot’, a spiritual, conducted by Rowan Johnston.  With singers dispersed throughout the downstairs, the stage, and part of the upstairs of the hall, it was not a particularly cohesive sound, but the following national anthem, in Maori and English, achieved a fine sonority, to finish a remarkable evening of great singing, special effects, use of percussion, wind instruments and strings as well as piano, in diverse and interesting repertoire.