In addition to the many fine performances brought to us by Melbourne Digital Concert Hall from their home at the Athenaeum Theatre, a number of have been brought to us via satellite from afar. As yet, none have been as distant as the Australian Embassy in Berlin. Siobhan Stagg’s rise to stardom in the operatic world has met with universal acclaim as have her appearances on the a concert platform. Her Berlin Soirée attracted a sizeable international audience keen to hear her and provide financial assistance to the arts community; all of her ticket proceeds went to the Arts Wellbeing Collective at Arts Centre Melbourne to support colleagues in need.
Siobhan Stagg’s connection to Australia was further emphasised by the inclusion of a world première by an Australian composer in a program of works virtually exclusively by French composers. Dermot Tutty’s Listen lay at the heart of the recital both literally and metaphorically. In his program note, one that seems to summarise what so many of us are experiencing, Tutty described the impetus for his work:
“During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself listening to the thoughts and concerns of various musician friends. Their suddenly changed circumstances had caused many artists to reassess their lives, their purpose, their future. A gifted performer expressed to me that during this period, they had reached a deeper understanding of the profound importance to their lives of their audience. You can sing in the shower, or even play in an empty hall. However, this is far from the communal spiritual experience that music has become for me; the art of creating magic with the air, inside a space where the air is shared with the breath of an audience of supportive, caring live listeners. Then, in recent weeks, a filmed violent death in a far-away country, sparked further conversation with friends. Now, we were discussing the concern that has always seemed to me like the great unfinished business of the Great Southern Land – the plight of our First Peoples. This song lies somewhere in the midst of these converstions.”
The lyrics of Listen echo these sentiment – sentiments we undoubtedly share as we explore new ways of living during dislocated times. Before singing, Stagg read Tutty’s lyrics in measured eloquence, giving listeners an opportunity to absorb meaning and enter more fully into the spirit of the song. The simple piano accompaniment, played with sympathetic expressiveness by Kunal Lahiry mirrored Stagg’s performance. Beginning, almost ballad-like with an appealing melodic line, the focus of attention was on the words, and even more so as the piano gradually withdrew for the contemplative stillness of “I long for the other silence/ Listen…/ How I long for the other silence” before building to a climactic “The sharing of our deeper selves/ From heart to heart”. The song was written specifically for Stagg by a composer with an intimate knowledge of her voice and musical gifts over many years. Shifting beween story-telling, yearning meditation and surging emotional cry, her voice was the perfect vehicle for this arresting work.
It would also be difficult to find a more persuasive interpreter of the rest of the program. The recital began with the only other work by a non-French composer, “O quand je dors” by Liszt, while the rest of the program comprised mélodies by Hahn, Fauré, Debussy and Lili Boulanger and a final “party piece” encore flourish of “Les filles de Cadiz” by Delibes; interesting choices – especially with the juxtaposition of two versions of “Mandoline”, by Fauré then Debussy, and the three songs from Boulanger’s song cycle Clairières dans le ciel. These were particularly welcome as they are not often performed. A stately “Elle est gravement gaie”, “Parfois je suis triste” (with its demanding range that included a superbly sung high, sustained pianissimo), and “Au pied de mon lit” provided dramatic contrasts. In his introduction to the piano solo that followed, Kunal Lahiry spoke about the ambiguous nature of Debussy’s popular “L’isle joyeuse”, account enabling listeners to hear more clearly the shouts of joy among the gorgeous rippling haze of his playing. Of the second set of nine works that enclosed Tutty’s “Listen”, Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées (complete) was the most substantial.
All works on the program were sung with supreme control, beautifully shaped phrasing, spot-on intonation and an excellent French accent. Furthermore, Siobhan Stagg’s voice has a rare individual beauty with an expansive bloom at the top of the range. She revels – and excels – in ecstatic outpouring with a special radiance that combines simplicity and rapturous generosity. She seems to hover on the edge of the restraint that is, by tradition, required of singers of mélodies and is always an involved, exciting performer.
It is fortunate that Siobhan Stagg also possesses physical beauty as the camera seemed almost to devour her at times. There were many close-ups of her face, and some panning of her red lace gown when the text seemed to offer an opportunity. Although there was the occasional frustration of the camera moving just when you wanted it to remain fixed (pretty well inevitable in any filmed performances nowadays) the high definition camera work with its sophisticated dissolves enhanced the experience for viewers.
An important bonus from Berlin Soirée was meeting the Australian Ambassador to Germany – Berlin, Her Excellency, Ms Lynette Wood, who charmed us with her warm welcome.
Heather Leviston reviewed Berlin Soirée, presented by Melbourne Digital Concert Hall in partnership with the Australian Embassy Berlin and Culiner Creative Circle, on June 24, 2020.