Wellington’s Aria Contest remains an important event in vocal students’ calendar

Wellington Regional Vocal Competitions Aria Final

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 19 August 2012, 7.30pm

Eight singers selected from earlier rounds sang an aria in each of the two halves of the  concert, and were judged by Roger Wilson, to decide the winner of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation Prize of $4,000, the runner-up, and other awards.

Accompanist was Mark Dorrell – and what a splendid job he did!  Sixteen arias to be accompanied on a piano and in an acoustic that does not lend itself easily to sensitive accompaniment, but this was impeccable playing.  It seems that never did he need to ask Gerald Moore’s question ‘Am I too loud?’  He received well-deserved applause from the audience at the end of the evening.

The audience was somewhat sparse – about 50 people, excluding the performers.  More advertising would probably pay for itself; indeed, some advertising, such as on Radio New Zealand Concert’s ‘Live Diary’ is free.

The arias chosen were more varied than is sometimes the case; only one was repeated.  Italian arias dominated, naturally, but there were four in the French language, two in English, and one each in Russian and German.  Rossini was the most popular composers, but otherwise, the spread was quite wide.

Richard Greager was compère for the evening, and provided knowledgeable introductory comments on each of the operas represented, and the situation in the plot in which the aria to be sung occurred.

The first of the singers was Angélique MacDonald, singing ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti.  This difficult aria and Lucia’s dramatic role were well characterised, but I found the voice rather metallic at times, and pitch a little suspect here and there.  St. Andrew’s Church has a lively acoustic and is relatively small as a venue, so these things are more obvious.  Her coloratura runs were executed well, and her presentation was in appropriate style.

Next up was Isabella Moore.  She is possessed of a full, rich voice, and apparently easy production.  Her notes are true, and they develop plenty of volume when required, but as well as being dramatic, she sang expressively, in very good French, ‘Il est doux, il est bon’ from a Massenet opera that is not well-known: Herodiade.  My reaction was ‘Wow!’

Now to the first of the male singers: baritone Julien Van Mallaerts.  His ‘Onegin’s Aria’ from Tchaikowsky’s Eugene Onegin was sung most beautifully, in Russian.  He conveyed the character of Onegin superbly well, with good phrasing and most expressive characterisation.

Christie Cook followed, with ‘Printemps qui commence’ from Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saëns.  The top notes of this soprano’s singing were quite lovely; initially, the low notes were not so good, but this changed.  She used her resonators well, particularly here, in the more nasal language that is French, a language that she had mastered effectively.  Her rich voice and excellent shaping of the aria made for a clear and telling performance.

Now to a tenor: Thomas Atkins, who sang a lesser-known aria by Cilea: ‘E la solita storia’, from L’Arlesiana.  Atkins’s voice has developed a more Italianate quality since I last heard him sing (not long ago).  His Federico produced superb tone and phrasing, with quiet and thoughtful sections well expressed.  Excellent control and use of his resonators were features.

One of the interesting features of the final contest is the variety of voices to be heard.  Amelia Ryman is a lyric soprano with a very true voice which she uses expressively.  Her high notes were magical, in ‘Willow Song’ from The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore.  I knew nothing about composer or opera, but my Dictionary of Opera and Operetta (by James Anderson) tells me that the composer lived from 1893 to 1969, and composed a number of operas, of  which The Ballad of Baby Doe “was one of the most successful of all American operas”; it was first performed in 1956, only a few years before the first performance of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the other English language opera from which we heard an excerpt.  These were much the most modern of the arias performed, this one a folk ballad rather than an aria in the usual sense.  Amelia put it over with confidence and freshness.

I wondered if Cameron Barclay’s voice became a little tired towards the end of his aria ‘Il mio tesoro’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, after all the earlier rounds and classes in the Hutt Valley Competitions, climaxing in this aria contest.  Otherwise, he sang superbly.   The tenor aria of Don Ottavio suited him well, his pleasing voice sounding particularly good on high notes.  He demonstrated admirable variation of dynamics, and excellent runs.

Last in this half was Bianca Andrew, mezzo-soprano.  She chose ‘I know a bank’ from the Britten opera mentioned.  This was a contrast in styles from much else that was offered.  The character Bianca portrayed was Puck.  The introductory music on the piano was utterly appropriate to the character.  Her words were very clear, but this was a slow aria compared with most we heard – a contrast to her second choice, later.  She made an impressive job of this piece, and her facial expressions and gestures carried the character with them, while her singing was strong and full-bodied,  but with variety as well.

Angélique MacDonald’s aria that opened the second half of the concert, ‘Una voce poco fa’ from The Barber of Seville by Rossini, was another number with coloratura acrobatics, similarly to her aria in the first half.  Perhaps a contrast of style, such as other singers chose to present, would have been advantageous.  Slight flatness of some notes occurred again, but her coloratura passages were good.  I thought her facial expressions a little overdone, and the rendition somewhat too confident and cheeky in presentation.

Isabella Moore’s ‘Tacea la notte placida’ from Il Trovatore by Verdi was a difficult aria which the singer managed well, with a wealth of expression.  Her vibrant tones were just right for the dramatic heroine of this opera.

Rossini and his Barber returned, with Julien Van Mellaerts singing the aria that is probably the most well-known in all opera: ‘Largo al factotum’.  The baritone sang this with great style – and very fast!  His linguistic and vocal facility were remarkable, and his characterisation and acting of the role were excellent after his off-stage beginning, and entrance singing.

In ‘Cruda sorte’ from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, Christie Cook made a strong  impression.  Her beginning was very powerful; at first her intonation was a little off-centre, but improved.  She had a vocal quality befitting the character of  Isabella, and her top notes were excellent .

Thomas Atkins presented ‘Pourquoi me reveiller?’ from Werther by Massenet, in a very appropriate style for French opera..  His tender notes were wonderful.  My note says “Move over, Pavarotti”!

Amelia Ryman’s clear, agile voice again delivered the words very clearly, in ‘Ach, ich liebte’ from Die Entfürung aus dem Serail by Mozart.  The characterisation was very touching.

Cameron Barclay gave us ‘Je crois entendre encore’ from The Pearl Fishers by Bizet.  The high tessitura in this aria seemed to hold no fears; the tenor’s singing was very fine, and his breath control was splendid.

The only repeat of the evening was Bianca Andrew singing ‘Una voce poco fa’ from The Barber of Seville by Rossini, but at a lower pitch than that adopted by Angélique MacDonald (Rossini cast the role of Rosina for a mezzo).  She introduced it herself, speaking through the extended orchestral introduction (in this case, piano), to give the background to her character’s position.  The aria received a naturalistic presentation, with a certain amount of movement and posing, her voice being a thoroughly integrated part of the performance – and it was in fine form.  She was telling us the story, not showing us how beautifully she could sing.

At the end of proceedings, Angela Gorton spoke on behalf of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation, and adjudicator Roger Wilson spoke of the high level of performance we heard, and the interesting range of music.

Then there was the important business of awards: Julien Van Mallaerts won the Jenny Wollerman Award for the best rendition of a song or aria sung in French; the Robin Dumbell Memorial Cup for the young entrant with the most potential was won by Thomas Atkins; the Rokfire Cup for the most outstanding competitor (i.e. through all the vocal classes that qualified) was Bianca Andrew; the runner-up to the Dame Malvina Major Foundation Aria was Christie Cook, who also took the New Zealand Opera Society prize.  The winner of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation Aria and of the Rosina Buckman Memorial Cup was Isabella Moore.

The audience had a most entertaining evening, hearing singing of a very high standard.  Some singers have greater natural gifts than others – and then it is what the singers do with those gifts that is important.  All showed signs of having received excellent teaching in languages as well as voice, and should feel well pleased with their efforts.