The essence of Don Pasquale splendidly delivered by Wanderlust Opera at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Wanderlust Opera
Donizetti: Don Pasquale – selections, in English

Director and narrator: Jacqueline Coats
Piano: Mark Dorrell
Stuart Coats (Don Pasquale), Barbara Paterson (Ernesto), Georgia Jamieson Emms (Norina)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 1 May, 12:15 pm

For several years Wanderlust Opera has been on the road doing what our professional opera company should be doing (did do for a couple of years in the 2000s): taking cut-down versions of opera to the provincial cities and towns. They’ve performed a variety of shows: Sondheim, a pot-pourri of songs from musicals, Cosi fan tutte and The Marriage of Figaro.

Pasquale toured eight centres in January and February this year and in August will continue with Tauranga and Hamilton. Unfortunately, Middle C missed the Wellington performance in February. We’re not sure whether there might be another performance in Wellington. This was a very reduced one, in English: just three singers, with the major role of Doctor Malatesta unsung because of Craig Beardsworth’s unavailability.

But the three singers here created a splendid opera-buffa style show, all three delighting in the farcical opportunities that Donizetti and his librettists knew how to exploit. (incidentally, the opera was based on an earlier opera by Stefano Pavesi, Ser Marcantonio in 1810, which was drawn from a Ben Jonson play of 1609, The Silent Woman. Strauss’s late opera Die schweigsame Frau, libretto Stefan Zweig, was also based on the same play).

We skipped the opening scene where Dr Malatesta describes a young lady who will make Pasquale a wonderful wife while Pasquale tells Malatesta of his plan to kick his nephew out of the house for refusing the offer of a wife who will presumably benefit, not the nephew so much as Pasquale himself.  We had Stuart Coats energetically overacting his reaction to the prospect of marriage, the Italian ‘Un foco insolito’, a brilliant waltz-style aria that set the scene irresistibly. Malatesta was present in the form of a small plaster bust.

Ernesto, the nephew, a tenor role, was sung by soprano, perhaps a strange substitution but it was explained that ‘We wanted to use a tenor but none of them could yo-yo as well as Barbara Paterson”. The substitute trouser role quickly became just so right! The confrontation, demands rapid shift from Ernesto laughing at Pasquale’s marriage plan to dismay when he refuses Pasquale’s offer of a bride.

It is Malatesta who is the manipulator, and narrator/director Jacqueline Coats created his presence with lively narrative and gestures; it is Malatesta’s sister, Norina, with whom Ernesto is in love, reciprocally, and whom he seems to be offering Pasquale as wife. She falls in with Malatesta’s plan to thwart Pasquale by producing Norina, momentarily as the shy, obedient, convent-educated ‘Sofronia’, acquiescing obediently to marriage. But then, after the marriage, she turns into Georgia Jamieson Emms, the real Norina, a fearless virago: refusing to obey, ordering clothes, coaches and horses, more servants, announcing she’s going alone to the theatre. Jamieson Emms revealed many of her histrionic talents as she confronted Pasquale and took command of everything with bold yet interesting voice and flamboyant behaviour.

Even though much of the music is left out, there is no lack of brilliant and engaging arias and duets in those bits of the opera that were presented. Donizetti’s brilliant orchestra that supports and comments on the action with wit and sensitivity is compressed into Mark Dorrell’s piano rendition which very often reinforces the emotion, such as when Pasquale realises that he’s been made a fool of and a subdued piano accompanies his pathetic defeat.

In the third act, ‘Sofronia’ drops a note that reveals to Pasquale, who picks it up, that she will meet her lover in the garden that night, and Pasquale decides on divorce. That is easily accomplished since the marriage was a sham. In a full staging the business in the garden can seem a bit protracted; but here we heard nothing that wasn’t a highlight, and those who didn’t know its twists and turns and the many equally brilliant or delightful numbers that were missing, would have been fully convinced by this three-quarter-hour’s worth of admirably sung, accompanied and ‘staged’ Donizetti.


Admirably staged and sung opera and music theatre excerpts from the school of music

“Collision”: Opera Scenes 2016
New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University

Musical director: Mark Dorrell; Director: Jon Hunter
Performance tutor: Maaike Christie-Beekman

Memorial Theatre, Victoria University

Sunday 11 September, 2:30 pm (earlier performances on 9 and 10 September)

The school of music’s once annual opera productions have in recent years fallen back to biennial events. In the between years, students create a series of scenes from opera, against a background of elementary sets and a few props that can, with a bit of imagination, be used in various settings.

This production employed around sixteen singers, though the photo gallery in the printed programme contained 23 faces which included first-year students and two guest singers who were not individually listed, but contributed to the chorus; many took part in two or three scenes.

The scenes from eleven works were divided between opera proper and various sub-categories that go by a variety of definitions like operetta, comic opera, musicals, musical theatre. The excerpts from heartland opera came first while the various kinds of musical theatre were in the second half.

As a generalized comment, the quality of singing, acting, energy level, and spirit of enthusiasm and enjoyment were very high, and at moments where musical or story quality limped, the dynamism that invested the whole show carried it.

The marvellous discovery scene from Act 3 of The Marriage of Figaro made a hilarious and fast-paced beginning: Marcellina and Bartolo are revealed as Figaro’s real parents, and their portrayals were vocally strong (Katrina Brougham and William King), as was the devil-may-care Figaro of Joseph Haddow.,with Alexandra Gandionco as Susanna.

Donizetti’s Tudor opera Anna Bolena handles the revelation to Henry VIII’s Queen, Anne Boleyn, of her unwilling rival, Jane Seymour. It exposed Shayna Tweed’s (the Queen’s) voice at the start, but it gained strength and individuality alongside Olivia Sheat’s vivid depiction of Seymour, as the latter’s uncomfortable role is exposed.

Britten’s comedy Albert Herring which may not have had a professional production in New Zealand since the 1960s, is not easy to bring comfortably to life; its humour can seem naïve. Before the opening scene, four singers set the spirit of the piece with a ball game, from later in the first act. A village meeting in the first scene decides to replace the annual Queen of the May contest (no girl is seen as virtuous enough) by a King of the May – and the chosen boy is the simple, but virtuous Albert Herring. Several earlier singers consolidated their talents here, plus the Lady Billows of Elyse Hemara, who assumed the role of patroness and village matriarch, in a spirited scene.

The card scene from Carmen and the mutual disclosure of Falstaff’s identical letters to Alice and Meg were further opera excerpts between operetta and musical in the second half. In the card scene, Frasquita and Mercedes (Olivia Sheat and Pasquale Orchard) study their fates in the cards before the light-hearted tone suddenly vanishes with Carmen’s arrival. There was a somewhat nervous vibrato in Sally Haywood’s voice which may coincidentally have matched the revelation of her fate.

Both Sheat and Haywood reappeared in the famous scene from Falstaff in which the two ladies discover Falstaff’s foolish ploy and decide to play along. Elizabeth Harré, who had sung the spoiler’s role of Florence in Albert Herring, took another strong character role as Mistress Quickly. (How I’d have loved it if the Nannetta, Alexandra Gandionco, had sung that magical ‘Sul fil d’un soffio etesio’ in the last scene – Angela Gheorghiu totally undid me with her recording).

The Broadway musicals included the 1975 satire on police corruption, Chicago, with the highlight scene, ‘Cell Block Tango’, for six prison inmates who celebrate their achievements in punishing errant husbands: a hilarious, if alarming scene that was splendidly carried off.  All have been mentioned elsewhere, except for Nicole Davey: and all that needs be said is that there was no weakness among the six.

Then Sondheim’s Into the Woods, one of his most successful near-musicals, in which Garth Norman and William King vividly illuminated the two fairy-tale princes to Cinderella and to the Grimm tale, Rapunzel, in the scene, ‘Agony’.

Fiddler on the Roof originated as a Yiddish story from Russia, and its most famous number, ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’, again characterized in genuine Broadway style, though only subtly satirizing the practice of arranged marriages; the three daughters: Eleanor McGechie, Emma Cronshaw-Hunt and Karishma Thanawala.

Les Misérables was the only one of the musicals that did not originate in New York (Paris, though its real success came after its English adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London). It offered yet another kind of love dilemma, ‘In my life’ and ‘A heart full of love’, with Karishma Thanawala (after her Chava in ‘Matchmaker’), here sang Eponine, grief-stricken at giving up Marius (Julian Chu-Tan) to Pasquale Orchard’s Cosette.

Three scenes from The Pirates of Penzance brought the show to a close. They began with ‘When a felon’s not engaged in his employment’, which is near the end, led by the Sergeant (Haddow), and inserted ‘Dry the glistening tear’, from Mabel (Sheat) and the female chorus, which actually opens Act II.

I could understand the reason for departing from the order of the three numbers, to put the most rambunctious at the end: ‘When the foeman bares his steel’. (Though I have to confess my greater love of Offenbach, and in this context the Gendarmes Duet, or ‘Couplets des deux hommes d’armes’ from Geneviève de Brabant). The slightly problematic ‘baring of steel’ march number held no fears for the final ensemble of Mabel, Edith (Elyse Hemara), Sergeant, and choruses of policemen and daughters).

Throughout one admired the often virtuosic performance at the piano by Mark Dorrell, especially in the well-rehearsed table lamp episode, always carefully secondary to the singers, but the more admirable for that. And the production team, the movement tutor (is that short for ‘choreographer’?) Lyne Pringle; and most importantly vocal tutors Margaret Medlyn, Richard Greager, James Clayton, Jenny Wollerman and Lisa Harper-Brown.

One looks forward to a main-stage, full opera production in 2017.

‘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.




Memorable, glamorous, musically interesting evening with Renée Fleming and the NZSO

Renée Fleming: A Gala Evening
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Judd

Ravel: La Valse
Shéhérazade: ‘Asie’; ‘La flute enchantée’; ‘L’indifférent’
           Pavane pour une infante défunte
Canteloube: Songs of the Auvergne: ‘Bailèro’; ‘Malurous qu’o uno fenno’
Gounod: Jewel Song, from Faust
Richard Strauss: Waltz sequence no.1 from Der Rosenkavalier
           ‘Morgen!’ Op.27, no.4; ‘Zueignung’ Op.10, no.1
Tosti: ‘Aprile’
Puccini: ‘O mio babbino caro’, from Gianni Schicchi

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 12 September 2015, 7.30pm

What a generous singer is Renée Fleming, performing so many items for us!  Yet she seemed as relaxed at the end as she was at the beginning, and in just as good voice. Although much of what she sang could be termed popular classical, it was all fine music.  It was good to see James Judd on the podium again, controlling the considerable forces.

Poised almost above the percussion, it was easy for me to look out on the Michael Fowler Centre gratifyingly almost full, and also to see the very large orchestra used for the first and many of the other items.  It was not an ideal position for reviewing, being parallel with the front of the platform, and therefore not receiving the full import of Fleming’s wonderful soprano voice.  However, thanks to others’ kindness, I was able to change at the interval to a rather better seat on the other side.

La Valse, as the excellent notes in the lavish programme explained, changed its character from when Ravel began its composition before the outbreak of World War I to what it became when he returned, a changed man, after service in the French Army throughout the hostilities.  I had not heard this considerable orchestral piece live for a very long time.  It contains some amazing effects – even though brass and percussion dominated where I was sitting.  In the case of the latter, that included seeing the tambourine player making a dash from one side of the back of the stage to the other, just in time to play that instrument towards the end of the work.  Typical of much French music was the use of the harp – in Saturday’s concert, two harps, used to magnificent effect.

Renée Fleming made her appearance wearing a beautiful gown with train and a cape – she looked stunning – to sing Shéhérazade.  This exotic work was not only demanding for her to sing, but demanding for the orchestra too.  Both emerged triumphant.  Sultry, brilliant, memorable are all appropriate descriptions of the performance. The soprano’s glorious opening low notes on the first words, ‘Asie, Asie, Asie’ (Asia) set the scene wonderfully, and she modulated her tone to great expressive effect. Fleming employed a certain amount of gesture – never overdone. The only detraction from the performance was that the lighting level was too low to enable one to read the full words and English translations of Tristan Klingsor’s fine poems the printed in the programme!   Intervention from Fleming over the interval (and from me, via an usher, too!) meant this situation changed for the second half.

The different mood of the second song allowed Renée Fleming’s voice to shine even more.  Here, Bridget Douglas’s flute playing was simply dazzling.  It was noticeable that after this song cycle and elsewhere in the concert Fleming was quick to applaud and bow to the orchestra – and in one of her little chats via microphone she commended the orchestra on its quality and flexibility, and remarked how proud we must be of it (applause).  She also commented that she liked singing in the MFC.

After the short third song in this evocative and dramatic cycle, came the interval.  Afterwards, the orchestra returned to play Ravel’s well-known Pavane.  According to the programme notes, Ravel disliked it being played slowly, like funeral music, saying ‘It was the princess who dies, not the pavane!’
Mellifluous horns against pizzicato strings was just one of the magical effects the smaller orchestra produced.

Again, outstanding flute playing featured.  However, I was moved to note ‘I prefer my music unpolluted by coughs’.  Nevertheless, the audience was mostly very attentive.

When the strings (muted) changed to bowing, a wonderful lush sound emerged, embellished by the harps.  The piece was like a scintillating example of French jewellery, although perhaps it was a little slow, bearing in mind Ravel’s remark.

Fleming returned, in a different gown, in pastel shades with a stole.  She spoke briefly about both the Canteloube and the Gounod items.  The former was notable for a lovely cor anglais solo, giving the music that rustic feel, and also for more flute from Bridget Douglas.  Of course the most popular song is ‘Bailèro’, and it received a well-justified rapturous reception from the orchestra and James Judd as well as from the audience.  Throughout her items, Fleming seemed relaxed, and to be enjoying herself.  The production of her attractive silvery tone appears effortless.

Gounod’s ‘Jewel Song’ is not an easy sing.  Fleming brought so much variety to this well-loved aria.  She had us bewitched, just as Marguerite was.  She turned to each side, and even to the orchestra when singing, so no-one could feel left out, and admired the rings she was wearing, in order to act out the aria’s words.

Her later enquiry to the audience discovered that there were many singers in the audience; they would have learned much. Renée Fleming employs portamento in her operatic arias, but it is never overdone or ugly; it embellishes and beautifies what she is singing.

I find the waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier somewhat hackneyed – thanks to Radio New Zealand Concert!  But through Strauss’s use of interesting harmonic intervals and marvellous instrumentation, plus the brilliant playing of the orchestra, I was seduced.  The five horns and three bassoons played faultlessly, and the great violin solo from Vesa-Matti Leppänen was a delight; James Judd almost danced to the music, and seemed delighted too.

Our soloist emerged again – in a third gown, of turquoise blue (later she told us it was the first time she had worn three gowns in one concert!)  She told us that she regarded herself as primarily a Strauss and Mozart singer; she made entertaining and humorous remarks too.

On to my favourites in the entire enticing programme: two of Richard Strauss’s most well-known songs.  These enchanting lieder are most often heard with piano; to hear them with orchestra was a real treat.  In Morgen! the introduction featured inspiring solo violin, with pizzicato violas, cellos, basses and harp. When the violins entered, their bowing produced a delicious pianissimo.  The singing was so
beautiful, yet simple and unaffected.

Fleming sings the words and music; she does not display herself and her skills.  Her use of the words is
extraordinarily intelligent and musical. Who could not be moved? Similarly with Zueignung.  It is a wonderfully uplifting and even jubilant song; quite sublime.  Yet people coughed even during these wondrous songs.

The name Tosti (Francesco Paolo) is associated with Dame Nellie Melba, and with rather sentimental Victorian parlour songs, written during the composer’s long residence in England.  But this song in Italian had charm, and a delicious orchestral accompaniment.  Next was ‘Top of the Pops’, Puccini’s soaring aria titled in the programme’s translation ‘Oh, dear daddy’.  Again, our superb singer took it simply, but beautifully, with well-judged portamenti. Her velvety tone did not prevent drama where appropriate.  Fleming must have sung this many times, but it sounded fresh, and it had the orchestra in splendid form, as throughout the concert, the latter receiving applause from Renée Fleming.

Not limiting herself to this ending to die for, Renée Fleming gave three encores: ‘Summertime’ from
Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was first.  For this she changed the character of her voice; it became appropriately brassy.  Then came the audience participation – singing the chorus to her ‘I could have danced all night’ from My Fair Lady.  As a brilliant stroke to prevent the curtain calls and standing ovations from going on for hours, she finished with a much less familiar item: Marietta’s aria ‘Glück das mir verblieb’ from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt.  Again, Fleming’s singing was deceptively simple-sounding, yet heartfelt and masterful, with wonderful dynamics.  The aria’s orchestration was splendid.

Negative points: the price of the programme was high, and there were too few sellers, resulting in long queues, which people had to abandon when the concert was about to begin.  These points meant that
many people did not have a programme.  A single sheet printed with the composers and titles of the works is common in European countries, and would have been helpful on this occasion.

All who attended were privileged to hear one of today’s great singers in top form, who had us eating out of her hand, while singing a generous and varied programme, with an orchestra in brilliant form, and a very experienced and enthusiastic conductor, who is an old friend of the orchestra, and of the audience.  A night to remember for a long time.  Thank you, all!




Opera Society revives its tradition of presenting promising young singers in tantalising song

Songs and arias
(New Zealand Opera Society – Wellington Branch)

James Benjamin Rodgers (tenor); Georgia Jamieson Emms (soprano); Elisabeth Harris (soprano); Christian Thurston (baritone)
Piano accompaniment: Catherine Norton

Liszt: Three Petrarch sonnets
Songs by Georg Tintner, Mahler
Arias by Gounod, Leoncavallo, Massenet, Nicolai, Verdi, Britten, Douglas Moore, Weill, Richard Rodgers and Sondheim

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Thursday 6 August, 7:30 pm

Once upon a time, the Wellington Branch of the New Zealand Opera Society used to stage almost monthly recitals of mainly opera arias and ensembles. As performances of the real thing increased in the 80s and 90s, with the establishment of Wellington City Opera, annual productions by both Victoria University and Wellington Polytechnic schools of music as well as a variety of adventurous ad hoc amateur groups, the appeal of de-contextualised arias and excerpts diminished.

Now that the number and variety of staged performances has seriously declined, scope for aria recitals should again have developed. So we must welcome a venture of this sort: the audience was large enough to encourage the society to try again.

First thing to exclaim about was the enterprising range of items. Absent were almost all the standard arias from the top 20 operas, as well as the once common scattering of popular art songs by Schubert and Schumann.

James Rodgers
One of the most surprising was the first bracket – Liszt’s famous settings of three sonnets by Petrarch; they were also among the most challenging, and in the hands of tenor James Benjamin Rodgers, not flawless in execution.

My main concern was with his gauging of the church’s acoustic. It’s a fine space for the singer, but very easy in which to misjudge the amount of force required for projection. The expression of passionate and unrestrained emotions in the poems tempts the singer to deliver tempestuously, with too much force. The beginning of No 104 was much more promising as Rodgers captured better the calmer sense of puzzlement, but too often one wanted a little more subtlety, variety of mood, just a softer, less driven voice.

So I looked forward to his later pieces. The first of them was the third act duet between Violetta (Georgia Jamieson Emms) and Alfredo in La traviata; here his voice was beautifully modulated, capturing the confusion between his full awareness of Violetta’s imminent death and his need to support her delusionary dreams of happiness. The pair was excellently matched in tone and dramatic perception.

Unusually, Rodgers sang, from Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, the male chorus’s interlude describing Tarquinius’s ride to Rome to rape Lucretia, the wife of his general Collatinus. An absolutely splendid portrayal, with a peerless piano accompaniment from Catherine Norton.

Next morning Lucretia herself delivers an extraordinary, dignified lament, ‘Give him this orchid’, before killing herself before her husband: it was Elizabeth Harris’s triumph. Incidentally, one must record that the opera was done by the then Conservatorium of Music of Massey University a decade or more ago.

James Rodgers’s final group of pieces clinched his standing as a very fine singer, capable of grasping a wide variety of musical styles and emotional dilemmas. There were excerpts from two Kurt Weill works; the operetta The Firebrand of Florence and his ‘musical tragedy’ Lost in the Stars; and from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods (here duetting with Emms). Rodgers caught the wit and variety of mood keenly, demonstrating a natural talent for ‘becoming’ the character in question both through vocal nuance as well as facial expression and gesture. The title song from Weill’s Lost in the Stars sat right in the middle of his voice. In ‘Finishing the hat’ from Sunday in the Park his pianissimo conveyed perfectly the tortured conflict that the painter Seurat faced.

James and Georgia ended the concert, together again, with ‘It takes Two’ from Into the Woods, sensitively revealing the nature of the relationship between the couple. The two singers were again beautifully matched in this touching duet.

I am one who has not found it easy to enjoy Sondheim’s musical theatre, perhaps through exposure in live performance only with amateur productions; but the two examples here rather captivated me. Nevertheless, professional productions, which is what these pieces demand, are very unlikely in New

Georgia Jamieson Emms
Georgia had first displayed her interpretative talent with three songs (two by Theodore Storm and one by Hesse) set by Georg Tintner who fled to New Zealand from the Nazis in Austria before WW2 and, typically, found it almost impossible to gain musical recognition here, though he eventually became conductor of the New Zealand Opera Company. I hadn’t come across any of his compositions before; in these three one could hear hints of inter-war Vienna, touches of Alban Berg, Schoenberg and influences from Mahler and even Liszt could be perceived; secure and confident in realisation though nothing strongly memorable. But the performances would have charmed the composer.

Later offerings from Georgia included an unfamiliar aria from Nicolai’s German take on The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s often done still in Germany but here we know only the overture and perhaps the splendid Drinking Song. This ‘Nun heilt herbei’ was sprightly and expressive, with comic effects that Georgia delivered very well. (Nicolai was a strange case, dates exactly those of Chopin, but a much smaller talent; he wrote a few other operas none of which held the stage).

That was followed by the Traviata duet, in which she created a moving and lively simulation of dying.

Georgia’s last items were an aria from Weill’s Street Scene of 1946, entitled ‘An American opera’, and then the ‘letter scene’ from Douglas Moore’s famous (in America) The Ballad of Baby Doll. In
both she displayed a lovely timbre, with careful control of emotional expressiveness.

Christian Thurston
Thurston arrived on stage in the middle of the first half and sang two opera arias, both amorous yearnings after forbidden fruit: ‘E fra quest’ ansie’ – Silvio’s aria from Pagliacci, and the rather less known ‘Vision fugitive’ from Massenet’s Hérodiade. Unlike the Jokaanan in Strauss’s Salome, here John the Baptist is made to feel quite open lust for the seductive Salome.

In both arias I felt that Thurston was pushing his voice excessively. While it was disciplined and firm, his voice lacked colour and emotional variety and didn’t really convey the trembling, out-of-control emotion that one expects to find in, and to be touched by, the words and the music itself of these two arias.

His third song was addressed to a young lady who was accessible to the singer: Emile’s well-loved ‘Younger than Springtime’ from South Pacific. But here again he missed the gentleness and sentiment of the beguiling melody in spite of a voice of even quality and pleasant timbre. I could not decide whether the problem was his miscalculation of the nature of the acoustic, encouraging needless pressure on his voice, or simply the choice of pieces that suited neither his voice nor his histrionic talents.

Elizabeth Harris
Before her aria from Lucretia, mentioned above, Elizabeth Harris had sung one of Mahler’s songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Das irdische Leben. The subject echoes Schubert’s Der Erlkönig; and she sang it with tremulous intensity.

Then came a much anthologised opera aria from an unknown opera: from Gounod’s first opera, Sapho: ‘O ma mère immortelle’. It’s a touching little piece which she handled with sweet sensitivity. She also sang one of Britten’s brilliant cabaret songs, Johnny, which she carried with sparkling acting and a zaney, daring self-confidence along with Catherine Norton’s dazzling piano.

The concert as a whole has to be rated a considerable success, both as highlighting one singer who has gained some international success and three others of great promise.  As I observed at the beginning, the decline in the amount and variety of live opera in performance should create a renewed thirst to explore opera, through excerpts, that look less and less likely to be performed here. And it is disturbing that such well-schooled and talented singers as these are unlikely ever to find full employment in this country.



Excellent opera recital with Friends of New Zealand Opera

Friends of New Zealand Opera: a Winter Concert

Arias and duets from opera and musicals

Kristin Darragh (contralto), Barbara Graham (soprano), Kate Lineham (soprano) Warwick Fyfe (baritone), Bruce Greenfield (piano)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Sunday, 21 June 2015, 4pm

Approximately 120 people came to hear a star-studded line-up of opera singers present a delightful programme of mainly well-known arias and duets.  Unfortunately, Australian baritone Warwick Fyfe was suffering from a severe throat infection (after travelling here from Australia on Qantas – how often I have heard about this happening to people!), and thus his contribution was limited.  For example, the first three items were to be from Lohengrin, but these had to be cut.  However, Kristin Darragh sang Erde’s aria ‘Weiche Wotan’ from Das Rheingold with great dignity, spirit and sonority.  Warwick Fyfe managed Wotan’s interjections; despite illness, his voice sounded strong, rich and very

Kristin Darragh’s voice is so resonant that you could think it was amplified – which it certainly wasn’t.  She has an apparently easy delivery and a relaxed pose.  Despite all the carpet, the Hunter Council Chamber proved to be a good space for singers – an oblong box with a high, wooden ceiling.  I have heard many concerts there, but seldom vocalists, so it was quite an ear-opener.

Stuart Maunder’s introductions were brief and to the point.  The somewhat slimmed-down programme was given some additional substance by Maunder’s brief interviews with Warwick Fyfe and Kristin Darragh, the former introducing a considerable amount of humour.

Next up was Barbara Graham, singing Dvořák’s ‘Song to the Moon’ from Rusalka.  This simple yet gorgeous aria was sung beautifully.  I don’t know the Czech language, but it sounded pretty good, and clearly enunciated.  Barbara Graham has plenty of power when required.  This thought led me to notice that the piano lid was up for the singers, i.e. on the long stick.  This is not possible in some venues or for some voices.

Warwick Fyfe explained that with his ‘bug’ he was more comfortable in the lower register, that he less often used these days.  Therefore he sang the wonderful ‘O Isis and Osiris’ from The Magic
.  The deep notes were full of tone, and if the singer had a little difficulty with breathing, it did not
seriously detract from Sarastro’s firm and satisfying aria.

Kate Lineham was on next, presenting ‘Porgi Amor’, as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro.  She projected the lady’s sadness at the philandering of her husband, in both her voice and her interpretation, involving a little acting. Her voice has more vibrato than some, but mostly it was well under control although it did threaten to send some top notes off pitch.

Warwick Fyfe then surprised the audience by singing Papageno’s duet with Papagena: ‘Pa, pa, pa’.  This was in a higher register than his earlier aria, but he managed it well.  Barbara Graham acted out the role delightfully, not neglecting to sing it splendidly.

Throughout, that one-man orchestra, Bruce Greenfield, played the accompaniments with flair and dexterity, amply contributing to the mood and atmosphere of each piece.

Puccini was represented by the ‘Flower duet’ from Madama Butterfly, sung by Darragh and Lineham.  The two strong voices were well matched.  The former continued with the ‘Seguidilla’ from Carmen.  She seemed right at home in this spirited aria, and sang powerfully, with much varying of tone to give expression to the mood and words.

Another change from the printed programme took us into the world of the musical, beginning with My Fair Lady, from which Kate Lineham sang ‘Words, words!  I’m so sick of words’.  This was an apt rendition, with rich top notes.  This was followed by a song written for the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, but excised from the show: ‘The girl in [flat] 14G’.  Barbara Graham sang and gestured with great spirit and glee a song that included a spoof on opera (heard from the flat below) and on Ella Fitzgerald popular numbers (heard from the flat above).  This was a very demanding item, and Barbara Graham produced great acting and singing.

Then Warwick Fyfe sang Australian Jack O’Hagan’s ‘Road to ‘Gundagai’, followed by Kristin Darragh’s ‘Maybe this time’, from Cabaret.  Liza Minelli she ain’t, but it was a good performance.  However, it does upset me  little to hear a fine operatic voice used so brashly.

‘Chanson Espagnole’ by Debussy, based on a Delibes song, was the penultimate offering, from Kate and Barbara.  The latter’s flexible and versatile acting and singing of this florid song was most commendable, and she matched well with Kate’s admirable performance.

Finally, from Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah, Kristin Darragh sang with lovely, rich contralto tone a stirring aria in which Delilah prays for John the Baptist to fall in love with her.

This brought to a conclusion an excellent late afternoon’s entertainment, which despite difficulties, show-cased splendidly the artistry of two international opera singers, two fine local singers and one outstanding accompanist.


NZSM’s “A Night at the Opera” generates a feast

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

Arias, Ensembles and Scenes from Opera
performed by the NZSM Classical Voice Students

Katrina Brougham, Alicia Cadwgan, Emma Carpenter, Declan Cudd, Georgia Fergusson
Jospeh Haddow, Elyse Hemara, Jamie Henare, Rebecca Howan, Luana Howard
Rebecca Howie, Hannah Jones, Brooks Kershaw, Aluapei Kolopeaua, Priya Makwana
Olivia Marshall, William McElwee Katherine McEndoe, Nino Raphael, Tess Robinson
Olivia Sheat, Daniel Sun, Christian Thurston, Shayna Tweed, Luka Venter.

Director: Frances Moore
Music Director: Mark Dorrell
Repetiteur: Heather Easting
Designer: Alexander Guillot
Lighting: Lisa Maule

Adam Concert Room, Kelburn Campus
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music
Victoria University of Wellington

Friday 19th September 2014

Earlier last week I had the good fortune to catch Radio NZ Concert’s “Upbeat” interview with Margaret Medlyn, one of the tutors of Classical Voice at the NZ School of Music in Wellington. She spoke about the then oncoming “Night at the Opera” presentation involving the voice students and featuring arias and ensembles from well-known operas and operettas. She said that the concert’s semi-staged aspect with costumes and lighting was especially valuable for the younger students, as it gave them a chance to experience a theatrical context in which to perform and to put into practice what they had been studying. But she also thought that all the performers as well as the audience would relish the theatrical aspects of the presentation, adding value and interest to the musical experience.

The presentation was in the capable hands of director Frances Moore, a former first-class-honours student at the School of Music here, and subsequently a Fulbright Scholar at New York University, while working as an assistant director with the Manhattan School of Music’s Summer programme. She’s returned to New Zealand to continue studies at Toi Whakaari, and pursue a career as a director of opera. Here, she certainly made the most of the depth and diverse range of talents among the student performers, encouraging them to relish their opportunities by singing out and giving themselves up entirely to their characters and their interactions. She was aided and abetted by Alexandra Guillot’s inventive set and costume designs, and Lisa Maule’s very appropriate, on-the-spot (sic) lighting, both helping to bring the different scenarios of each item to life.

I’d recently attended and much enjoyed “Der Rosenkavalier” in a “scaled-down” performance edition out at Days Bay, courtesy of music director Michael Vinten, so I was more than usually receptive to the similar treatment accorded tonight’s items – the normally orchestral accompaniments were by turns brilliantly realized by pianists Mark Dorrell and Heather Easting, giving the singers, whether solo or in ensemble, complete security of support at all times, the playing’s energy and sense of fun creating many delightful and alchemic moments. I couldn’t see the pianist(s) from where I was sitting in the Adam Concert Room, but I understood that Heather Easting provided the Britten, Mozart, Donizetti and Puccini accompaniments.

Technically, the items went with a hiss and a roar, with only a handful of unsynchronised ensemble moments disturbing the flow, and which the performers simply pulled together again with confidence and élan. The concert began with an excerpt from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, sung in English, and designated as “Act One – finale” in the programme – as I later found, trying to pinpoint that same sequence on a “complete” recording I had of the operetta led to all kinds of discrepancies and confusions which suggested that the work had been mercilessly “hacked about” over the years, and with all kinds of “performing editions” emerging from the fracas. Comparing notes on this matter with Mark Dorrell a day or so later considerably relieved my confusion, and restored my faith in my ears!

The gods as presented here were a rum lot, indeed, with delightfully ungodlike characteristics shining forth for all to savour – each singer relished his or her opportunities, most notably Alicia Cadwgan’s delightfully kittenish Diana and Christian Thurston’s suitably machoistic Jupiter, the perfect foil for the suave Pluto of Declan Cudd, whose manner, apart from his highest notes, was easeful and insinuating, causing a sonorous and forthright rebellion among the ranks of Olympus’s celestial inhabitants! It made me long to see and hear a performance of the complete work, whatever the edition and its corruptions and inconsistencies!

From the fripperies of Offenbach’s satire to the stark realities of Britten’s “Peter Grimes” was a quantum leap for the sensibilities, a “plunge-bath after a sauna” effect, whose marked contrast worked extremely well. This was the quartet sequence “From the gutter” from Act Two of the opera, showcasing the voices of Olivia Marshall, Hannah Jones, Rebecca Howan, and, as Ellen Orford, Katherine McEndoe. Olivia Marshall in particular, as Auntie, impressed with the beauty and steadiness of her line, ably supported by her nieces Hannah Jones and Rebecca Howan; while Katherine McEndoe as Ellen engaged our attention with her strength and focus of utterance. The voices in ensemble readily conveyed that stricken, passionate quality called for by the music – beauty of a disturbing, intensely-wrought kind.

Intensities of a different order were generated by the Act One “Padlock” Scene from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, leading to those exchanges between Tamino and Papageno and the Three Ladies that must be among the most beautiful of all operatic moments. First we had Luka Venter as Papageno with his powers of speech bound by enchantment, his frustration and eventual relief at being released warmly and amusingly conveyed. The Three Ladies, Shanya Tweed, Elyse Hemara and Georgia Fergusson, were terrific! – in fact, a little too much so, in fact, as they needed more light and shade, more ease in their singing – but they were still admirably focused, direct and transfixing in their impact.

Declan Cudd as Tamino, along with Luka Venter, his Papageno, gave us a bit more of the lightness of touch that the music needed – but I was waiting (as I always do) for that lump-in-throat moment begun by the wind instruments in complete performances of the opera, when the women sing about the Three Boys who will guide Tamino and Papageno along their appointed journey. Here, I thought the utterances from all concerned were too rushed, wanting the air and space which would generate a certain “charged” quality, as if, for a moment, creation had paused to witness here a kind of celestial laying-on of hands. The scene still worked its magic – and I did like the appearance of the three “Knaben” high up in the balcony at that point, opening the vistas in a way that the music so beautifully suggests.

I was delighted that we got the chorus “Comes a train of little ladies”  from Sullivan’s “The Mikado” as well as the “Three Little Maids from School” – in the opening chorus the voices truly caught that sense of rapturous wonderment at the words “And we wonder, how we wonder….”, with marvellous surges of tone, and a beautiful dying fall at the end. It was the perfect foil for the “three little maids”, Hannah Jones’s Yum-Yum strong and focused, but the others (Katherine McEndoe and Rebecca Howan) closely in attendance. Their three-pronged exuberance  mischievously nudged and poked at the figure of the bemused Pooh-Bah, who declined (perhaps by way of protesting a little too much!) to “dance and sing” as the three girls confessed (“So, please you Sir, we much regret”) they were, by nature, apt to do. Jamie Henare, strong-voiced as Pooh Bah, had a fine time not quite completely evading their clutches!

The first-half closer, appropriately enough the finale of Act One of Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”, was an ambitious piece of singing and staging which, thanks to plenty of energy, wit and engaging vocal characterisation, backed up by strongly-focused direction and presentation, came across to us most entertainingly. William McElwee’s Count Almaviva was delightful, dramatically outlandish and vocally sweet, if just a bit coloratura-shy in places, while Brooks Kershaw’s Bartolo/Barbaro/Bertoldo responded with plenty of appropriate puzzlement and stupefaction at the count’s appearance as a drunken soldier. Alicia Cadwgan’s Rosina charmed us from the beginning with her quicksilver responses regarding the “letter business”, the characters readily catching the “spin” of the composer’s interactions in their adroitly-dovetailed ensemble.

The arrival of Figaro (Christian Thurston), along with Don Basilio (Jamie Henare) and Berta (Tess Robinson) properly galvanised things to the point where the police were called, and an exciting, tarantella-like ensemble swept us all along, emotions bubbling, simmering and seething with everything ranging from pleasure to bewilderment, ensemble thrills and spills treated as part of the experience. As its riotous way unfolded we were thoroughly engaged by the goings-on – I don’t think the most polished professional presentation could have given us more pleasure than we got here from these exuberant and fearless young performers!

A different kind of sophistication awaited us after the interval with Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music”, the scenario allowing Emma Carpenter’s voice to shine as Anne, both solo, and combining nicely in duet with Alicia Cadwgan’s Petra. Hannah Jones turned in an alluring Desiree, while as a couple Christian Thurston’s robust Carl-Magnus and Tess Robinson’s stratospheric Charlotte also gave pleasure. The performance caught the piece’s essentially “chic” surface nature while allowing us glimpses of the characters beneath the precarious facades – most enjoyable.

“Donizetti’s wonderful Don Pasquale” read the programme-note, and the music certainly lived up to the effusive introduction – this was a committed, no-holds-barred performance of the duet “Tornami a dir” (Tell me once more), which the composer styled as a “nocturne”, performed by Declan Cudd and Olivia Marshall. The former’s tone was freer and fuller in his lower register, though none of his high passages were shirked – while his opposite, Olivia Marshall, brought a confident and secure voice to the music given Norina, his sweetheart. For me, at any rate, the couple’s fervour and commitment easily carried the day.

Back to Mozart and his “Magic Flute” we went, this time with the Three Boys (Olivia Sheat, Luana Howard and Rebecca Howie) very much in vocal focus, delightfully attired in “Davy Crockett from Bavaria” style hats, and turning their tones in well-wrought ensemble towards dissuading Pamina from taking her life over her Prince Tamino’s apparent rejection of their love. As with the excerpt from “Peter Grimes” Katherine McIndoe impressed upon the memory with her focused commitment to the character, conveying her confused emotions with plenty of force and immediacy.

I thought the Rossini ensemble as we saw and heard just before the interval would be hard to beat, but the company at least matched its earlier achievement with the evening’s concluding item, a colourful and heartfelt delivery of the Waltz-Song and Soldiers’ March from Act Two of Puccini’s “La Boheme”. It all came vibrantly together – Tess Robinson’s appealing Musetta floated the insinuations of her melody quite irresistibly, at first angering her estranged lover, Marcello (Christian Thurston), and then winning him back over, to the annoyance of her elderly escort  Alcindoro (a lovely cameo from Nino Raphael), and the amusement of the watching Bohemians.

Though there wasn’t much for them to do as spectators, William McElwee’s Rodolfo and Hannah Jones’s Mimi looked and sounded lovely together, while Luca Venter’s Schaunard and Jamie Henare’s Colline amply completed the Bohemian contingent. Then as the military band approached, it was indeed “half the population of Paris” which seemed to be milling around on the stage as if on holiday, the contingent then marching off to the concluding bars of Puccini’s music in grand style.

All credit to the NZ School of Music’s Classical Voice Faculty and to the students whose performances this evening would have richly justified their tutors’ efforts – it was a great show, whose creative flair and sense of occasion lifted it far above the conventional hotch-potch method of random assemblage of  “vocal gems”, and produced something really worthwhile and memorable. I’m sure Margaret Medlyn, for one, would have been delighted.

Splendid operatic farewell to the Kapiti Chorale’s conductor Marie Brown

‘Hit and Myth’; choruses and arias from opera

The Kapiti Chorale, Marie Brown (conductor), Elisabeth Harris (mezzo), Christian Thurston (baritone), Salina Fisher (violin), Peter Averi (organ), Rafaella Garlick-Grice and Ellen Barrett (pianos)

St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Paraparaumu

Sunday, 18 August 2013, 2.30pm

Despite the rather corny title of the concert, the church was well-filled to hear the last concert to be conducted by Marie Brown, who is moving to Auckland, following eight years as Music Director  of the choir; she will be greatly missed.

A delightful mixture of arias and choruses from opera made up the fare: some items were well known, or ‘hits’, others less-known, while some were based on myths. While most of the choruses were sung in English, a number were not.

We began with ‘The Villagers’ Chorus’ from Guillaume Tell, by Rossini.  The first three items were all accompanied by Rafaelle Garlick-Grice in accomplished style, having always the right balance with the choir and soloists.  She is an accompanist at the New Zealand School of Music. The women’s sound was good; the men’s rather weak, but there was always an excellent range of dynamics.  Following this, conductor Marie Brown gave the first of a number of apt introductions to the items, not without humour, and playing on the terms ‘hit’ and ‘myth’ where possible.

‘Dido’s Lament’ from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was the next item.  It lacked more than a little in sound quality and atmosphere by being played on the piano, but Elisabeth Harris sang with feeling, and a richer sound than I have previously heard from her, plus greater (though not total) accuracy of intonation.  Her voice was well suited to the church’s acoustic, but I was puzzled by the pronunciation of ‘trouble’ as ‘rubble’, and ‘remember me’ as ‘ruhmumber me’. The choir did not start completely together, but words were clear and expressive, and they produced a fine sound; again the gradation of dynamics was good.  The choir’s upper notes were weak at times.

Gounod’s operas, other than Faust, are not much performed now, but ‘O ma lyre immortelle’ from his Sapho proved a good vehicle for Harris.  Her rich lower tones were very fine.

Mascagnis’ ‘Intermezzo’ from his opera Cavalleria rusticana is one of those very famous pieces of music that everyone knows, though perhaps not all can place its source and composer.  It received highly proficient and loving playing from Salina Fisher, a violin student and prize-winner at NZSM, with Peter Averi on the organ.  Unfortunately, a digital organ is not an adequate substitute for the sounds of an orchestra, despite the excellence of the playing.

Back to the choir and Elisabeth Harris, for the Easter Hymn from the same opera, with both piano and organ.  It was a good, dramatic performance from both soloist and choir, but the latter’s vowels were somewhat too diverse for purity of tone.

Turning to French grand opera, better described in these programme notes than I have ever seen it, Christian Thurston, another NZSM student, who recently did well in the School’s opera Il Corsaro by Verdi, sang ‘Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse’ from Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas.  His voice is rich-toned, strong and hearty; accompanied by Rafaella Garlick-Grice, his rendition in excellent French was elegant .

A more familiar opera is Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.  With two pianos this time, the second played by the choir’s regular accompanist Ellen Barrett, the women of the choir sang (in English) the ‘Chorus of Peasant Girls’.  The tone was pleasant, and the singers gave a suitably playful rendition, while the wonderfully illustrative accompaniment was splendidly played by the unflagging Rafaella Garlick-Grice, beautifully co-ordinated with Ellen Barrett.

From the same opera was the famous waltz scene, again with two pianos.  Thurston sang Onegin, with the full choir.  The English words were clear, and the timing was excellent.  It is not easy to sing as an opera chorus, because phrases for the chorus come up here and there, so it is more difficult to get entries correct as compared with continuous singing in straight choral works.

Perhaps the best-known items from Bizet’s Carmen are the ‘Habanera’, and the ‘March of the Toreadors’.  The first of these was sung in French, with Rafaella Garlick-Grice accompanying and Elisabeth Harris taking the solo part. With French expert Marie Brown to teach them, the choir’s pronunciation was excellent, and the singers were ‘on the ball’, to make this an excellent item.  The soloist, now in a red dress, moving forward from the back of the church, singing from memory, made the most of the seductive, Spanish-style music, with movement and facial expression.

Two pianos accompanied the March, sung in English. The choir’s rhythm was first-class, if the pitch was occasionally suspect.  There was some strain in the tenor voices, but the piece was generally secure and accurate, with plenty of volume when required.

Christian Thurston returned to sing a less-well-known number, ‘Questo amor, vergogna mia’ from Puccini’s Edgar.  He made a fine and beautiful operatic sound.

Elisabeth Harris then gave us ‘Nobles Seigneurs, salut’ from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.  This was a very accomplished performance of a difficult aria, not known to me.  The ornamentation was handled with assurance and accuracy, and her French language was excellent.

Something else French: the beautiful ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs, by Massenet played on the violin by Salina Fisher, accompanied by Rafaella Garlick-Grice.  It was superbly played, with sensitivity.  Sadly, the upright piano was somewhat limited in tonal variety in its ‘orchestral’ supporting role.

Now to Verdi: ‘O don fatale’ from Don Carlos, sung by Harris, in Italian, with feeling, and impressive expression and dramatic verve.  Top notes were absolutely in place.  The audience responded with particular enthusiasm to this very passionate aria.

The final three items were more familiar; firstly, the ‘Voyagers’ Chorus’ from Idomeneo by Mozart, for choir and mezzo, sung in Italian, in which I thought the singers seemed to be tiring a little.  This was
followed by the famous Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor by Borodin, where we again had two pianos and an English text.  Top notes from the sopranos were weak, as were some alto notes.  However, the forte section was very accurate and lively, though most words were unclear.  The co-ordination of the pianists was remarkable.

That much loved chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco, ‘Va pensiero’, rounded off the programme, sung in Italian with both accompanists, and a brief appearance from Christian Thurston.  The chorus’s smooth
lines made a rousing end to ‘Hit and Myth’.

Peter Averi then made a short speech, thanking Marie Brown for her work and her huge inspiration to the choir and those associated with it.

The concert of excerpts from opera reached a commendable level of performance, and was much appreciated by the audience.  This was a demanding programme, but all the singers were very involved in what they were singing, and they involved their audience also.


Brio’s fantastic lunchtime explorations

Brio Vocal Ensemble Presents:
FANTASIEREISEN  (Fantastic Journeys)

WAGNER – Excerpts from “Das Rheingold”

3 Wesendonck-Lieder

R.STRAUSS – 2 Movements from Five Piano Pieces Op.3

2 Songs: – “Leises Lied” and “Zueignung”

MOZART – Excerpts from “Die Zauberflöte”

Brio: Janey MacKenzie (soprano), Catherine Leining (soprano), Jody Orgias (mezzo-soprano), Mark Bobb (tenor), Justin Pearce (bass)

Special guest appearance – Roger Wilson (bass)

Jonathan Berkahn (piano)

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 19th June, 2013

Fantasiereisen is not, of course, the word for a German bakery, but instead, the title chosen for the most recent of Vocal Ensemble Brio’s enterprising programmes. Presented at St.Andrew’s as part of the Lunchtime Concert Series, it featured music by Wagner, R. Strauss and Mozart, a kind of kaleidoscopic collection of operatic, vocal and instrumental works given this wonderful title (in English, this time) Fantastic Journeys. One or two rough moments put aside, I thought the presentation a great success.

It all began with part of the opening scene from Wagner’s Das Rheingold, here sung (and acted) in concert-hall style, with piano accompaniment (the music truncated here and there, but still allowing us to savour the episode’s principal themes or leitmotifs, as the composer styled them). So, Jonathan Berkahn’s skilled playing unfolded for us the themes associated with nature and with the River Rhine, before the trio of Rhinemaidens burst in on the scene, sung by Catherine Leining, Janey MacKenzie and Jody Orgias. The three sported in the river’s sparkling waters before being suddenly accosted by a dwarf, Alberich, sung here by Justin Pearce.

Of the watery trio of Maidens (I keep thinking about comedienne Anna Russell’s brilliant description of the three as “a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters”), I thought Janey MacKenzie’s voice stood out when singing solo, her tones, easeful, resplendent and siren-like. When together as a threesome, each voice worked beautifully, their collective energies and impulses well-drilled, and their tones steady and mellifluous. Opposite them, Justin Pearce’s lust-crazed Alberich, though a bit papery-toned in places, was dramatically convincing – he made good use of both voice and “face” when conveying his bitter disappointment at failing to make a capture of any one of the three sisters.

In fact I was enjoying the performance so much, that the excerpt’s abrupt conclusion at that point, just before the appearance of the sun’s rays which light up the Rhinemaidens’ gold, came as an aural shock! Still, I kept my composure, and resolutely avoided causing a scene by jumping to my feet and blustering “But…but…but you can’t stop NOW!….). I did so want to hear the Rhinemaidens’ cries of “Rheingold! Rheingold!”, and especially as everybody seemed to be really getting into their parts and enjoying themselves at this juncture. I suppose, realistically, it had to stop somewhere – but one did feel, particularly at that point, as though one had been from the music “untimely ripp’d!”.

I had to be content with something completely different to follow, two movements from Richard Strauss’s Five Pieces for Piano, here played winningly by Jonathan Berkahn. First was a lovely, song-like Andante, and afterwards an “Allegro-vivace” hunting-song. The latter was music that seemed to want to take its listeners on plenty of wide-ranging adventures, including, by the sounds of things, a couple of tumbles! – all fine, and nobody hurt, save for a few bruises!

Two songs by Richard Strauss followed, both sung by Janey MacKenzie. The first, Lieses Lied, (Gentle Song) was delicately essayed by both voice and piano, the singer readily negotiating the song’s high tessitura, and with only a moment of strain at the top of an ascent, near the end – the rest was a delight. As for the well-known Zueignung (Dedication), the great rolling phrases were beautifully arched, and expansively negotiated, as was the final verse’s climactic high note, thrillingly attacked and attained.

I couldn’t help but feel for Jody Orgias, singing three of Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder in the wake of the resonances of Margaret Medlyn’s stunning performance of the whole set just recently – her feeling for the music was evident, but I felt the songs needed more, here, lacking the ambient Tristan-esque charge that both orchestra and a more focused vocal outpouring was able to generate at that NZSM concert. I thought the singer was elsewhere able to display her abilities far more readily in the operatic excerpts, where her unfailing sense of the stage and of how words and situations interact was evident. The Magic Flute excerpts which concluded the concert found her, I thought, much more at ease.

Throughout the concert Jonathan Berkahn’s piano playing had given us considerable pleasure thus far – unfortunately his somewhat untidy playing of an unfinished Mozart sonata-movement made a less-than-positive impression. The intention was partly to demonstrate an instance of the composer’s occasional forays into uncharacteristically stormier territories – but even when stormy and stressful Mozart’s music requires a kind of elegance and sense of proportion (it’s part of what makes his music so terribly difficult to get right, and especially on a modern piano, where the music’s figurations and textures are often made to sound ungainly).

Happily the Magic Flute exerpts seemed to right these very few wrongs, and provide a suitably fantastic, as well as heart-warming finish to the presentation. For the first exerpt, which was the duet “Bei Mannern”, featuring Papageno, the bird-catcher, and Pamina, the captive princess, bass Roger Wilson stepped into the breach to replace an ailing performer at short notice, partnering Janey MacKenzie, the give-and-take between the two remarkable throughout, even if I felt the piece’s basic tempo was too quick to allow the singers time to properly “round off” their phrase-ends – Pamina’s lovely arching line right at the end, for example, here sounding a shade fettered, and wanting just a little more freedom.

Finally came the “padlocked mouth” quintet, with Justin Pearce reclaiming the character of Papageno and enjoying his “Hm-hm-hm-hm”s, and tenor Mark Bobb giving us a small-voiced but elegant Tamino (the prince in pursuit of Pamina – perhaps it was his eagerness which contributed to the men’s music being rushed ever so slightly) –  still, the voices blended nicely in the ensembles, nowhere more beautifully than in the “Three Boys” sequences (surely some of the most sublime music written by anybody!) sung by both the trio of women and the Tamino/Papageno duo, before the final “Lebt wohl” exchanges at the end.

All in all, a pleasure to report that these journeyings through fantastic lands were well worth the making.











Heavyweight opera composer-contenders put through their paces

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:  WAGNER : VERDI (1813-2013)

Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Overture – La forza del destino / Il corsaro – “Non so le tetre immagini” (Daniela-Rosa Cepeda)

Rigoletto – “Questa o quella” (Oliver Sewell) / Don Carlo – “O don fatale” (Elizabeth Harris)

Aida – Triumphal March from Act Two / Un ballo in maschera “Alla vita che t’arride” (Christian Thurston)

Il corsaro – Duet (Gulnara and Seid) from Act Three (Christina Orgias and Freddie Jones)

Il trovatore – “Tacea la notte” (Isabella Moore)

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Overture – Die Meistersinger / 5 Wesendonck-Lieder (Margaret Medlyn)

Das Rheingold – Donner’s Thunderclap / Entry of the Gods into Valhalla

Lohengrin – Prelude to Act Three (encore)

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

Kenneth Young (conductor)

Town Hall, Wellington

Tuesday 28th May, 2013

I remember recently reading a “rant” (oops! – pardon my alliteration!) from a columnist in some record magazine (which I don’t have enough money to subscribe to and therefore don’t have to hand, having probably borrowed the public library copy). The diatribe was against the “mad-headed observance” of composer anniversaries, of which there are a number falling within this year of grace 2013.

Without wishing to increase the readership of this person’s views by their wholesale repetition here (mercifully, I’ve forgotten some of the convolutions of the argument, in any case), I can nevertheless repeat (predictably) the basic point of the rant: why make a fuss of the birth/death of a composer whose music is already popular and doesn’t need extra exposure? – and why take the trouble of dredging up an anniversary of a lesser composer whose music is lesser-known because it probably deserves to be?

Now I know there’s a vein of human sensibility “out there” whose more extreme adherents blanch at the thought of observance of any kind of anniversary, birthdays, religious feasts, public holidays, the lot! It’s a point of view, and it obviously resonates to a greater or lesser extent within and along the connective tissues of certain people. But as Hamlet told Horatio in so many words, there’s more to anything than what any one person (or by extrapolation, any one group of people) thinks.

As far as composer-anniversaries go, many music-lovers welcome the focus on particular figures, especially if they happen to be favourite ones. As well, pieces of music aren’t supposed to be museum exhibits, static, inert, locked away, relating only to another time. Surely the point of a composer having written a body of music is to have it played and heard by other people! Aren’t anniversaries the perfect excuse for examining these works and the person who wrote them a little more closely and meaningfully?

A recent case in point was Schumann, whose orchestral works aren’t heard as often as I would like to hear them performed “live” (yes, I know the symphonies in particular are jolly difficult to do well, but…..?). So, what did the NZSO do during the recent (well, 2010) Schumann birth bicentenary year? – all of the Schumann symphonies? Wrong! – but for some reason the following year we got all of the Brahms Symphonies and Concertos!  Am I complaining? – No, but I was disappointed that the chance wasn’t taken by the NZSO to present Schumann’s far more innovative (if occasionally problematical) symphonic works to the public as well, the year before.

But wait! – before I begin inflicting pulpit-like polemic protestations of my own concerning this issue on unsuspecting readers, let me assure you that I’m all the time thinking of the Verdi/Wagner concert review I must write and needs must get on with THAT. Still, I don’t want anybody else spoiling my enjoyment of things in which I take great delight – and that includes hearing the music I want to listen to. So, as far as I’m concerned, bring on the anniversaries! – and DO something interesting relating to those composers and their music!


Here beginneth the review:

What excitement at the prospect of hearing the NZSM students tackling the music of two of the nineteenth century’s out-and-out “heavyweight” composers, Verdi and Wagner! “Chalk and cheese” might be the reaction of some people to the arrangement, but the composers were similar in that the work of each mirrored the other’s in terms of influence and impact upon both contemporary and future musical trends.

Of course their respective spheres of activity encompassed two markedly different musical traditions – Verdi’s was that of bel canto, while Wagner’s was largely instrumental – Verdi’s in song and melody, Wagner’s in the interaction between words and music. Wagner set about changing the image of opera as he saw it into his own likeness, a fusion of music, theatre and philosophy; whereas Verdi kept a human naturalness to the forefront in his works, tailoring his emotions and those of his characters to human feelings and their expression to sung melody.

How did the concert presented by the NZSM reflect the differences between the two composers and their music? One instantly apparent contrast was that the voice students sang only Verdi’s music. For youthful voices, Wagner’s vocal music has always been regarded as a danger-zone, with several brilliant but short-lived singing careers rueful testimony to any such reckless and ill-advised junge Sängerin explorations.

So, the evening’s Wagner singing was left to one of the best and most experienced in the business in this part of the world, NZSM’s Head of Classical Voice studies, Margaret Medlyn. I don’t remember when the composer’s Wesendonck-Lieder were last performed in Wellington, but the songs couldn’t have been more powerfully or sensitively presented than as here – though the orchestral playing under Kenneth Young had one or two slightly unsteady patches of ensemble (at the very end of the second song Stehe Still, for instance), its general feeling and spirit were of a piece with what the singer was doing at all times.

Only throughout  the opening measures of Im Treibhaus did I think the orchestral playing too insistent – the words speak of silence, mute-witness and barren emptiness, and the textures, I thought, needed more delicacy for the strange, ghostly world of the hothouse to have its full effect. Then, as the music unfolded and the singer’s voice evoked more of the enclosed ambience, the rapt stillness gradually came, drawing its veil over the playing. As for Margaret Medlyn, her phrasings beautifully pointed sequences such as that leading up to the words “Unsre Heimat ist nicht hier!”. So did her smile in the voice throughout the final “Träume” (Dreams) illuminate a sense of beauty and wonder in the music, supported by some lovely instrumental sounds.

The second half was all Wagner, beginning with the overture to Die Meistersinger, and finishing with the stirring Act Three Prelude to Lohengrin, music which always makes me think of footage of the Battle of Britain, with Spitfires and Hurricanes swooping, rolling and climbing throughout cloudy skies. The Meistersinger Prelude I thought a shade too businesslike and insufficiently “enjoyed” – Young’s very flowing tempo seemed to me to flatten out some of the textures and give the players insufficient space to make their phrases really “speak”, though he allowed the brass a nice rounded “moment” just before the first quiet string interlude, and did give the tuba enough space to relish his post-contrapuntal “trill”.

As well as the Lohengrin Prelude, into which the orchestra launched most excitingly at the concert’s end, there were a couple of exerpts (famously called “bleeding chunks” because they have to be “untimely ripp’d” from Wagner’s characteristic through-composed musical fabric) from the first of the “Ring” operas, Das Rheingold. The sequence began with the “Donner’s Thunderclap” music, here distinguished by what sounded like a real hammer striking a rock, and an overwhelmingly thunderous timpani roll from Larry Reese, who must have thought all his birthdays had come at once, being allowed to let rip like that!

Afterwards, came the resplendent rainbow bridge, before the scalpel predictably cut to the Rhinemaidens’ lament at losing their gold (one so misses the voices! – sorry – that just  slipped out!), and the ensuing grand processional of the Gods into Valhalla. Opportunities for orchestral players to take part in opera-house performances of this music are few – so one indulges the “bleeding chunks” idea for the sake of hearing Wagner’s music performed “live”, and for the pleasure of picking up on the enjoyment of the players.

The concert’s first half was a different world, one of bel canto mixed with volatile theatrical cut-and-thrust, trademarks of Giuseppe Verdi, Wagner’s Italian counterpart. The overture La forza del destino graphically illustrated the salient aspects of the Italian composer’s style – swift, terse dramatic strokes set alongside melodies crafted for human voices to sing in the time-honored manner, the whole integrated, interwoven and interactive. Though the performance could have had more of a “coiled spring” aspect at the start, the playing was alert and accurate throughout – and as the music proceeded everybody warmed to the task, the volcanic energies released and the big tunes given plenty of juice.

Seven of the NZSM’s voice-students presented arias or duets from a range of Verdi’s operas, beginning with an aria “Non so le tetre imagine” from the early work Il corsaro, due to be presented in full later in the year by the NZSM Opera. Here, the aria was sung by Daniela-Rosa Cepeda, with a bright, “feeling” voice, somewhat tremulous at the outset (perhaps partly due to nerves), but settling down and able to decorate the line on its reprise with some spirit. She was nicely supported by Ken Young and the orchestra, with passionate strings at the outset, and a beautifully-floated harp-led waltz-rhythm. Next was Oliver Sewell, with the well-known “Questa o quella” from Rigoletto, a stylish, agile performance, a bit breathless at the phrase-ends, but “knowing” of aspect and totally believable. Elizabeth Harris was next, with Eboli’s aria “O don fatale” from Don Carlo – strong singing, the line clearly focused, if a shade awkward in places. Her high notes were attacked with gusto, and if ungainly in effect, it all demonstrated she obviously had a sense of the whole and what was required.

For variety’s sakes we then heard an orchestral item (a “bleeding chunk”, no less, from a Verdi opera! ) – the Triumphal March from Aida. I am, truly, a great fan of Ken Young’s conducting, even if, occasionally, as here, I do find his direction very linear, almost to a fault at times (as also with the Meistersinger Prelude) – it seemed to me that everything here was subjected to a kind of onward flow, with almost no rhetorical underlinings or accentings of detail. While that approach really works well for some things, it does for me rob some music of a certain character, almost to the point of blandness at times. Thus here, I couldn’t help feeling we were being hustled along, and those brassy shouts and glorious ceremonial crashes went almost for nought amid the flow. I missed a sense of grandeur and spectacle about it all, despite the expert brass playing – the solo trumpets were terrific! – though what a pity that, for the famous “tune” the answering player wasn’t stationed somewhere else in the hall for an antiphonal effect…..just a thought…..

The singing took up again with Christian Thurston’s stylish and engaging performance of “Alla vita che t’arride” from Un ballo in maschera,  followed by a return to Il corsaro, with a duet from Act Three, sung by Christina Orgias and Freddie Jones. It didn’t seem to me very fair upon the soprano, as the duet’s weight seemed mostly shouldered by the baritone, throughout. Freddie Jones made the most of his opportunities with focused elegant tones at the start, though I felt his voice began to fray a little around its edges as time went on. I felt sorry for Christina Orgias as she seemed to have very little to do other than one-liner responses and a moment of briefly-extended expression of feeling towards the finish. Despite all, the singers creditably held the stage to the very end (odd, nevertheless, that this was the single duet in the programme).

Regarding the proceedings, it was a good thing that Isabella Moore’s stylish and confidently-projected “Tacea la notte” was placed last as it concluded the first half’s vocal contributions in grand style, the singer giving us sustained, emotion-filled soaring lines at the beginning, and then plenty of infectious energy and agility in the following cabaletta – a grand performance that fully deserved its accolades.

The concert represented, I thought, an impressive achievement from all concerned, but especially on the part of the student musicians – there were enough full-blooded, “heavyweight” challenges to test anybody’s mettle, and the musicians’ youthful energies and well-honed skills came splendidly to the fore,  for our considerable enjoyment.