Charming recital of French and English songs by Rhona Fraser and Richard Mapp at Lower Hutt

Rhona Fraser (soprano) with Richard Mapp (piano)

Songs by Fauré, Debussy and Duparc; two by Quilter and two by Trad. arranged Britten

St Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 31 August, 12:15 pm

Rhona Fraser relaxed after the strenuous weeks of management and production of her opera at Days Bay over the weekend (Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi) by tackling a ¾ hour recital of varied and engaging songs in the generous and kind acoustic of St Mark’s church, Lower Hutt.

Though the opera had not, this time, involved her in a singing role, this recital gave us some reassurance that her voice is in excellent shape, and ready for involvement in another production perhaps next summer.

Nine were French and four in English. Most were somewhat familiar, and Rhona introduced each with a few words about the poem and/or the setting. And Richard Mapp’s lovely airy introduction to Fauré’s Clair de lune (Verlaine’s poem), where Rhona’s voice captured the calm moonlit atmosphere with pianissimo singing, presaged the discreet and supportive accompaniment that Richard would provide to all the songs.

Another Verlaine poem was En sourdine, a potted translation of which Rhona offered: reflecting nostalgically on a muted, twilit, half-perceived world.

Verlaine’s C’est l’exstase, in Debussy’s setting, though dealing with a world of similar, veiled imagery, seemed to create a more sturdy, strongly imaginative sound world, with the piano and voice reaching taxing heights with a bell-like quality.

And Leconte de Lisle’s Nell, as well as settings of less familiar poets: Après un rêve and Notre amour, mainly evoking misty, nostalgic, regret and longing, all found sympathy through Fauré’s music. Though Rhona’s voice might be more associated with the lyrical and dramatic areas of music, here she revealed a romantic sensibility, capturing a dim, fugitive world, often dealing with lost love.

Debussy’s Apparition, set to Mallarmé’s ethereal poem, also made demands at the top of the soprano’s range, though her ability to sing softly in that register was conspicuously sensitive; it captured the touching moment of the poet’s first kiss with such specific images as cobblestones, light in her hair, and ‘la fée au chapeau de clarté’. Throughout the song, the piano accompaniment is vividly specific.

The last of the French songs were a couple of Duparc’s small though exquisite repertoire. Baudelaire’s L’invitation au voyage is one of the best loved French melodies, particularly seductive, with more concrete imagery and a piano part that provides it with complementary emotion. However, Duparc’s Chanson triste, a poem by the little known Henri Cazalis, took us back to the more misty, evanescent poetry of Verlaine and Mallarmé,

The difference in tone between the French and English songs of comparable periods was striking. Quilter has a warm melodic vein, far from the ethereal character of the French symbolist settings. A more overtly conversational and unambiguous character that I suppose reflects the deep differences between the two languages and the poetry inspired by each.

Tennyson’s Now sleeps the crimson petal has been set by several composers; Shelley’s Love’s Philosophy  by Quilter and Delius. Voice and piano were beautifully integrated in both songs, flowing rhythms, regular meters, and conventional melodies, suggesting a more literal, perhaps concrete view of the emotional aspects of life.

Finally there were two arrangements by Britten of folk songs, The Ash Grove and Oh no John no; the latter one hears occasionally, but I don’t believe I’ve heard The Ash Grove since I was in Standard 5 (Year 7) when we had a teaching headmaster who led us in singing with his violin. I loved the song and still do. Rhona Fraser and Richard Mapp gave charming, idiomatic, affectionate performances of them.

So it was a happy recital. I was sorry not to see a bigger audience; the fine weather might have explained that, or it might have been used in the opposite sense. However, I hope soprano and pianist can be induced to play again at lunchtime concerts in Wellington or the Hutt Valley.



Maaike Christie-Beekman with Rachel Thomson in admirable song recital

Wednesday Lunchtime Concerts

Maaike Christie-Beekman (mezzo-soprano) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

Debussy: Trois Chansons de Bilitis
Samuel Barber: Hermit Songs
Poulenc: Banalités

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 31 August 2016, 12.15pm

A recital entirely of song-cycles is perhaps a little unusual, but it made for a very satisfying concert.  Maaike Christie-Beekman introduced each in a lively and informative way, giving a summary of the words of each song.  Even though she was not using a microphone, most of what she said could be heard clearly.

The Debussy cycle used poems by Pierre Louÿs, which the latter claimed were translations of the Greek, but were in fact his own work, based on Greek styles and in some cases, sources.  The first, ‘La flûte de Pan’, was dreamy in character, with the enchanting flute written into both voice and piano parts in unmistakable French style.  It was a gorgeous song, sung by a gorgeous voice, with its very expressive, beautifully controlled range of dynamics.  ‘La Chevelure’ (head of hair), the second song, was livelier, with the French language pronounced with clarity.

The third, ‘Le tombeau des Naiades’ became quite excited, but ended in a quiet, contemplative mood.  The piano was always sympathetic and eloquent.

The performers turned next to the English language and Samuel Barber.  The poems were translations of Irish poems written from the 8th to the 13th centuries, and translated by W.H. Auden and others.  Most had religious themes, starting with a spiky ‘At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory’.  Here again, in English, Christie-Beekman’s words were for the most part very clear.  ‘Church Bell at Night’ was much more mellow, like the bell.  ‘St. Ita’s Vision’ followed.  I had never heard of this Irish saint, but apparently she lived a virginal life in the fifth century.  The song began in declamatory fashion, and then flowed into euphoria.

By contrast, ‘A Heavenly Banquet’ sounded like a very a jolly party. ‘The Crucifixion’ focused on the drama and pain, expressing grief.  ‘Sea-Snatch’ was fast and furious, like the action of a stormy sea, while the brief ‘Promiscuity’ was angular, questioning whether someone was sleeping alone.  ‘The Monk and his Cat’ contained delightful meows and other feline features, particularly in the lovely frisky accompaniment.  ‘The Praises of God’ was also short – and powerful.  Finally, ‘The Desire for Hermitage’ was solemn and flowing.  The sustained notes were beautiful.  All were characterised, and sung with appropriate feeling and clarity.

Banalités is Poulenc’s setting of poems by Guillaume Apollinaire (real name Wilhelm Albert Vladimir Apollinaris Kostrowitzky); this was the last in the tri-cycle.  Its opening number was ‘Chanson d’Orkenise’.  Not the Orkney Islands, but a village in France.  It was a fast, spirited song in a set all about love and heartbreak (but banal?).  The second , ‘Hôtel’, was more thoughtful, with a lazy mood.  The poem was about a young man who just wanted to stay in his room and smoke.  ‘Fagnes de Wallonie’ concerned a wander through the woods in Wallonie in Belgium – but sounded more like a quick trot.

‘Voyage à Paris’ was described by Christie-Beekman as ‘Carmenesque’.  It began with decisive chords from the piano, and the words confidently described ‘gay Paree’.  Finally, ‘Sanglots’ (sobs).  It was quieter and more introspective, but developed dramatically, having a sublime ending.

The singer conveyed lovely tone throughout a wide tessitura.  All the songs were sung in a thoroughly accomplished and comfortable manner.  Moreover, Christie-Beekman gave a lesson in fine presentation.


Magical I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini) the tenth production by Rhona Fraser’s Opera in Days Bay

I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini)
Opera in a Days Bay Garden (But now in the house)
Produced by Rhona Fraser
Musical director and piano: Rosemary Barnes; Hayden Sinclair – clarinet; Greg Hill – horn

Cast: Barry Mora – Capellio, Bianca Andrew – Romeo, Katherine McIndoe – Giulietto, Filipe Manu – Tebaldo, William King – Lorenzo

Canna House, Moana Road, Days Bay

Saturday 27 August, 7:30 pm

This production of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, like the productions of several of the operas done by Rhona Fraser’s Days Bay company, was probably the New Zealand premiere. Though there may have been performances by minor opera groups over recent years, I’m sure no recent professional production would have escaped me. (but see more in the Appendix below)

One of the problems with this assumed Shakespeare-modelled piece has been the tendency among English-speaking people to scorn any treatment of their great dramatist’s works by foreigners who don’t understand the essential character of Shakespeare’s plays. They forget that Shakespeare invented almost none of his plots, but drew them from many sources, as did almost everyone then, and would still do today if it weren’t for the literary impediments and excesses of the Law of Intellectual Property. Shakespeare’s main sources for the plays were Holinshed’s Chronicles of British history, classical historians like Plutarch and a variety of recent plays, poems and novelle from France and Italy. The latter creations account for Romeo and Juliet.

That is not to denigrate the extraordinary genius of Shakespeare who clothed them in rich and marvelous language, fully developed charcterisations, vivid dramatic situations, wit, irony, pathos and delight in the sheer virtuosity of his imagination, that turned dry raw material into the richest and most amazing literary creations.

Medieval origins of the story
The story, that no doubt had its origins in anonymous oral myth in the earlier Middle Ages, took written form from the 14th century, through Boccaccio, Bandello and others. Bellini’s librettist, Romani, had originally written his libretto (Giulietta e Romeo) for Nicola Vaccai in 1825, the story adapted from an earlier libretto by Giuseppe Maria Foppa for a 1796 opera by Zingarelli. (There is the curious story that certain singers, Malibran and Pasta inter alia, demanded the Vaccai version of the last act instead of Bellini’s).

These Italian librettists were probably using the Italian sources, as Shakespeare did not begin to be translated into other languages till around 1800. One of the first to translate Shakespeare into Italian, starting from 1811 was Michele Leoni and his translation of Romeo and Juliet was published in 1814. Romani could have known it.

So here’s a slender connection with Shakespeare. Michele Leoni’s translation and a separate Italian play by Scevolo, of 1816; both appeared before 1825 when Romani wrote his libretto for Vaccai. But the fact that there’s almost no trace of the Shakespearean story or language in Bellini, makes Shakespeare an unlikely source.

That is a long way of saying that Bellini’s librettist, Romani, had a much greater range of Romeo and Juliet stories to draw on than Shakespeare had. English literature need not feel demeaned by any sort of corruption of the great Shakespeare’s work in the Bellini account of the story.

Guelfs and Ghibellines; Campbells and MacDonalds
The other historical element in the story is the allegiances of the two families to actual long-standing factional warfare that had blighted Italy for centuries, between Guelfs and Ghibellines (the Capulets adhered to the Guelfs while the Montagues were Ghibelline); the feud was driven by the overarching political and ecclesiastical forces of the late Middle Ages – supporters of the Pope (Guelfs) and supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor (Ghibellines). The various states of Italy were ruled by one faction or the other; some were happily neutral. And these warring parties continued to bring grief to many parts of the country for centuries.

To be aware of these perpetually feuding elements is to help understand the viciousness and implacability of the hatred between Capulets and Montagues. (Look up accounts of the Guelfs and Ghibellines – Wikipedia is a good place to start).

To these dualities, Rhona Fraser added another, reflecting perhaps Scottish, family antecedents: warring clans, the Campbells and MacDonalds, replaced Capulets and Montagues. Thus the Capulets wore the Campbell kilt while the Montagues wore MacDonald tartan; though in truth nothing much was made of the geographical and ethnic shift.

However, to be aware of all the historical, textual, political and factional background to the opera hugely enlarges the fascination of the work.

See the Appendix to this review for more detailed account of the story’s antecedents, both of Shakespeare and of Bellini, and other peripheral stuff.

Turning seriously to Capuleti e Montecchi
This was the tenth production from Rhona Fraser and Co’s Days Bay opera enterprise. We happy band of Wellingtonians can be grateful for these sometimes more than once a year opportunities to discover delights of out-of-the-way opera repertoire. For the first time this production was in the house at Days Bay which managed to accommodate over 100 completely filled seats in the interestingly disposed living areas.

A first-rate cast was assembled. Bianca Andrew in trouser role of Romeo and Katherine McIndoe as Giulietta, Barry Mora at the patriarch Capellio (a stark contrast to Shakespeare’s conciliatory, rather human, Capulet!). What a formidable challenge Mora presented straight away, his voice and his very presence chilling in their power and authority. Nor was his de facto lieutenant, Tebaldo, less dangerous: Filipe Manu, who was runner-up in last month’s Lexus Song Quest. His younger, polished voice captured his angry inflexibility, and we tremble at the improbability of negotiating any sort of peace, given that Romani’s Tebaldo is even more filled with insane hate as is Shakespeare’s Tybalt.

But the third party in the opening scene was William King as Lorenzo: here it’s not Friar Lawrence, but the family doctor, Dr Lorenzo, which makes his later familiarity with potions and poisons rather more credible. His role is integral in the story from the start, and his singing and acting make the situation more interesting than the unmitigated hostility, emphasis much more on revenge and the killing of each other, that Shakespeare delivers. Sort of a UN Secretary-General mediating between Assad and Netanyahu.

And we note, perhaps with a certain relief, that we only have to get five roles identified, compared with the dozen or so in Shakespeare. We have no Montagues apart from Romeo himself (and he is disguised as a Capulet/Campbell).

Behind it all was producer and founding genius Rhona Fraser, this time directly in charge of the staging generally. If one had wondered how effective an attempt at staging would be in the somewhat constrained space in the house, the arrival of the first singers left no doubt. The shape of the rooms and their furnishings proved as convincing as any theatre stage, and use of tartan meant no need for elaborate Renaissance costumes. Props were limited to a few knives or swords, and dozens of candles along with subdued lighting removed us to a different time and place.

Though Romeo’s first appearance is as an anonymous envoy suing for peace between the ancient enemies. Romeo has already killed Capulet’s son, in a situation of ‘warfare’ (in which killing is not necessarily a crime). Trouser roles have become pretty familiar over the years as more and more operas of the 18th century, and quite a few later, are uncovered (and after all, Octavian in Rosenkavalier and the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos are cases). Even with her fairly high mezzo voice, Bianca adopted with total conviction her role as a strong, energetic, attractive young man which somehow made Romeo a genuinely conciliatory figure.

But Tebaldo wants blood. Romeo’s moving and placatory appeal for peace is accompanied by Hayden Sinclair’s clarinet which seems a symbol of reconciliation, but his plea is scorned. For apart from Rosemary Barnes’s piano, the only instruments used, most tellingly in their isolation, are the clarinet and Greg Hill’s French horn which then, and at points later seemed to provide the very timbre that evoked the essence of an orchestral accompaniment.

It becomes a high-tension trio, and its absolute integrity and balance through contrast, and the tension it creates made me feel that this was a performance that could support a fully staged, professional production.

The poignant sound of the horn introduced the recitative before Giulietta’s great, heart-felt aria, as she stood visible, behind a glass door, leading to the heart-breaking ‘Oh! quante volte’. Then, though the pair have met before, unlike the encounter at the Capulets’ ball in Shakespeare, Lorenzo enters with Romeo; and that leads to the beautiful love duet, the two, soprano and mezzo, both looking and sounding enchantingly beautiful, to a degree I’ve rarely experienced. It was intensified by the closeness of audience to performers.

The wedding ceremonies preparation demanded rather more space and numbers than were possible but the appearance of Romeo and Lorenzo together, with differing ideas about tactics sustained the agitated emotion: Romeo’s followers are about to storm the wedding, Romeo reveals his identity as Tebaldo’s rival for Giulietta’s hand, and it’s all on. And again, in spite of space constraints and smallness of chorus numbers, the drama was undiminished. Again Romeo failed to persuade Giulietta to escape with him.

Unlike in Shakespeare, for Romani and Bellini the couple’s great passion is not enough to overcome Giulietta’s fears and family loyalty, and finally, in Act II, Doctor Lorenzo’s remedy is the death-seeming potion to avoid being taken by force to Tybalt’s house. As her father arrives she finally takes it; there were further confrontations between Tebaldo and Romeo which end in the hearing of what is supposed to be funeral music which, for one of the very few occasions, the piano alone seemed inadequate. But it caused the two rival lovers strangely to unite in their common loss. Capellio’s implacability remains till the very end however, and there’s no coming together of the two families. The sequence of events leading to Romeo’s suicide and Giulietta’s awakening just seconds too late, were among the few elements in the tale where English play and Italian libretto came together.

The scene, beautifully lit with candles, moved slowly, demanding long-sustained stillness and almost mesmerizing effects that transfixed the audience.

I doubt whether there was anyone in the house who left with the feeling that this opera had offered an experience that was less powerful and convincing than Shakespeare’s, even though only a fraction of the words was employed. It certainly put this opera in the same class as Norma, and for me ahead of Sonnambula and Puritani.


Italian origins of the story
The Romeo and Juliet story comes from an Italian story that was handled by several writers from the 14th century onwards.

The earliest traces of the story are in Boccaccio’s mid-14th century Decameron (III,8 and X,4) and an anonymous tales of two lovers called Leonora de Bardi and Ippolito Bondelmonti. They may have been the sources for the novella by Masuccio Salernitano published in 1476, about two lovers in Siena, Mariotto and Ganozza.

But the story takes something of its Shakespearean shape with the novella of Luigi da Porto about 1524 where the lovers are named Romeo and Giulietta, respectively members of the Montecchi and Capuleti families who inhabit Verona.

The drama then moves to France where Adrien Sevin in 1542 published a tale clearly indebted to Da Porto, though given a pseudo ancient Greek setting.

Then an Italian, Gerardo Boldieri, published a poem in 1553, introducing several innovations.

And in Lucca the next year Matteo Bandello published a Novella in the style of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Bandello drew on Da Porto with borrowings from the story of Leonora and Ippolito as well as from Boldieri.

This, together with five other Bandello stories were translated into French by Pierre Boaistuau in 1559, and that was adapted and translated in a long English poem by Arthur Brooke, published in 1562; and then a prose version by William Painter in 1567.

It is believed that Shakespeare knew both versions but based his play primarily on Brooke.

(Much ado about Nothing and Twelfth Night as well as Webster’s Duchess of Malfi were also based on Bandello’s stories, via Brooke).

Origins of the story in Italian opera
As for the origins of the story in Italian opera, the first opera libretto was probably by Luzzi for Marescalchi (1785, Venice), then Foppa for Zingarelli (1796, Milan), and Buonaiuti for Pietro Carlo Guglielmi (1810, London).

Felice Romani had written a libretto in 1825 called Giulietta e Romeo for composer Nicola Vaccai. (Vaccai’s career has been the subject of musicological research by Wellington’s opera and literary scholar Jeremy Commons). Romani’s libretto for Vaccai’s opera was probably based on the play of the same name by Luigi Scevola, written in 1818, and/or on Giuseppe Maria Foppa’s libretto for Zingarelli of 1796, the ultimate derivation of which was the Salernitano version from the 15th century, referred to above.

First translations into Italian
They were doubtless using the Italian sources, as Shakespeare did not begin to be translated into other languages till around 1800.
However, Michele Leoni was one of the first to translate Shakespeare into Italian, starting from 1811 and his translation of Romeo and Juliet was published in 1814, so it is very possible that Luigi Scevola’s play of 1818 drew on that translation though that is not based on any textual examination, and that Romani was influenced by it, for both Vaccai and Bellini. (An entry in Wikipedia declares simply that Romani’s libretto was based on Scevola’s play).

The first Italian libretto explicitly based on Shakespeare’s play did not appear until 1865; it was by Marco Marcello, for composer Filippo Marchetti’s Romeo e Giulietta first given in Trieste.

Bellini in New Zealand
I was curious to look at the early history of Bellini productions in 19th century New Zealand, to find Sonnambula by far the most frequently staged – seven productions between 1864 and 1881, and then none, and none in modern times, followed by Norma (and Canterbury Opera did that in 2002) and a couple of Puritanis in the tours of the 1860s and 1870s.

But no sign at all of I Capuleti, or of any of the other Bellini operas, like Il pirata, or La straniera. While we have been awakened to 18th century opera, and earlier – Monteverdi and Cavalli – Bellini has not had the same attention as Donizetti, understandable when the latter composed about seven times as many operas as Bellini.

Today, worldwide, things are not very different. Bellini is not among the most performed composers by any means as attention still dives deeper into the 17th and 18th centuries. London’s Opera magazine index of reviews for last year recorded Norma first, Puritani second and Capuleti and Sonnambula, with just one or two each. There was also one review of La straniera.

A night in Hanover 2003
It also helped that I’d seen it before, once in 2003 in Hanover, where I’d heard the conductor’s introductory talk where in which he described the Italian, non-Shakespearean origins of the story. The production was in some ways a characteristic, wilful German reinterpretation, but re-reading my account, as recorded in an article in New Zealand Opera News, it’s clear that I enjoyed and was moved by it. I found the striking black and white costumes arresting (still the fashion colour for today’s stage designers): Romeo, black and Giuletta, white, in the gorgeously sung love scene; and I remarked that the opera captured the character of the inter-tribal feud more poignantly than Shakespeare.

A friend who’d seen the 80s production at Covent Garden, full of top singers, asked me about the singers at Hanover; I couldn’t remember. As with most of my opera excursions in Germany and France I don’t look primarily for famous singers, but seek operas I don’t know, and opera houses, for their own sake. However, the two principals were Ina Kancheva (Giulietta) and Christiane Iven (Romeo).

But you need to dip into the Shakespeare for only a moment, as I was doing writing this, for any sort of one-dimensional comparison with Bellini to be ridiculous. One is totally seduced by the fluency, richness and wit of Shakespeare’s language, his imagination, the emotional and intellectual complexity of the interactions between his so subtly portrayed characters. And did you hear in the interval of a BBC Proms broadcast on Radio New Zealand Concert, a marvelous discussion between the BBC presenter and a Shakespeare actor (whose name I didn’t get), on Tuesday evening (30/8), just before despatching this? Finally, he delivered a spectacular speech from Henry VI Part 3 (I think; I’ve emailed RNZ Concert for help identifying). One wept in astonishment.



‘Singers to listen for’: “A long way to hear singing as good as this”

Rotary Club of Wellington and Kiri te Kanawa Foundation

‘Singers to listen for’, compèred by Rodney Macann

Jonathan Abernethy (tenor), Anna Dowsley (mezzo-soprano), Katherine McIndoe (soprano), Jarvis Dams (baritone), Terence Dennis (piano)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace; for 7.15pm

Friday, 26 August 2016

Advertised on RNZ Concert like any other concert, it was in fact not at all.  It was a fundraiser for Gillies McIndoe Research Institute (for cancer research) and the Kiri te Kanawa Foundation.  A similar event had been held last year.  The early part of the evening was taken up with chat, drinks and canapés, before the music started at 7.15pm.

Rodney Macann was a genial and knowledgeable MC, and Professor Terrence Dennis the incomparable accompanist.  Jonathan Abernethy and Katherine McIndoe are graduates of Victoria University and Jarvis Dams is still a student at Waikato University.  With the exception of an item by Berlioz and perhaps the Delibes aria, this was a ‘top of the classical chart’ concert, but none the worse for that; these items are popular because of their outstanding melodies, sentiments and sheer musical quality.

First up was Mozart’s Magic Flute; Tamino’s wonderful aria ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’.  Jonathan Abernethy has a rich, powerful, dramatic tenor voice, and he was fully up to not only the musical demands of the piece but also the emotional and expressive character.  Meanwhile Dennis impressed me with his astonishing ability to never be merely in the background of the performance, yet always allowing the singer to be in the foreground.  The piano lid was held on the short stick, appropriate for accompanying singers.  This was a glorious performance.

Jonathan’s partner, Australian Anna Dowsley, has not been to New Zealand before.  Like Jonathan, she is a singer with Opera Australia.  Staying with Mozart, she sang ‘Non so più’ from The Marriage of Figaro.  This was a fast, but assured performance, by a lovely voice.  She gave us the drama of the piece in full measure. Terence Dennis made the accompaniment more interesting than I’ve ever heard it on the piano.  In this and many of the other arias, the singers did not stand stock still as in a recital, but moved around the platform.

Back to The Magic Flute, for the duet between Pamina and Tamino: ‘Bei Männern’, from Katherine McIndoe and Jarvis Dams.  Katherine’s voice is placed well forward; Jarvis’s less so.  The soprano sang just a shade under the note occasionally, but this disappeared as the programme progressed.  Both have warm tone, and they made a lovely job of the duet.

Another Mozart favourite is the trio ‘Soave sia il vento’ from Così fan Tutte.  The two women’s and Jarvis Dams’s voices were well matched and they sang in perfect cohesion in this most beautiful trio.

Rossini’s popular comic opera Il barbiere di Siviglia gave us Anna singing Rosina’s aria ‘Una voce poco fa’, as the heroine thinks of her beloved Lindoro.  From the same opera Jarvis, as Figaro, sang ‘Largo al factotum’ in fine style.  Anna’s is a rich mezzo voice, but perfectly under control.  She floated it so agilely, it made for an astounding performance.  Jarvis began off-stage; his voice was well-coloured, and his production seemed effortless.  He made great use of the Italian words.  Sometimes he was a little too loud for this very lively acoustic.  His enunciation of the tongue-twister ending of the aria was phenomenal!

To a different mood; Gounod’s Faust was represented firstly by Jonathan singing a meltingly beautiful ‘Salut! demeure chaste et pure’.  His tenor voice is utterly right for this role.  He injected plenty of feeling into this intensely romantic aria, addressed to Marguerite by Faust, and his high note was glorious.  Katherine McIndoe put the required innocence into her well-characterised rendition of the ‘Jewel Song’.  She employed a range of dynamics to magnificent effect, and her French words were exceptionally clear.

Now to something less familiar: from Berlioz’s The Trojans.  ‘Nuit d’ivresse’ is a duet sung by Dido and Aeneas in Carthage; in this case, by Anna and Jonathan.  Together they sang, calling on their dramatic abilities to great effect, even though lacking set and costumes.  The accompaniment, as always, set the scene though the excellence of Terence Dennis’s representation of the orchestral score.  The singers both sustained beautiful tone marvellously well.  It was a splendid performance of a lesser-known duet.

Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers has one exceedingly popular number; before we got to that, though, we had the aria ‘L’orage s’est calmé’ sung by Jarvis as Zurga.  This was a mature and very fine interpretation, although the tone was just a little harsh at times.

We moved from the former Ceylon to India, with the opera Lakmé by Delibes.  Here was the famous duet for the two women (for some time a number of years ago it was used to sell cars) with its delicious interweaving harmonies.  Rodney Macann explained that these two singers had only met the previous day, yet they were so professional, it sounded as though they had sung together many times, such was their cohesion and matching tone; they gave a very fine, in fact almost immaculate performance, with exquisite phrasing.

To end the musical programme (well, not completely), the famous duet was sung: ‘Au fond du temple saint’.  There is nothing to say about it except that it was outstanding.  The two male singers were simply superb.  As Rodney Macann said more than once, the hearers would have to go a long way to hear singing as good as this.  Congratulations to all concerned!

A number of encores were performed, the first a light opera-style piece for soprano, by John Drummond, recently retired professor of music at the University of Otago.  I missed these, on account of another engagement.




Polished guitar music from Poland, New Zealand and Japan from St Andrews

Wednesday Lunchtime Concerts

Jane Curry and Owen Moriarty (guitars)

Works for guitar duo by Marek Pasieczny, Maria Grenfell and Anthony Ritchie

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 24 August 2016, 12.15pm

Jane Curry introduced this recital by making generous remarks about the dedication and hard work by the year-round organisers of these important lunchtime concerts, Marjan van Waardenberg and the church’s administrator, David Medland.

Having a couple of highly competent guitarists performing means relaxing, knowing that even complex music will be reproduced faithfully, sensitively and accurately.  In this case, the programme consisted of innovative, recent compositions.

The first, Sakura No Hana Variations took its melody and inspiration from Japan, but was written by a Polish composer, who has been to New Zealand.  Many different sounds of a percussive nature were produced from the instruments, not only knocking on the wooden body.  Based on the pentatonic scale, the music brought out the melody well.  It was soothing in character, yet stimulating in places.  The variations involved not only the plucked melodies and percussive sounds, but also strumming.  Mostly, the music was quiet.  The variations introduced distinct melodies, related to, but not the same as, the main melody played at the beginning.

One of the ‘extended’ techniques employed was plucking the strings above where the fingers of the left hand were depressing the strings to produce notes.  The scope of the composition was surprising, given the limitations of the pentatonic (five-note) scale.

Dunedin composer Anthony Ritchie has written music in a great many different genres.  The Pas de Deux was written in 1992, and consists of a series of five dances.  The first movement, ‘Prelude’ was a lovely alternation between loud and soft passages, with a final note splendidly sustained.  I had some difficulty establishing where the break between this movement and the next was, or was it between II and III?  My colleague confessed to the same problem when I consulted him.

However, what appeared to me to be the second movement ‘Au revoir’ was dreamy and gentle.  What may have been ‘Jeux’, the third movement, was a loud, twanging interlude, while the ‘Waltz triste’ (‘Valse’, surely?) was quite playful right from the start, with brief melodies that fell one on top of the other.  The final movement, ‘Epilogue’, (if I am correct) began rather dolefully, concentrating on a few low-pitched strings, before becoming smooth and flowing.  All in all, the music was attractive and interesting, and played absolutely superbly.

Maria Grenfell is a New Zealand composer currently resident in Australia where she teaches at the Conservatorium of Music of the University of Tasmania.  Her piece was titled Di Primavera.  She arranged it from the earlier version for guitar and marimba, specifically for Curry and Moriarty.  Curry took the part written originally for marimba, while Moriarty played the guitar part.  On a rather cold day, it was a hopeful sign to be thinking about spring.

The first movement was lively and rapid, while the second was overall more gentle, but spiky, too.  The final one was bouncy, alternating in mood and between the players, with a wide dynamic range, and a sudden chord to end.

The concert was rather too long; the Grenfell work ended at 1pm, the usual time for the close of the lunchtime concert.  Quite a number of audience members had to leave at this point.

However, we then met Marek Pasieczny again, in his Polish Sketches, the work being based on Polish folk music.  The first piece, titled ‘Majestically’ and inspired by the Polish dance the mazurka, was rhythmic and attractive.  ‘Stealthily’, like its predecessor, employed a variety of techniques, including rhythmic drumming on the instrument.  It ended with an exclamation.

‘Lively’ was indeed that; one could hear clearly the song melody on which it was based., along with its rhythmic accompaniment.  ‘Joyfully with blustering’ was inspired by a ‘furious polka’; it gave a snappy ending to a delightful sequence.

To end, we heard Pasieczny’s arrangement of ‘Pokarekare Ana’.  It was a charming iteration of the well-loved melody.  Interesting harmonies made one listen; the endings of phrases of the melody disappeared into these unexpected harmonies.

Here was a recital by highly skilled performers in complete unanimity with each other and with their instruments.



Don Giovanni scores impressively in performance by Eternity Opera’s second cast

Don Giovanni by Mozart
Produced by Eternity Opera: producer Sandra Malesic
Conductor: Simon Romanos; stage director: Alex Galvin
(Sung in English translation by Edward Dent)

Sixteen-piece orchestra, led by Douglas Beilman
Cast in order of appearance: Nino Raphael, Orene Tiai, Amanda Barclay, Derek Miller, Chris Berentson, Hannah Catrin Jones, Emily Mwila, Charles Wilson

Hannah Playhouse (former Downstage Theatre)

Wednesday 24 August, 7:30 pm

When I arrived at the theatre at 7pm, I was surprised (and delighted) to find a box office queue out to the street. Though it proved to be largely because there was only one person handling both sales and the collection of already purchased tickets, it did show that the production had attracted high interest, and indeed by 7.30, there was scarcely an empty seat in the house.

This was the first evening at which a second cast was engaged – all except the Zerlina of the brilliantly cast Emily Mwila, who’d sung in the first cast too. The other singers this evening were rather the covers for the first cast, though each cast served as the chorus for the other; thus all were on stage for all performances.

It confirmed the success of the implicit intention expressed in the programme booklet: that here was a new opera company that sought to reach a wide audience with productions that were exciting and accessible to all, and reasonably priced.

The staging, costuming, orchestra
One can sense an audience that’s expecting to have a good time, almost through the sounds of their breathing; they were lively and responsive, ready to laugh generously at the least excuse; few operas offer as many opportunities as this. Which was a happy situation since the orchestra was tasked with creating a Mozart accompaniment from a very reduced score that was rather remote from the spirit and elegance of the original. (I could find no acknowledgement of the arranger in the programme; assume it was music director Romanos). Though the one-to-a-part strings presented a challenge in terms of orchestral warmth, I was glad that pairs of clarinets and bassoons were employed – instruments Mozart took special pleasure in. Any deficiencies in orchestral opulence were compensated by a sort of youthful energy and gusto, and also demonstrating sensitivity to the singers’ needs.

An imaginative stroke was to use guitarist Christopher Hill to accompany recitative, and to become the mandolin for Giovanni’s serenade.

Ignoring the music for a moment, the next thing was sets and costumes. The former were elementary, consisting of a dark back wall with door, and an upstairs balcony for Giovanni’s hurried first-scene exit from Donna Anna bedroom, and for Donna Elvira’s maid to be proxy-serenaded in the Act II costume swap between the Don and his servant; and dramatically useful curtains at the sides. The costumes on the other hand approached authenticity, sometimes richly, and so contributed hugely to the luminous hilarity of the staging that often depended on forced economies, near-misses of characterization.

The hand of an experienced stage director, Alex Galvin, was clear, often coming to the aid of singers whose vocal talents needed a certain support from meaningful acting and interaction.

Singers, seduction and swordsmanship
That opening scene is the devil though; virtuosic acting and singing is demanded straight away, and split-second timing. One hopes for a convincing sword fight; this consisted of just a couple of thrusts and the almost immediate dispatch of the Commendatore by Excelencia Don Giovanni (New Zealand’s weapons of choice these days are clearly not swords, noting the variety of devices employed in our daily murder cases).

It didn’t all work perfectly, for it’s so hard to fit words to action and the disposition of the singers. For example, Anna in the opening scene claims her intruder is threatening her, when in fact the Don by then is trying to escape; such things can often be explained – here for example, as part of Anna’s continuing effort to construct a rape scene for the sake of her reputation (though I don’t share that explanation of the situation).

Anna was sung by singing lawyer Amanda Barclay (who rather failed to explore all the remedies that might have been available to one schooled in the law); but here, her singing and acting were energetic and accurate and in her later appearances she confirmed her grasp of the complex nature of the role.

Her sexual abuser was Orene Tiai who has been singing successfully for a decade or so (I recall him early in his career, in the 2007 Tales of Hoffmann staged by Wellington G&S Light Opera). Larger than life, a warm, big voice, and acting that was perhaps just a little too plebeian for his role as local potentate-cum-rake.

Nino Raphael (NZSM alumnus) sang Leporello; he was dressed more like the Don’s gardener than as his man-servant; he is usually presented as the equivalent of Figaro: his master’s equal in all but wealth and power. His broad asides were in keeping with the more menial character, slightly lop-sided, and his acting, though lively enough, would better have fitted one of Shakespeare’s ‘mechanicals’. His singing matched that character well enough and later, his Catalogue aria appalled and amused cast and audience alike.

Donna Anna’s usually pathetically-portrayed lover, Don Ottavio, was sung by tenor Chris Berentson, another G&S stalwart. Though there was no announcement to the effect, I had to assume that he was struggling with a vocal problem as his voice was troubled; his ‘Dalla sua pace’ was omitted but he did sing, as well as could be expected given his vocal condition, the rather more taxing ‘Il mio tesoro’ in the second act, which is what Mozart substituted for a better tenor at a later, Viennese, performance. On the other hand, he acted the role with convincing, dead-pan, bloodless dignity, white costumed and every inch the honourable version of the aristocrat (in somewhat marked contrast to Don Giovanni).

Italian or English
And here I must confess to a little disappointment with the use of English (even in the version, now a little dated, by the distinguished Edward Dent). Any of the trained singers would have known all the main arias and ensemble pieces in Italian, and one felt a bit deprived without that aspect of a package of sound where words and music are so inseparable. But I know surtitles cost, and that for many of the audience, English would have helped. Diction naturally varied, but the English words were generally comprehensible.

Then there was the Commendatore of Derek Miller, an experienced singer, mainly in the Gilbert and Sullivan mold; again, there was some gap between his brief singing and acting – mainly dueling – and the timing and performance demands of his last few minutes on earth. He seemed at a loss in his confrontation with his daughter’s alleged rapist; here and at many places, more rehearsal with both stage and musical directors might have put the pieces together better (though I doubt that swordsmanship is a major part of singers’ training these days).

In that scene we encountered Donna Elvira, now, in contrast to Anna, fully dressed, wearing a rather gorgeous dark floral brocade gown. Hannah Catrin Jones, like the other Donna, revealed a good, well-projected voice, expressive and quietly passionate, but without a great deal of dynamic variety; later, in her intercession to defend Zerlina against the Don’s scoring another notch in his belt, she sang and acted with flair, only her top a little unrestrained. One looked forward to Elvira’s great aria ‘Mi tradi quell’ alma ingrata’ in the last scene, and it came off splendidly.

Defending Zerlina
That brings us to Zerlina, sung by Emily Mwila in both casts. She was the quintessentially flirtatious, spunky, all too ready to fall in with Giovanni’s plans that involved marriage and status and a life-time of faithful loving. And she’s not altogether pleased at Elvira’s interference. It was a high point of the show.

Throughout, the small orchestral ensemble does interesting and illuminating things, warmly supportive, and it was good to be able to pick them up at times, such as the cello solo after Zerlina’s ‘Batti, batti o bel Masetto’, and following woodwind echoing.

Zerlina’s lover was sung by Charles Wilson and he too was well cast, acting almost too well the humourless, powerless, put-upon, about-to-be-betrayed fiancé. For some reason Masetto doesn’t engage our sympathy much, and Wilson manfully (shall we say) exploited his role as the ritually laughed-at cuckold, a stock character from Greek and Roman comedy, and the Renaissance.

The final scene can be one of the great operatic experiences, but a lot of elements need to be right. A carefully crafted Giovanni/Leporello relationship is vital, but the rustic character of the servant somewhat militated against the suppressed hilarity and the conflicted feelings we have for the Don’s inevitable fate.

There’s only a limited role for the small, effective chorus. But a very important role for orchestra. As I note above, there was much to be grateful for, but the balance of tone and style between limited strings and winds suggested that singers and players could have benefitted from more rehearsal together. More time was needed for the integrity of the orchestral reduction to be properly absorbed by both.

However, let me not be misunderstood. An enterprise like this must be enthusiastically welcomed; it provides a little of the vital intermediate stage to a professional career that is almost entirely absent in New Zealand. One keeps hoping that one of the groups that arise from time to time will survive and flourish, and become professional, just as the De La Tour Opera of the 1980s turned into Wellington City Opera.

Onwards towards professional opera again
For Wellington now has no professional opera company. In spite of initial assurances of even-handed division of work between Auckland and Wellington when the two companies merged in 2000, Auckland has slowly absorbed everything, leaving Wellington as mere recipient of New Zealand Opera ‘touring performances’.

Let me recall that through its some 16 years of life Wellington City Opera staged about 34 productions, more than any other city over that period, and about the same number that New Zealand Opera has staged in Wellington in the past 16 years.

Over the past decade or so many groups have staged opera in Wellington; they come and they go. Essential to survival are determined management with the personal skills capable of winning funding, and pursuing sensible, adventurous artistic aims. Eternity Opera could be it. At least their name and this initial performance offers a pointer.

Young Korean piano trio at Waikanae with generally colourful, joyous music

Waikanae Music Society

Beethoven: Piano Trio in C minor, Op.1, no.3
Gareth Farr: Piano Trio: Ahi
Dvořák: Piano Trio no.4 in E minor, Op.90 “Dumky”

Trinity Trio (Stella Kim, violin; Tina Kim, piano; Sally Kim, cello)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 21 August 2016, 2.30pm

It was disappointing to see a much smaller audience than has been present at the other concerts of the Waikanae Music Society that I have attended this year.  Was it the beautiful calm and sunny weather that kept people away?  This was the tenth of ten concerts the Trinity Trio has given around the country for Chamber Music New Zealand.

In addition to excellent programme notes, brief spoken introductions to the works by the trio’s violinist gave useful information.  Two of the players are sisters, the third no relation, but all are ethnically Koreans.  What is it about Korea that it produces so many fine musicians in the Western genre?  Is it the very high proportion of Christians in the population that makes them somewhat Westward-looking?  Plus the high level of participation in university education?

The opening of the Beethoven trio disappointed me a little.  There was not the depth of sound from the strings that I expected.  These are young musicians, not seasoned performers however, although their brief biographies attest to not a little experience and competition successes.  I found the piano often too loud for the strings in this work, though I was sitting near the front of the audience.  The fiery first movement (allegro con brio) has plenty for the piano to do, but I would have liked to have had a more assertive contribution from the strings.

Warmth of tone and subtlety of violin playing were more apparent in the second movement, marked andante cantabile con variazioni.  The theme and its variations were most attractive.  The strings were to the fore at first, accompanied by the piano, then the roles were reversed for the second variation.  A variation in a minor key had the strings taking the major part.  Great use was made of the lower strings.  The last variation finished with a nostalgic, coda higher in the register.

The menuetto (quasi allegro) was brisk for what was originally a courtly dance.  With its trio, the minuet was short but jubilant.  The final movement (prestissimo) produced some very abrasive notes from the cellist, who appeared to have her bow wound more tightly than is usual.  In addition, she was not always totally in tune; the tempo was certainly pretty demanding.  The movement had a surprising quiet close.  This was said to be Beethoven’s favourite of his trios.

What Gareth Farr has in common (among other things) with the great composers is that he can write in a variety of styles and genres.  The trio played in this concert followed classical trio structure.  The tuneful opening melody for piano alone was then taken up by the strings.  The first movement French lullaby (as described by Stella Kim) was playful as well as soothing, with shifting tonality.  Lovely interlocking of violin and cello, then passionate declarations, before a quiet ending.

The second movement, a scherzo, was militaristic, bombastic and fiery; the violinist described it as being set in a Russian military factory.  It demanded rapid shifts and loud proclamations from all instruments.  Part of the movement sounded like a fast train speeding across the steppes; this factory must have produced arms at high speed!

The brief Interlude third movement was a gentle relief from the scherzo, while the Finale portrayed elements of gamelan music.  The repeated phrases of Balinese music were certainly there on all three instruments.  It was played with panache and fervour.  There were some brilliant passages amongst the stormy alternating phrases with their quieter repetitions, and a flourishing ending.

The ‘Dumky’ trio is probably the most popular of the composer’s writings in this genre; it is a pity we don’t more often hear his other trios.  However, its undoubted appeal makes it good programme fodder.  Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians says of this trio “[It] consists of a series of six dumky [Slavic folk songs] … the majority being in binary form.  Most start with a slow meditative section and continue at much faster pace.  It was bold of Dvořák to adopt this unique, daringly simple plan, and he executed it with keen imagination… giving each dumka a distinct individuality and colouring.”

Its dramatic opening builds anticipation for what is to come.  The dance-like qualities soon manifest themselves (despite the movement being denoted lento maestoso) followed by delicacy on the piano.  The poco adagio second movement starts with a solemn cello melody, beautifully and sonorously played.  I find Dvořák a most lovable composer, with his characteristics of cheerfulness and sublime melody.  The piano, then the violin reiterated the melody, in most touching manner.

Mutes were produced for the andante.  Again the cello was to the fore, with a delicious melody.  There was a delightful strummed passage for cello, imitated on the piano, before a pensive ending.  The fourth movement (andante moderato) again had a cello solo, with staccato accompaniment on the other two instruments.  Sprightly passages were interspersed.  A slow dance intervened before the return of the theme.

The allegro fifth movement features a joyful opening that always makes me smile.  This quick movement provides a welcome change – not that there is no fast music elsewhere; there certainly is, despite the tempo markings.

Lento maestoso is the marking for the final movement, as it was for the opening one.  Exclamations are a feature, as are alternating fast and slower passages (‘from doleful to exuberant’ as the programme note had it) characteristic of dumky.  The folk music element is prominent here.

The Trio played an encore: Café Music by Paul Schoenfield.  It was bright, jazzy dance music – but personally, I’d rather have been left with Dvořák.


Michael Houstoun’s tribute to Judith Clark – a feast of Bach

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music
Institute of Registered Music Teachers in New Zealand (IRMT)

Judith Clark Memorial Piano Series

Opening Concert: Michael Houstoun
JS BACH – The Well-Tempered Klavier Bk.2 BWV 870-93

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Campus, Victoria University

Sunday, 21st August, 2016

A brief preamble: Judith Clark (1931-2014) was a much-respected piano pedagogue and former Head of Piano Studies at Victoria University’s School of Music in Wellington. Her years of prominence in this latter role were before my time in the capital, but I certainly remember her in retirement as an abiding presence at many a concert and recital, having the air of a “grand dame” whose attendance at whatever performance might have seemed to those who knew her to give each occasion a kind of telepathic approbation. I never got to know her or talk with her to any great extent, and it was obviously my loss – since her death I’ve come to realise the extent of her influence and importance as a teacher, mentor and administrator in the capital’s musical life. So, the instigation of this series, featuring recitals given by no less than four of the country’s leading pianists, is no mean tribute to a significant, and already almost legendary figure.

Michael Houstoun’s choice of music to begin the series certainly invested the occasion with a distinction of its own – having been captivated throughout his musical life by a number of Preludes and Fugues from Book Two of JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, he resolved to master those others that he didn’t know and had never played, and perform the entire set of twenty-four! In the concert’s programme notes Houstoun recounted for us how he had played some of the composer’s Goldberg Variations for Judith Clark on the last occasion that he saw her, remarking that “she loved this music”. So his choice of the music was by way of remembering and commemorating her fondness for Bach, and at the same time realising his wish to play the whole of the WTC’s Second Book.

Interesting that Bach himself never called Part Two of the work “The Well-Tempered Clavier”, but instead “New Preludes and Fugues”. Though the collection is reckoned by commentators as less satisfying an entity than is Part One, the “infinite variety” of its different characters, preludes and fugues alike, makes for as compelling a listening experience as the more “organic” earlier Book. I must say that Houstoun surprised and even delighted me no end with his brief but thoughtful annotations accompanying each prelude and fugue, printed in the programme accompanying the recital. It’s not unlike what, firstly Hans Von Bulow, and then Alfred Cortot, did by way of “prefacing” each of the 24 Preludes of Chopin, though the pianist himself cites the example of Debussy providing titles for his Piano Preludes. I’m almost certain a younger Michael Houstoun wouldn’t for a moment have considered such an undertaking – but his remarks concerning the music in an interview I heard just prior to the concert indicated in no uncertain terms his awareness of, and willingness to share his thoughts regarding the “character” of each of the individual pieces.

So, in the programme, alongside each of the preludes and fugues alike, we were given a brief (often single-word) impression of what the music suggested to the pianist. Houstoun himself alluded to the “slippery ground” that such an exercise might place beneath any interpreter’s or listener’s feet, particularly those of either a suggestible or a literal-minded bent, due to Bach’s leaving so much of the “interpretation” to the individual performer (practically no dynamic or tempo markings, for instance). What it all confirmed for me was the essential uniqueness of individual responses to art, and the validity of those responses both across the board and down the ages. Bach was obviously happy for posterity to make what it might of his music, within the cosmic embrace, of course, of his unquenchable faith in God. This remarkably unselfconscious quality is one that’s proven to be one of the music’s greatest and most enduring strengths.

Faced with Houstoun’s playing of twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, I thought I’d forego a detailed, piece-by-piece analysis of the pianist’s performance, one which would sorely try the patience of even the most avid reader of “Middle C”. Instead, I’d touch on places in the concert which would indicate the general range and scope of Houstoun’s astounding playing throughout    a kind of “as the twig is bent, so the tree’s inclined” approach. I must admit that, perhaps somewhat churlishly, I didn’t look at the pianist’s piece-by-piece annotations until he’d finished playing each one or a group of them – I wanted to form my own impressions of what he was enabling the music to do at the time of its sounding, and then “compare notes” so to speak.

Houstoun arranged the sequence of the pieces in four “blocks” – what he called “a feast in four bites” – placing two five minute breaks at the halfway stage of each of the concert’s halves (are you still with me?), making for what could be called in another context “comfort stops”! For me it gave what seemed like a mighty processional of pieces and associated fugues at once more overall shape and some space in which various individual delights of the cavalcade could be better savoured. Were I to choose one prelude/fugue sequence from each of these segments of the concert, the following are the ones I would single out for special comment.

The Sixth Prelude and Fugue in D Minor comes in the wake of the previous D Major pair, whose wonderful “processional fanfare” aspect at the start was a feeling regarding the music that I obviously shared with the pianist, and whose fugue seemed to me to reflect a  kind of reflection in tranquillity upon the previous outward display, a more intimate evocation of shared well-being. By contrast, the D minor pairing expressed a grimmer, more single-minded purpose, the ”real business” concerned with goals and outcomes rather than processes and posturings. Houstoun’s fleet-of-finger playing most excitingly drove the argument forward in a torrent of energy, brooking no interference. How whimsical, then, was the fugue, with its sly, deconstructionist gestures, the chromatic descents following each of the upward-thrusting figurations as deftly undoing the constructs as each were proposed – extraordinarily satisfying!

The Ninth of the set, in E major, featured a Prelude whose contourings seemed as if shaped by unearthly hands, its serenities of movement and phrasing beautifully “voiced” by Houstoun, as if in communion with other-worldly forces – a kind of “music of the spheres”, realising processes that had their own age-old logic and purpose. Its Fugue was one which grew from patiently unfolding steps ascending and expanding with a kind of inevitability and strength which, here and elsewhere, makes one marvel at the music’s (and its composer’s) visionary capacities, which the pianist brought to us with all the grandeur he could muster! Interesting, then, to read his “Angelic benediction” description of the Prelude, along with the “Holy, holy, holy” appellation for the Fugue.

Moving to the second half, I was particularly taken with the urgently-paced, attention-grabbing G-sharp Minor Prelude, its figurations having something of a relentless aspect, redeemed by a frequently-repeated three-note motif. The outlines are sufficiently varied and exploratory for the music to take on a kind of narrative quality, which Houstoun shaped and coloured as would a good story-teller, keeping our interest simmering throughout. My ear took a few measures to get the rhythmic “gait” of the fugue (three, as opposed to four, at the start!), but the music made for a fascinating journey into, through and out of different states of feeling and being, to hypnotic effect, the pianist’s concentration and far-seeing purpose never seeming to flag, and, in fact, gathering weight and strength as it proceeded, leaving nothing in its wake.

Though not the  final one in the set, I made an asterisk beside my notes for the A minor Prelude and Fugue at the time,  thinking I would want to dwell upon it further afterwards. It seemed to me to exemplify what Bach could do with the simplest building materials, in this case in the Prelude with simple alternating chromatic and “normal” scale passages, interspersed with simple intervals that move disconcertingly in and out of shadows, creating from these simple elements what sounds like a complex web of interactions (Houstoun’s annotation for this movement reads, somewhat divertingly, “Maybe….maybe not”. The Prelude’s second half seems to lift the music more into the light, which seems not only to further illuminate but also to intensify its complex workings.

As for the fugue, its big-boned gestures and massive trajectories  moved easily and majestically alongside more urgent and quicksilver gesturings as if demonstrating a kind of all-pervading pulse governing all manner of movements and actions, cerebral and emotional, structural and decorative,  cosmic and individual. The “wow!” that appeared in my notes at the end of Houstoun’s playing of the piece seemed to appear of its own volition – exactly how it got there I couldn’t even begin to imagine, let alone understand. Some things are best left to metaphysics – and it seemed fitting to leave undisturbed such a spontaneously-wrought tribute to an integral part of an occasion which will be long-remembered by those who  attended.

One of Judith Clark’s successors at the  School of Music,  Diedre Irons, will next offer a programme featuring the music of Haydn, Debussy and Liszt, to be performed at the Adam Concert Room on Sunday 18th September. The remaining two concerts will be given on Sundays in 2017, on March 26th by Richard Mapp, and on May 7th by Jian Liu, currently Head of Piano at Victoria. It’s a cause for oceans of gratitude to be given by all piano-fanciers to the organisers of the concerts, to the artists themselves, and, of course to the late Judith Clark, first and foremost, whose inspiration it was which brought about the idea for this series. Incidentally, this opening  concert was sold out beforehand, so people who are interested ought to act quickly to be sure of their places at the oncoming one.

Orchestra Wellington, Orpheus Choir, clarinet in brilliant Mozartian form

Orchestra Wellington and Orpheus Choir of Wellington, under Marc Taddei
Andrew Simon – clarinet; Emma Fraser – soprano, Elisabeth Harris – alto, Henry Choo – tenor, James Clayton – baritone

Mozart 1791
Ave Verum Corpus, K 618
Clarinet Concerto in A, K 622
Requiem in D minor, K 626

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 20 August 7:30 pm

To put together programmes celebrating periods in a composer’s life has been made pretty easy by the conscientious compilers of catalogues, either by musicologists or by the composers themselves. Some have been catalogued in more sophisticated ways, by genre of composition which leads to an elaborate system like that of Haydn by Hoboken (not the suburb of Antwerp).  But it’s not hard to list the ‘last words’ of Mozart.

There’s always a tendency to exaggerate composers’ troubles and tragedies, and Mozart’s last year is a favourite topic. But, as explained by conductor Taddei, in the months before his death Mozart was almost overwhelmed by commissions, and his prospects were looking very good.

Fruits of Mozart’s last months
The three works played at this concert were only some of the great music of his last six months. There was of course, The Magic Flute, and then the commission in July, when the Flute was well advanced, of La clemenza di Tito for the celebration of the coronation of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in Prague in September. The Flute was listed by Koechel as 620 and Clemenza, 621, which includes a wonderful aria with an obbligato basset clarinet part, ‘Parto, ma tu ben mio’, for the same clarinetist as was to play the concerto, Anton Stadler. So there are a couple of evenings’ music; and there’s some other bits and pieces like the last string quintet, and pieces for mechanical organ and for the ethereal glass harmonica.

The concert began with the lovely, and very short, Ave verum corpus. It was brilliantly performed, the choir disciplined so keenly that it gave the impression of a skilled chamber choir of around 30 singers that had somehow acquired huge power and depth of tone, which has to be credited to their conductor Brent Stewart.

The same characteristics were clear throughout the Requiem: remarkable pianissimi alternating with magnificent, powerful outbursts as at the Dies Irae and the Rex Tremendae; and the Sanctus, accompanied by chilling timpani, seemed to leave no room for doubting Mozart’s religious convictions.

While the soloists were individually well equipped with attractive voices, soprano Emma Fraser’s voice was more penetrating than the others, exhibiting a silvery strength, at so many points, in the Recordare and the Benedictus, so that it was hard to escape the feeling that the alto part, taken by mezzo Elisabeth Harris, which was simply not in the same decibel class. It lacked something in terms of weight in, for example, the sonorous Tuba Mirum exposed her, between tenor Henry Choo and Fraser, as a bit uncommitted. Yet there were times when Harris’s lovely voice could be heard to advantage.

Though neither of the men possessed voices that had quite the power of Fraser’s, their distinct tessiturae masked the difference. That was certainly the case in the Recordare where the bass line lies fairly low and James Clayton’s voice injected a degree of drama, to be expected from a singer who has made valuable contributions to opera since he has come here from Australia. Tenor Choo, on a return visit from Australia, after singing in Orchestra Wellington’s Choral Symphony in their first 2016 concert (there too, with Elisabeth Harris at his side), was an asset; an attractive, lightish, quintessentially lyric tenor whose voice sat comfortably in the vocal quartet.

In the Requiem, the choir wavered, not for a minute, in the brilliance, clarity and energy exhibited in the Ave Verum, which could all have contributed, if one was so minded, to religious fervor; deserving further mention of music director Brent Stewart. There was discipline which never got in the way of a sense of spontaneity; the opportunities for distinct sections of the choir demonstrated the strength of each, with no sign of any weakness from tenors which have tended to be a choral problem over the years. In the Confutatis, men were as dramatic as the women in their separate phrases. And the dynamic shifts in the Lacrymosa, inter alia, were highly arresting.

Though the choral scene is perhaps not as robust now as it was in the late 1980s and 90s, when it was energized by the revival of early music practice and the presence of Simon Ravens and the Tudor Consort, the best choirs are in excellent shape; Orpheus continues to lead in Wellington.

The orchestra, stripped back to what was probably the size of such an orchestra of 1792, normal strings running down from ten first violins, with pairs of clarinets, bassoons, horns and three trombones, plus timpani. Interestingly in the context of the clarinet concerto, Mozart’s scoring in the Requiem was for basset horns in F (the instrument’s bottom note, at the bottom of the bass stave).

Concerto for basset clarinet
Then there’s the oddball clarinet employed in the concerto, which Andrew Simon explained came and went with Anton Stadler, the work’s inspirer and first performer: the basset clarinet. Though another lower version of the clarinet, called a basset horn, had become a fairly familiar instrument and survived into the 19th century (see the entry in Wikipedia), Stadler wanted to use a new instrument called the basset clarinet instead of the basset horn. (the latter is bigger, with a curve near the mouth-piece). There is a fragment of a Mozart concerto (K 621b) for basset horn which evidently contains hints of the music for the clarinet concerto. Both the basset horn and the basset clarinet have attracted composers since the early 20th century.

But in the absence of an autograph score, there are unanswered questions. Today, the clarinet concerto is played on either the normal, A clarinet or the basset clarinet.

Interestingly, the concerto is not scored for orchestral clarinets: only for strings, plus pairs of flutes, bassoons and horns. Though it’s always partly a matter of one’s position, the orchestra created a feeling of spaciousness in the interesting MFC acoustic. If one expects to hear touches of sadness in music composed only a month or so before his death, Mozart and no pre-Beethoven composer was really an introspective, believing that music should express something of himself or reflect the troubles of his times. (That was left to the Romantics and of course is a condition that afflicts most of today’s composers). Accordingly, the first and third movements expressed positive characteristics, and the Taddei’s orchestra left no doubt about their grasp of the classical aesthetic.

And I don’t know why it came to mind during the performance, that here I was hearing the descendants of New Zealand’s first, and very fine, professional string orchestra, that Alex Lindsay had formed in 1948, just a year after the National Orchestra itself. It was reputed to be a finer ensemble of string players at the time than its big brother. It survived till 1963, after which its bones were reassembled in various reincarnations of a Wellington city orchestra, more or less continuously to the present time.

Andrew Simon proved an admirably adroit and exuberant player, master of tasteful ornaments, and in wonderful control of varied dynamics. Not least of course were the extra low notes of the basset clarinet and it was very interesting to hear the way Mozart seemed to have framed them particularly, drawing attention to them, and how Simon exploited these opportunities.

Having claimed that an 18th century composer refrained from injecting personal emotion into music, one had to hear a touch of suppressed sadness in the Adagio, though such a change of tone, rather than real emotion, is simply what is intrinsic to slow music: it’s hard to think of much music of the 19th century, depicting tragedy, that goes quicker than, say, Andante.

So this 99.9% full house heard a rather delicious concert, the third in Orchestra Wellington’s season, with the Orpheus Choir in stunning form, the orchestra in excellent condition, with a fine international soloist. In great music.

The Don rides out again – Eternity Opera’s “other” Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni – Eternity Opera’s “understudy” cast

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
English Translation by Edward Dent

Alex Galvin (director)
Simon Romanos (music director)
Sandra Malesic (producer)

Leoporello – Nino Raphael
Don Giovanni – Orene Tiai
Donna Anna – Amanda Barclay
Commendatore/Statue – Derek Miller
Don Ottavio – Chris Berentson
Donna Elvira – Hannah Catrin Jones
Zerlina – Emily Mwila
Masetto – Charles Wilson

Dancers and Chorus: Taryn Baxter, Minto Fung,
India Loveday, Sarah Munn, Jessica Short

Douglas Beilman (concertmaster),
Anna van der Zee (violin) Victoria Janëcke (viola),
Inbal Meggido (‘cello) Victoria Jones (double-bass),
Timothy Jenkin (flute) Merran Cooke (oboe),
Mark Cookson, Moira Hurst (clarinet),
Ed Allen (horn),
 Christopher Hill (guitars),
Josh Crump (trumpet),
Andrew Yorkstone, Mark Davey (alto trombone),
Hannah Neman (timpani)

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Wednesday 24th August, 2016

What a delight to be able to enjoy, within the space of a few days, a second, almost entirely different cast performing the same operatic production! Eternity Opera’s Don Giovanni had opened on the previous Saturday (reviewed by Middle C, below) and this was the single chance for the “understudy cast” members to demonstrate what they could do in public – with the exception of the Zerlina, Emily Mwila, for whom there was no understudy, and whose performance was a great pleasure to see again, in any case!). So this evening’s performance was a tantalizing mixture of deja vu with fresh, new faces and voices and characterizations, as interesting to compare with the “other” as to enjoy for its own qualities. I confess that I’m inclined towards the latter approach, though I may let the occasional counter-impression slip through the net by accident, as it were.

Firstly, though, there were the constants between the two performances – the joy of listening all over again, for example, to Mozart’s score brought forward and sharpened in focus as conducted with great energy and commitment by Simon Romanos, and expertly played by the first-rate ensemble. I was seated in a different place in the auditorium this time round, in front of the singers and further away from the orchestra, and didn’t get the “edge” of the instrumental attack to the same extent, the music seeming to having a more rounded and integrated-with-the-stage sound. I noticed a couple of dropped notes in places in the solo lines, which could be put down to fatigue, but registered just as strongly the support the players gave to one another and to the singers – at the risk of singling out certain players, I delighted all over again, for example, in cellist Inbal Meggido’s obbligato accompaniment of Zerlina’s “You are cruel, dear Masetto” (“Batti, batti o bel Masetto”), the playing at once so deliciously insouciant and having great tensile strength, signifying the encirclement and breaking-down of her jealous lover Masetto’s defences with her abundant, coquettish charms.

Of course that was just one of many felicitous detailings which we were able to enjoy, aspects of the sterling work done by the entire quintet of string players throughout. Another delight was guitarist Christopher Hill’s accompanying of Don Giovanni’s serenade to Donna Elvira, following on of course from the player’s unfailingly sensitive recitative accompaniments, which I thought worked surprisingly well. The various winds, including the horn, aided and abetted the singing throughout with gorgeously-phrased melodic introductions, counterpoints and resonating harmonies – and I loved the impact made by the introduction of those extra brass and the timpani for the Second Act’s “statue” scenes.

I was grateful to director Alex Galvin for his decision to present the show in period costume and with stage settings that reflected the composer’s time, enabling the full flavour of Mozart’s and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s partnership to play freely in a more-or-less “intended” context. The use of English greatly benefitted these interactions, the point as I saw it being not to “update” but to illuminate the story. I thought Galvin’s conception of the staging nicely took the wind out of the sails of those who ceaselessly contend that opera needs to be contextually “modernised” for today’s audiences to “connect” with. And the response of a young friend of mine who also saw the show on this particular evening was, at the end, to excitedly ask when the company would be staging its next production!

Of course, reproducing what one imagines would be anything like the settings and atmospheres prevalent in the composer’s own era is an art-form in itself, even using the libretto’s detailing as source-material. I liked very much Alex Galvin’s opting for black backdrops which couched the production in more-or-less constant darkness, one that for most of the time connects with the story’s time-of-day frame and its rather Goya-esque settings. Having said that, I thought the opening needed to be made even darker, the characters (Leporello, Donna Anna and Don Giovanni) too viscerally identifiable during the latter’s attempted violation of Donna Anna. Conversely, there were a couple of moments where the oppressiveness of the gloom might for the sake of theatrical contrast have been momentarily brightened, such as the Act One scene where Zerlina and Masetto are celebrating their marriage with their friends, and even, a little later, the meeting of Don Giovanni with Donna Anna, the woman he had attempted to seduce the night before. However, the production’s instinctive and on-going evocation of darkness served the story and its various themes well.

What colour we experienced came largely from the costumes which in nearly all cases in both performances eloquently “spoke” for their particular characters, with only the first-choice Donna Elvira (Kate Lineham) being, I thought, made to look a touch too matronly. The rest of both casts inhabited their various garments readily and easefully, allowing the essential personalities to shine forth – perhaps in the cemetery scene, the “Darth Vader” (from the film “Star Wars”) aspect of the Statue, a memorial to the Commendatore, slain by Don Giovanni, looked somewhat incongruous at first, but the apparition’s supernatural aspect logically gave its appearance a kind of “carte blanche”, stimulating, to say the least!

So, what of the cast this time round? Away from the “comparison” aspect of putting the two ensembles together role-by-role, I would say that each of the singers had something unique and tantalizing to bring to their individual parts. In some cases stage deportments and voices took time to warm up and properly activate, but in almost every case were firing and exuding energies and resonances by the opera’s end. A case in point was Giovanni’s servant Leporello, portrayed by Nino Raphael, whom I thought somewhat indolent, both physically and vocally, at the start, adopting a passive, arguably too nonchalant-sounding aspect when viewing his master’s would-be amorous exploits, and in doing so for me making his character seem uninvolved almost to a fault. As the story proceeded he seemed to gradually wake his Leporello up and bring out a sparkle more readily in both word and deed, until by the end he seemed in much greater possession of the part, or vice versa.

Something of the same languidity hung about the well-developed shoulders of the Don, Orene Tiai – his aspect seemed more happy-go-lucky than intense and predatory, an “easy-come-easy-go” attitude which didn’t develop any pronounced “edge” normally associated with the character’s efforts to pursue sexual adventures. He did at certain times convey a mode which suggested he was accustomed to getting his way, but he rarely gave a sense of having that unquenchable appetite for women which he admitted to at one point in the opera, despite the impressive statistics proffered by Leporello concerning his master’s amorous activities. His voice was by turns charming and sonorous in his set numbers, more alive and purposeful there, I thought, than in recitative, where he tended to “sing-song” rather than “point” his delivery of the lines. Still, he did well to move the action on at the beginning when “confronted” by the Commendatore, the latter either missing or failing to properly emphasise a movement or gestural cue or a vocal challenge to fight, so that the Don had to propel the action on unprovoked – or so it seemed!

The great ensemble finale at the end of the first act was a true galvanising point, which seemed from the new act’s beginning to give everybody’s stage personae more intensity – a kind of edge was raised which, in the Don’s case, carried him on something of a tide towards his confrontation with the Statue in the cemetery and fuelled their final encounter at the conclusion of Giovanni’s supper scene. Derek Miller’s Statue seemed fortunately to be able to generate more heft and power than he managed to find as the ineffectual Commendatore, which set the scene for the Don’s final despatch at the hands of a group of infernal cohorts of Hell – all women, incidentally, which seemed properly meet and just.

As for the women who were the objects of the Don’s somewhat haphazard attentions at various stages of the evening, all conveyed a distinction of character which enhanced their place in the drama – Amanda Barclay’s Donna Anna fiery and volatile, Hannah Catrin Jones’s Donna Elvira upright and dignified, mingling constraint with moments of deeply-felt grief and desire, and Emily Mwila’s Zerlina, pert, vivacious and totally winning. I did feel a little startled at the immediacy of some of Amanda Barclay’s expressions of blood-lust made in her “vengeance” duet with her hapless fiancee, Don Ottavio, but otherwise responded to her obvious involvment with the character and the story. Hannah Catrin Jones, in comparison, was more controlled in both deportment and vocal expression, wanting, I thought something of Amanda Barclay’s impulsiveness and spontaneity in her expression, but not too much! Both singers gave pleasure when shaping their longer lyrical lines with beauty and sensitivity, and not having their voices subjected to pressure from the strictures of the composer’s more intensely-wrought vocal figurations.

Victims, too, by proxy, of the Don’s predatory activities, were the men involved with these women, such as Don Ottavio, who seemed here, to all intents and purposes, practically neutered by Giovanni’s near-violation of his fiancee, Donna Anna. At the best of times, long on declamatory intent and short on effective action, Don Ottavio (sung by Chris Berentson) made a noble-hearted and dutiful, if somewhat emasculated impression as per his character. Berentson’s acting was consistent and reliable, as was his ensemble singing, but his voice needed more heft and juice when heard solo. Da Ponte and Mozart certainly got it right in ascribing desperate marriage-delaying tactics to poor Donna Anna, faced with the deadening prospect of eking out her days with a dutiful but lacklustre husband.

On the other hand, Masetto (here portrayed by Charles Wilson), the peasant lad betrothed to the pretty and vivacious Zerlina, whom the Don took a shine to in the first act, readily displayed his displeasure at the situation, railing against his partner’s coquettish behaviour and causing her great remorse, leading to some delicious interplay between the characters as Zerlina exerted her well-nigh irresistible charms upon her aggrieved sweetheart, and achieved the desired result. Though arguably not appearing robust and rustic enough for a peasant lad, Wilson’s sense of character made it work, singing and acting alongside Emily Mwila’s Zerlina with heartwarming involvement.

In both productions the chorus work sparkled (in the wedding and festive scenes) and resounded with doom-laden tones (in the opera’s final scene, where the Don is dragged down to Hell by the femme fatales turned demons!). Whatever the scene the deployment of people on stage created atmosphere, colour and excitement, and advanced the drama.

While the performance by-and-large confirmed the choice of principals for the “first” cast the performances described here enshrined for the most part viable alternatives whose realisation worked in each case, enabling the show “to go on”. I thought doing both an excellent idea, especially considering the number of people I saw who, like myself had attended the other production as well.

One is left with more-than-ample feelings of enthusiasm and goodwill towards the company and its director, with a hopeful view to there being further operatic worlds for them to conquer – on its own, the audience attendance and its response to the performances would have been heartening. The production certainly demonstrated that, if there’s sufficient energy, commitment and feeling for the art-form, it’s so very worthwhile and rewarding to have opera done in almost any performance scale, if the resources to do so can be found.

I can only echo the sentiments expressed in the final sentence of my review of the “first cast” performance in wishing Alex Galvin and Eternity Opera every future success.