Thursday, 30 March 2017

A glimpse of work in progress: the National Opera Studio at Rhinegold Live

The current young artists at the National Opera Studio (Photo Malcolm Johnson)
The current young artists at the National Opera Studio (Photo Malcolm Johnson)
Operatic excerpts; National Opera Studio; Rhinegold Live at Conway Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Mar 27 2017
Star rating: 3.5

Ruth enjoys performances by young singers at the start of their journeys

This was a mid-term showcase from the current cohort at the National Opera Studio: four of its singers, Caroline Modiba (soprano), Laura Zigmantaite (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Doody (tenor), Benjamin Lewis (baritone), and two pianists, Frederick Brown & Edmund Whitehead, in a short programme of operatic excerpts by Strauss, Verdi, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Gounod, Bizet, Puccini, Sullivan, Lehar, Gershwin, and Bernstein under the Rhinegold Live banner at Conway Hall on Monday 27 March 2017. The evening was introduced by one of the Studio’s first alumni, David Gowland, now Head of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, and followed by a short Q&A, chaired by Rhinegold’s Ash Khandekar, discussing the transition from conservatoire to the world of work.

Rather than using the Conway Hall stage, the performers and the beefy Bösendorfer (on loan from Markson’s) were on a low riser on the floor in front of the closed curtain. It brought them eyeball-to-eyeball with the audience – one of the skills a modern opera singer needs to learn, according to Gowland. They each introduced a group of arias or ensembles, in a charming style that assumed the audience knew the repertoire – which they did: “Not a very original programme,” said my neighbour. Nobody strayed very far from the Schirmer aria anthologies, which made it hard for the audience to listen with new ears.

After the Champagne Trio from Die Fledermaus each of the singers gave what I assume are their party pieces: Benjamin Lewis showed us a potential Verdi voice with ‘Eri tu’ and, in a complete change of mood, mezzo Laura Zigmantaite, a very timid prince tucked into the bow of the piano and clinging on, gave a very still ‘Scherza infida’ but if she had figured out the character’s journey through to the da capo it didn’t come across. Tenor Joe Doody demonstrated an impressive technique and great top in his Comte Ory showpiece and then Caroline Modiba, totally secure and captivating as Juliette. Lewis gave us a relative rarity from Edgar and Doody more bel canto in ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ – lovely.

They all sang in Italian better than the other languages. The English diction was hard to follow and the French on the whole unidiomatic. This is the generation that has come out of school (certainly in the UK) with no real notion of how to learn a foreign language and, as singers, how to make an audience believe they are living it. Very worrying for home-grown opera singers’ international careers.

The ensembles freed up the singers and provided opportunities for a conversation on stage. Warm props, as opposed to the actual prop, which was how the piano was used. I personally don’t mind a bit of judicious piano-leaning but I don’t like piano-clutching. ‘Là ci darem la mano’ was the first such conversation and the duet version of the ‘Séguédille’ came across well: vocally, Doody might not be a Don José, but he captured his indecision and confusion (that’s a compliment!).

Both pianists demonstrated an understanding of the various styles of the music and the needs of the singers. I did feel the singers would have benefited from some input from a director – not to tell them what to do but to get them to think about their character. It is hard to switch a character on at a moment’s notice.

But that’s what NOS is all about – taking responsibility for one’s own identity as an artist. As David Gowland pointed out in the Q&A, they are learning how to cope with travelling, being alone as well as fitting into companies large and small.

“Brown shoes??!!” hissed my neighbour. Let’s hope they learn what works sartorially on the recital platform too. It was great to see these musicians at this stage in their journeys.

Caroline Modiba (soprano)
Laura Zigmantaite (mezzo-soprano)
Joseph Doody (tenor)
Benjamin Lewis (baritone)
Frederick Brown (répétiteur)
Edmund Whitehead (répétiteur)

Strauss: ‘Champagne Trio’ from Die Fledermaus
Verdi: ‘Eri tu’ from Un ballo in maschera
Handel: ‘Scherza infida’ from Ariodante
Mozart: ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni
Rossini: ‘Que les destins prospères’ from Le Comte Ory
Gounod: ‘Je veux vivre’ from Roméo et Juliette
Bizet: ‘Seguidilla’ from Carmen
Puccini: ‘Questo amor, vergogna mia’ from Edgar
Donizetti: ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from L’elisir d’amore
Mozart: ‘Il core vi dono’ from Così fan tutte
Sullivan: ‘Take a pair of sparkling eyes’ from The Gondoliers
Lehár: ‘Da geh’ich zu Maxim’ from The Merry Widow
Gershwin: ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess
Bernstein: ‘Make our garden grow’ from Candide

Elsewhere on this blog:

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