English soprano Susan Bullock and Australian repetiteur and conductor Stephen Mould presented an intimate performance of art song with a varied program combining well-known and less known songs by celebrated composers: Italian songs by Franz Schubert, Richard Wagner’s Wesendonk-Lieder, a group of Richard Strauss favourites, French mélodies by Franz Liszt and four English songs by Roger Quilter. This concert, presented by the Melbourne Recital Centre in association with Opera Australia, is a foretaste of Susan Bullock’s forthcoming performance in the role of Katerina Ismailova in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Dmitri Shostakovich with Opera Australia.
After warming up with the Schubert, Susan Bullock delivered the Wesendonk-Lieder with smooth resonance of tone and interpretative understanding. The audience had waited with anticipation to hear the Wesendonk-Lieder, which are rarely performed in Australia. The singer’s clarity of diction left no word or syllable unclear or lost and no translation was needed for those who could follow the German language. The tessitura and line of Wagner’s phrasing allowed this dramatic soprano to display the entire fullness and beauty of her voice.
There was much to be desired in the interpretation of the Strauss Lieder both vocally and visually. The attempt to portray the comic boredom of Schlechtes Wetter was superficial.
The Liszt songs were executed with tenderness and sensitivity. Acoustic balance was achieved in Comment, disaient-ils, where the chords of the accompaniment were perfectly timed with the vocal overtones’ movement in the hall.
The Roger Quilter songs were the climax of the performance. This master of English art song is often underrepresented in concert programs. Fittingly, the artists dedicated the performance to Richard Hickox (former musical director of Opera Australia, who passed away in November 2008), honouring his love for and promotion of English music. The songs included Fair House of Joy and Bliss, Dream Valley and Autumn Evening, finishing with Quilter’s most popular song Love’s Philosophy. The interpretation of this group was noticeable with accurate communication of all moods and nuances inherent in text and music. The encores were lavish, especially Elisabeth’s greeting to the hall of song ‘Dich, teure Halle, grüss’ ich wieder’ from the second act of Tannhäuser by Wagner, which the artists devoted to the new Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.
Stephen Mould accompanied with warmth and sensibility. His accompaniment technique needs more lightness of touch and perfection of balance in the weaker parts of the voices, in this case, the low range of the soprano.
The acoustics of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall are so natural that the smallest imperfections stand exposed. Thus, the acoustics favoured only Susan Bullock’s focused tone. Her stage presence could be greatly enhanced by deeper reflection upon the emotional states and images illustrated by the text and music, which would in turn inform a natural visual presence through body gestures and facial expression. The performance of the Quilter songs, where Susan Bullock was most natural and animated visually, exemplifies the above process. Like many opera divas, she tends to display equal arms with bent elbows and equal hands in front of her stomach and, awkwardly, she had to hold them twice for a prolonged period of time, during the postludes of No. 2 and No. 5 of the Wesendonk-Lieder for instance. Beautiful static poses rely on body asymmetry and are exemplified in classical art from which actors and singer-actors can derive inspiration. Contemporary audiences are visually savvy and demand not only natural beauty of tone but also natural beauty of visual presence.
Melbourne Recital Centre In association with Opera Australia presents
Venue: Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre
Date/Time: 7:30 p.m, Friday March 27, 2009