Songs and arias
(New Zealand Opera Society – Wellington Branch)
James Benjamin Rodgers (tenor); Georgia Jamieson Emms (soprano); Elisabeth Harris (soprano); Christian Thurston (baritone)
Piano accompaniment: Catherine Norton
Liszt: Three Petrarch sonnets
Songs by Georg Tintner, Mahler
Arias by Gounod, Leoncavallo, Massenet, Nicolai, Verdi, Britten, Douglas Moore, Weill, Richard Rodgers and Sondheim
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart
Thursday 6 August, 7:30 pm
Once upon a time, the Wellington Branch of the New Zealand Opera Society used to stage almost monthly recitals of mainly opera arias and ensembles. As performances of the real thing increased in the 80s and 90s, with the establishment of Wellington City Opera, annual productions by both Victoria University and Wellington Polytechnic schools of music as well as a variety of adventurous ad hoc amateur groups, the appeal of de-contextualised arias and excerpts diminished.
Now that the number and variety of staged performances has seriously declined, scope for aria recitals should again have developed. So we must welcome a venture of this sort: the audience was large enough to encourage the society to try again.
First thing to exclaim about was the enterprising range of items. Absent were almost all the standard arias from the top 20 operas, as well as the once common scattering of popular art songs by Schubert and Schumann.
One of the most surprising was the first bracket – Liszt’s famous settings of three sonnets by Petrarch; they were also among the most challenging, and in the hands of tenor James Benjamin Rodgers, not flawless in execution.
My main concern was with his gauging of the church’s acoustic. It’s a fine space for the singer, but very easy in which to misjudge the amount of force required for projection. The expression of passionate and unrestrained emotions in the poems tempts the singer to deliver tempestuously, with too much force. The beginning of No 104 was much more promising as Rodgers captured better the calmer sense of puzzlement, but too often one wanted a little more subtlety, variety of mood, just a softer, less driven voice.
So I looked forward to his later pieces. The first of them was the third act duet between Violetta (Georgia Jamieson Emms) and Alfredo in La traviata; here his voice was beautifully modulated, capturing the confusion between his full awareness of Violetta’s imminent death and his need to support her delusionary dreams of happiness. The pair was excellently matched in tone and dramatic perception.
Unusually, Rodgers sang, from Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, the male chorus’s interlude describing Tarquinius’s ride to Rome to rape Lucretia, the wife of his general Collatinus. An absolutely splendid portrayal, with a peerless piano accompaniment from Catherine Norton.
Next morning Lucretia herself delivers an extraordinary, dignified lament, ‘Give him this orchid’, before killing herself before her husband: it was Elizabeth Harris’s triumph. Incidentally, one must record that the opera was done by the then Conservatorium of Music of Massey University a decade or more ago.
James Rodgers’s final group of pieces clinched his standing as a very fine singer, capable of grasping a wide variety of musical styles and emotional dilemmas. There were excerpts from two Kurt Weill works; the operetta The Firebrand of Florence and his ‘musical tragedy’ Lost in the Stars; and from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods (here duetting with Emms). Rodgers caught the wit and variety of mood keenly, demonstrating a natural talent for ‘becoming’ the character in question both through vocal nuance as well as facial expression and gesture. The title song from Weill’s Lost in the Stars sat right in the middle of his voice. In ‘Finishing the hat’ from Sunday in the Park his pianissimo conveyed perfectly the tortured conflict that the painter Seurat faced.
James and Georgia ended the concert, together again, with ‘It takes Two’ from Into the Woods, sensitively revealing the nature of the relationship between the couple. The two singers were again beautifully matched in this touching duet.
I am one who has not found it easy to enjoy Sondheim’s musical theatre, perhaps through exposure in live performance only with amateur productions; but the two examples here rather captivated me. Nevertheless, professional productions, which is what these pieces demand, are very unlikely in New
Georgia Jamieson Emms
Georgia had first displayed her interpretative talent with three songs (two by Theodore Storm and one by Hesse) set by Georg Tintner who fled to New Zealand from the Nazis in Austria before WW2 and, typically, found it almost impossible to gain musical recognition here, though he eventually became conductor of the New Zealand Opera Company. I hadn’t come across any of his compositions before; in these three one could hear hints of inter-war Vienna, touches of Alban Berg, Schoenberg and influences from Mahler and even Liszt could be perceived; secure and confident in realisation though nothing strongly memorable. But the performances would have charmed the composer.
Later offerings from Georgia included an unfamiliar aria from Nicolai’s German take on The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s often done still in Germany but here we know only the overture and perhaps the splendid Drinking Song. This ‘Nun heilt herbei’ was sprightly and expressive, with comic effects that Georgia delivered very well. (Nicolai was a strange case, dates exactly those of Chopin, but a much smaller talent; he wrote a few other operas none of which held the stage).
That was followed by the Traviata duet, in which she created a moving and lively simulation of dying.
Georgia’s last items were an aria from Weill’s Street Scene of 1946, entitled ‘An American opera’, and then the ‘letter scene’ from Douglas Moore’s famous (in America) The Ballad of Baby Doll. In
both she displayed a lovely timbre, with careful control of emotional expressiveness.
Thurston arrived on stage in the middle of the first half and sang two opera arias, both amorous yearnings after forbidden fruit: ‘E fra quest’ ansie’ – Silvio’s aria from Pagliacci, and the rather less known ‘Vision fugitive’ from Massenet’s Hérodiade. Unlike the Jokaanan in Strauss’s Salome, here John the Baptist is made to feel quite open lust for the seductive Salome.
In both arias I felt that Thurston was pushing his voice excessively. While it was disciplined and firm, his voice lacked colour and emotional variety and didn’t really convey the trembling, out-of-control emotion that one expects to find in, and to be touched by, the words and the music itself of these two arias.
His third song was addressed to a young lady who was accessible to the singer: Emile’s well-loved ‘Younger than Springtime’ from South Pacific. But here again he missed the gentleness and sentiment of the beguiling melody in spite of a voice of even quality and pleasant timbre. I could not decide whether the problem was his miscalculation of the nature of the acoustic, encouraging needless pressure on his voice, or simply the choice of pieces that suited neither his voice nor his histrionic talents.
Before her aria from Lucretia, mentioned above, Elizabeth Harris had sung one of Mahler’s songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Das irdische Leben. The subject echoes Schubert’s Der Erlkönig; and she sang it with tremulous intensity.
Then came a much anthologised opera aria from an unknown opera: from Gounod’s first opera, Sapho: ‘O ma mère immortelle’. It’s a touching little piece which she handled with sweet sensitivity. She also sang one of Britten’s brilliant cabaret songs, Johnny, which she carried with sparkling acting and a zaney, daring self-confidence along with Catherine Norton’s dazzling piano.
The concert as a whole has to be rated a considerable success, both as highlighting one singer who has gained some international success and three others of great promise. As I observed at the beginning, the decline in the amount and variety of live opera in performance should create a renewed thirst to explore opera, through excerpts, that look less and less likely to be performed here. And it is disturbing that such well-schooled and talented singers as these are unlikely ever to find full employment in this country.