Saturday, October 26, 2013

SLO's Verdi Gala in Review

I had a very enjoyable time at the Verdi Gala. Much of the evening's success is due to the competently supported by the SLO orchestra led by Darrell Ang, which produced a warm and lean sound that it is expressive without overwhelming the singers. The singers are all seasoned professionals, though some took to the Verdi idiom better than others.

Of the programme, given the many hits that Verdi had composed for both amateur listeners and connoisseurs, a wishlist for such a programme could potentially be endless and impossible to please. Friends I spoke to all had different ideas of how the programme should have went. Nonetheless the team has struck a good balance between the rare and popular, and a good balance between choral, orchestra, solo and ensembles  excerpts. So one gets to hear bits of Nabucco, Attila, Luisa Miller, Macbeth and Un Ballo in Maschera, as well as a healthy dose of excerpts from La Traviata (which the company doesn't seem to get enough of, ending with the ubiquitous Brindisi and then offering it again as an encore).

Of the singers, Australian tenor Jason Wasley had a robust, bright lyric tenor sound. If high notes are occasionally tight, cracking on a high note in the Rigoletto quartet, the sound is pleasant, even and packs quite a punch. Baritone Christopher Hiller has an infectiously energetic stage presence, though his voice, a warm sound with expressive dark hues and steady on high notes, crucially lacked resonance in this large hall. His rum-tum aria from Attila was a highlight of the programme, which he milked in full effect with his physical acting. He also showed the most chemistry with his co-stars in the final Brindisi, and egging the crowd on to sing and clap along.

Anna Koor's warm lyric mezzo is always a pleasure to hear, but one may expect to hear more robust, fuller voices in mezzos singing Verdi. I wish she had better showpieces that showed of her strengths, instead of Fenena's short aria from Nabucco and the campy incidental song Rataplan from Forza, but she handled the latter's brief coloratura passage well, even if she didn't quite inhibit her cabaret-dancing gypsy character.

My big takeaway from the evening is that Jessica Chen is a singer of true prima-donna quality. The voice is big, full and even; Ecco l'orrido campo from Un Ballo in Maschera showed off her resonant, evenly produced chest register, where most of the aria lies, and she manages to chirp coloratura passages with the best canaries in the Rigoletto quartet (although without the final interpolated high note). She showed fine musicianship and true inner pathos in Pace, pace mio Dio; while she did not quite float the voice in the way that many other sopranos do in this aria, she nonetheless expressed the serene quality that Verdi so magnificently constructed with its lilting harp solos. I left longing to see her more in leading opera roles.

Strange that the men of the chorus had the night off, but it was nice to hear the ladies perform the opening Witches Chorus from Macbeth, one of my favourite operas of all time. If only the company would do another production of this haunting opera, seeing that the last time they did it resulted in a sold out the Victoria Theatre back in 2001!

Another highlight that I enjoyed most is the energetic, enthusiastic playing of the overture to I Vespri Sicilliani, Verdi's early style that inspired Rossini to call him a military band leader has such a catchy beat that one can't help but tap one's feet along. Despite some intonation problems with the brasses, the orchestra played with such detail and expressiveness that one is simply swept away by it.

The final two performances of Brindisi I could do without, but if it gets the rest of the crowd cheering and ending the night with a standing ovation, then who am I to complain?

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