Thursday 1 February 2024

Being themselves: the young artists of the National Opera Studio in Simple Gifts, a programme of song from across the globe at Wigmore Hall

2023/2024 young artists of the National Opera Studio at Glyndebourne
2023/2024 young artists of the National Opera Studio at Glyndebourne

Simple Gifts
: Schubert, Copland, Dora Pejačević, Chopin, Tosti, Gareth Glyn, Rui Zhang, Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, Brahms, Ravel, Sibusiso Njeza, Otilio Galindez, Tom Cipullo, Douglas Lilburn, William Walton; young artists of the National Opera Studio, Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 31 January 2024

Wonderfully engaging and committed performances in song that moved from celebrating Schubert's birthday to songs by Polish, Croatian, South African, Chinese, Welsh, American, Venezuelan, New Zealand composers

During their year studying, the young artists of the National Opera Studio are presented with a variety of performing challenges, not all of them operatic. On 31 January 2024 (Schubert's birthday), the young artists of the National Opera Studio had the challenge of being themselves, on the song recital stage, when they presented Simple Gifts - Songs from across the globe at Wigmore Hall. This featured sopranos Rosalind Dobson, Nikolina Hrkać, Kira Kaplan, Sofia Kirwan-Baez and Heming Li, mezzo-sopranos Georgia Mae Ellis, and Camilla Seale, tenors Robert Forrest and Rhydian Jenkins, baritones Jonathan Eyers and Aleksander Kaczuk-Jagielnik, and bass-baritone Smelo Mahlangu, accompanied by repetiteurs Johanna Kvam, Blanca Graciá Rodríguez and Jacob Swindells. The repertoire features songs by Schubert along with Copland, Dora Pejačević, Chopin, Tosti, Gareth Glyn, Rui Zhang, Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, Brahms, Ravel, Sibusiso Njeza, Otilio Galindez, Tom Cipullo, Douglas Lilburn, and William Walton. 

A theme running through many of the songs was belonging, and quite a few of the singers performed music by composers from their native country, thus giving the recital a rather more varied feel than usual. The programme was curated by Dearbhla Collins and Sholto Kynoch, who also prepared the young artists. We treated to a series of strong performances (all sung from memory), all confident and all committed to the music whatever the style. That some were singing in their native language for a change was clearly a bonus. The styles of performance varied, some singers are clearly destined for an opera-focused career whilst others were more at home in the idea of the small-scale intensity needed for fine lieder and song performances.

We began with Copland's Simple Gifts from his 1950 set of Old American Songs sung by Kira Kaplan (American) with Blanca Graciá Rodriguez. Kaplan was nicely communicative, with a strong personality allied to a rich, warm soprano voice. Schubert's Mignons Gesang 'Kenst du das Land?' followed from Georgie Mae Ellis and Rodriguez. Ellis combined a warm, rounded tone with fine German words, bringing poise to the song along with fine phrasing and strong emotions. Nikolina Hrkać (Croatian) with Rodriguez performed a song by Croatian composer Dora Pejačević (1885-1923). The moon is chasing the sun was an attractively late-romantic song sung with bright tone and a lovely line by Hrkać. The song was perhaps somewhat heart on sleeve, but Hrkać really committed to it. Chopin's songs remain a lesser-known part of his output. Aleksander Kaczuk-Jagielnik (Polish) and Rodriguez performed Wojak?(Before the battle) which Chopin wrote when he was still in Warsaw just before the 1830/31 Rising.  All about a soldier riding into battle, Kaczuk-Jagielnik gave a vividly vigorous performance, showcasing a positively thrilling, full-bodied voice that seems to be call out for Verdi in the future.

With Sir Francesco Paolo Tosti's Aimez quand on vous aime we had an English resident Italian setting French. This was a duet performed by Sofia Kirwan-Baez and Kaplan accompanied by Johanna Kvam. Both singers brought out plenty of charm with great style. This was sophisticated salon music, but written for serious voices and not a light option. A complete delight. Accompanied by Jacob Swindells, Rhydian Jenkins (Welsh) sang Llanrwst by Welsh composer Gareth Glyn (born 1951) setting a Welsh text by the composer's Father, the poet T. Glynne Davies. A slow, rather romantic piece where Jenkins and Swindells created a nice sense of atmosphere. Jenkins showed a fine lyric tenor voice in a big-boned performance that moved to a vibrant climax but ended with finely controlled, ravishing head-voice. Swindells then accompanied Heming Li (Chinese) in A Song by Chinese composer Rui Zhang (1920-2016) which intriguingly set a Chinese translation of Christina Rosetti's poem 'When I am dead my dearest'. Late romantic in style, it began almost on a monotone enlivened by short motifs that developed into a romantic climax, admirably projected by Li.

Camilla Seale and Kvam performed Debussy's Noel des enfants qui n'ont plus de maison. Seale has a lovely warm mezzo-soprano voice and projected the song with a great sense of character and urgency. There was an underlying fierceness and commitment to her performance (it is notable that the song was written in 1915). Dobson and Rodriguez returned with more of Schubert's Mignon, Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt. Dobson sang with a lovely sense of lyric melancholy, her approach quite gentle but with vibrant tone. Robert Forrest with Kvam gave us Schubert's Der Wanderer. Forrest sang with strong, dark tone and made an interesting, brooding hero supported by Kvam's throbbing piano. Forrest was very communicative and made fine use of the words and tonal colours, though his climaxes were positively operatic. Kaczuk-Jagielnik and Swindells returned with Richard Strauss' Zueignung. Kaczuk-Jagielnik sang with finely well-upholstered tone and great freedom. There was a nice evenness and control to his phrasing, yet he rose to fabulous climaxes.

Hrkać, Ellis, Jenkins and Jonathan Eyers were accompanied by Kvam and Rodriguez in three of Brahms' Liebesliedr Walzer. First a soprano/alto duet, all flashing eyes and vivid character, then a tenor/bass duet sung with well-upholstered tone and relaxed enjoyment, then all four in a delightful ensemble. I enjoyed the way the four vibrant voices combined in a relaxed ensemble.

Seale returned with Kvam for Ravel's Kaddisch from his Deux melodies hebraiques. Sung in Hebrew, this began almost unaccompanied and Seale's performance took us a long way from art song. The result was profoundly haunting in a performance that was beautifully sung, rather moving and completely apposite.

Smelo Mahlangu (South African) with Swindells performed Wamuhle mzantzi Africa (You're beautiful South Africa) by  South African composer Sibusiso Njeza (born 1982). This was a vibrant, big-hearted performance full of expansive phrases and highly communicative. The song clearly means something to Mahlangu, and he communicated that enjoyment to us. Sofia Kirwan-Baez (Anglo-Venezuelan) accompanied by Swindells sang Caramba by Venezuelan composer Otilio Galindez (1935-2009). Kirwan-Baez brought a haunting sense of melancholy to the song, underpinned by a constant sense of the dance rhythms in Swindells' piano.

Kaplan and Kvam returned with Crickets from the cycle Late Summer by American composer Tom Cipullo (born 1956). Written in a sort of free, lyric arioso, it moved gradually from a character piece to strong drama, as Cipullo reflected the subtle but important underlying message of the words, finely captured by Kaplan and Kvam. We then moved to New Zealand with Eyers who, accompanied by Kvam, sang Holiday piece by Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001), the New Zealand composer who studied with Vaughan Williams. It was a vivid arioso, with Eyers bringing a great sweep to the vocal lines with Kvam's piano providing rhythmic support, all leading to a vibrant climax at the end.

Dobson and Rodriguez returned with William Walton's Rhyme from A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table, a piece which is dazzling, delightful and tricky. Both performers negotiated it with great aplomb, and Dobson's performance conveyed the sheer joy she found in the work, vivid and full of character.

We ended with Schubert. First, Li and Forrest in the duet Licht und Liebe accompanied by Swindells. First Forrest in a strongly projected performance that veered towards the operatic, then Li singing with rich lyric line, and finally the two in duet, finely matching each other. Then Jenkins and Swindells in Im Abendrot, with Jenkins singing with lovely line and tone, matched by his care for the words.

Throughout, Johanna Kvam, Blanca Graciá Rodriguez and Jacob Swindells accompanied with aplomb, moving between styles and playing musical chairs with a nice deftness. All the singers committed wonderfully to the music, whatever the style and whether the piece was well-known or not, we were engaged by their complete sense of communication and by their engaging with the challenge of being themselves on the song recital stage, rather than hiding behind an operatic character.

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