Annual Wellington Aria Contest final showcases some fine talent

Wellington Regional Vocal Competitions: Final
(Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competition Society)

Adjudicator: Martin Snell
Finalists: Laura Loach, Elyse Hemara, Emily Mwila, Sophie Sparrow, Frederick Jones, Pasquale Orchard, Olivia Sheat, Joe Haddow
Accompanists: Catherine Norton and Mark Dorrell
Commentator: Georgia Jamieson Emms

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 18 September, 7:30 pm

This year eighteen singers entered for the annual aria contest (it used to be the Hutt Valley Aria, when there was also a Wellington-based contest, run by the Wellington Competitions Society which died in the 1970s).

Some names were more familiar to me than others. I had only recalled Laura Loach in a smaller role in last year’s Gondoliers from Wellington G&S Light Opera, but couldn’t recall her voice. Her first aria was ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca in which her large voice emerged both accurately but perhaps with rather more ferocity than pathos. Her second piece was Agathe’s beautiful ‘Leise, leise fromme Weise’ from Der Freischütz; it calls for quite marked contrasts, as it moves from the recitative-like ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer’, to the aria proper. Her voice was under nice control, even and subdued, then preparing a good contrast as the intensity builds to the big tune from the overture: ‘All meine Pulse schlagen, Und das Herz wallt ungestüm…’ which I thought was really fine.

Elyse Hemara’s first aria was one of Massenet’s loveliest from his little known Hérodiade, ‘Il est doux, il est bon’, that one only hears in anthologies by the likes of Kiri and Angela Gheorghiu. Intonation was a bit shaky to begin, but as she gained confidence there was sensitivity, and a sense that she meant what she was saying. Here she was in a quite different sort of role, having heard her as Lady Billows in the excerpt from Albert Herring a couple of weeks ago; but just as comvincing.

Like Massenet’s Hérodiade, I Vespri siciliani is not one of Verdi’s best known operas, but Elena’s fifth act aria, ‘Mercé, dilette amiche’, known as the ‘Bolero’, stands out in a somewhat laborious, if essentially Verdian score. Elyse, now in a rich deep purple dress, hinting at Roman aristocracy, shone in this bravura aria (no matter the missing top note), supported by Mark Dorrell’s scintillating piano.

I’d been impressed by Emily Mwila who sang Zerlina in both casts of Eternity Opera’s Don Giovanni: made for her. I was impressed that she’d tackle the only pre-Mozart aria in the Finals and she succeeded in expressing dignified grief in Handel’s Giulio Cesare (‘Piangero’); slightly desperate in the faster middle section, with accurate bravura flourishes.

For her second item, Emily also departed from the Italian repertory to which almost all the other finalists confined themselves: ‘Je veux vivre’, or the Waltz Song as it used to be called, from Roméo et Juliette. I admired Emily’s taste in dress, a subdued brocaded yellow. With teen-aged delirium she almost danced through her excitement at attending the ball where she’ll meet Romeo for the first time. Fully in command of her technique, it confirmed her radiant soubrette flair.

For the last year or so Georgia Jamieson Emms has introduced each item with amusing and pertinent remarks and sometimes a flippant precis of an opera plot which have added richly to the audience’s enjoyment. Her remarks about obscure works were particularly engaging.

I hadn’t come across the fourth finalist, Sophie Sparrow, before. Accompanied with colour and subtlety by Catherine Norton, she unearthed an aria from Mozart’s youthful La finta giardiniera, which I seem to recall, inconsequentially, as an opera in which Malvina Major had a principal role in the late 1980s. It was at La Monnaie, the national opera in Brussels, when her career was seriously taking off. ‘Gema la tortorella’ is sung by one Sandrina, the name assumed by the ‘fake gardener’. In truth, as Georgina hinted, it’s one of the more absurd opera plots, but contains lovely music; I wondered whether Miss Sparrow had picked an aria about a bird (a dove) deliberately (better known of course is Antonia’s aria in The Tales of Hoffmann ‘Elle a fui, la tourterelle’, and perhaps Stephano’s ‘Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle?’ from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette). A fine bird simulation, with high staccato notes.

Her second choice was from an American opera that has become reasonably well known in the United States: Douglas Moore’s 1956 work, Baby Doe (not a nice story). It revealed a voice under very good control, again much of it lying high yet comfortably within her range, without becoming attenuated.

Sophie Sparrow was placed as runner-up by adjudicator Martin Snell.

Frederick Jones has a tenor voice of considerable purity and emotional range. I’ve come across him at the Opera School in Whanganui and in a couple of productions (Il Corsaro from the NZSM in 2013 and Der Rosenkavalier from Opera at Days Bay). He stuck to arias that exploited both his command of major tenor roles as well as strongly contrasted emotions : great happiness in the case of Alfredo in La traviata, and despair at becoming victim of a stupid masculine honour code in the case of Lensky in Eugene Onegin.

That he wore a dinner suit for both, in contrast to all the other singers who sought to match dress with the roles, clearly did him no harm. His voice was refined and polished and created, with limited hand or facial gestures, the emotion of each aria. Even so, it seemed to me that Alfredo’s words ‘bollenti spiriti’ lacked much real ecstasy. Lensky’s aria however, was full of helpless grief.

Jones was awarded the main prize, the $4000 Dame Malvina Major Foundation Wellington Aria Prize.

Pasquale Orchard has sung in at least a couple of G&S Light Opera’s productions; and she also reached for Der Freischütz, this time the aria from Agathe’s cousin Ännchen, ‘Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen’, her effort to relieve Agathe’s anxiety about Max’s chances in the shooting contest. She was in cheerful peasant gear, a green top and pink apron and she sang with even tone, investing it with a similar spirit.

Pasquale also sang Norina’s spunky aria from Don Pasquale (no pun intended). ‘Quel guardo il cavalieri’. Though she sang excellently, her voice showed more brilliance and accuracy than beauty in her high register.

Pasquale Orchard won the Rokfire prize for the most outstanding singer overall (strangely, a prize that seemed not to be mentioned in the programme).

She and the next singer, Olivia Sheat, had sung together as Frasquita and Mercedes in the Card Scene from Carmen at the NZSM opera excerpts concert 10 days ago.

Olivia Sheat’s first item was from Peter Grimes: the Embroidery Aria where Ellen sees the jersey that she had embroidered for Grimes’s apprentice who is presumed drowned. With every sign of natural dramatic talent, she captured the vein of confusion and enigmatic concern that invest not just this episode but the whole opera; her choice was no doubt a mark of her training at the New Zealand School of Music.

For her second aria Olivia also drew on Faust, with Marguérite’s Jewel Song, in which, with slightly excessive gestures, she displayed a well-supported voice in growing wonderment and susceptibility to the combined forces of avarice and passion.

Finally, Joseph Haddow, who was winner of the Robin Dumbell Memorial Cup for the young aria entrant with most potential, sang first ‘Ah, per sempre io ti perdei’ from I Puritani, and then the Catalogue aria from Don Giovanni.

I’d heard him a couple of weeks before singing Mozart’s Figaro in the School of Music’s concert of opera scenes. His is a well-founded baritone, a warm voice with a resonant quality, that handled the bravura aspect of the Bellini’s belcanto role well.

And the final offering of the evening, Leporello’s list of the Count’s conquests, is one of the most quintessential and well known arias. Though he didn’t hold the famous ‘catalogue’ in his hands, the hands and facial gestures, with even a touch of cynical sleeziness at the end were the marks of an instinctive singer.

So, as with every occasion when gifted young singers (and classical musicians in general) perform, one feels deep uneasiness at the ever-increasing numbers of fine young artists facing a steadily declining market, in a society that is led by a purportedly educated class that is largely unlettered and uncultivated in fields that separate the civilised from the barbarians.

In addition to the occasional reference in the above notes, I have to remark on the very supportive and artistically appropriate accompaniments from both Catherine Norton and Mark Dorrell.

It may be unorthodox to mention singers that I felt were a bit unlucky not to be named, either those among the Finalists or other entrants whom I’ve heard singing recently. Jamie Henare, heard as Leporello in Don Giovanni last month; Emily Mwila (Zerlina in the same production of Don Giovanni, as well as in the school of music’s recent ‘Scenes from opera’).

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