Songmakers Australia: Mediterranean Feast

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Published: 3rd May, 2019

Adding a note of domestic intimacy, the Persian carpet had been rolled out in the Primrose Potter Salon for Songmakers Australia’s “Mediterranean Feast”. The menu comprised an appetising array of well-known and much less familiar works by Gioacchino Rossini, Pauline Viardot, Jules Massenet, Joaquin Turina and Michael Costa.

In keeping with Rossini’s reputation as a gourmet of some renown (he was a close friend of Carême, regarded as the culinary genius of the century) the one-hour program not only opened and closed with his offerings, but also contained a substantial serving in the form of Les amants de Seville along the way.

Andrea Katz entered the darkened Salon to play the extended perky opening of La Passeggiata alone at the keyboard, but was soon joined by soprano Merlyn Quaife and tenor Brenton Spiteri, who strolled in together from the main entrance while mezzo-soprano Christina Wilson emerged from the opposite entrance accompanied by bass-baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos. This was the beginning of a concert where a sense of playfulness was a dominant ingredient. The refrain of the final verses: “cantiamo, sì cantiam” (let’s sing, yes, let’s sing!) was an enthusiastic foretaste of what was to come. Whether singing solo or in the various combinations allowed by the four voices, every work offered something to delight.

Several pieces were presented with tongue firmly in cheek, as the singers had fun with the sentiments and each other. Certain exaggerations of style and dramatic intention, however, never disturbed the balance of the voices; satisfying moments when timbre, pitch and volume were in perfect harmony abounded. All four have the capacity for the vocal projection demanded by opera along with the ability to spin the softest honeyed pianissimos. Quaife and Wilson blended beautifully in Viardot’s duet Habanera in addition to negotiating florid passages with precision. Although the point of view of the text is male, the duet is generally sung by females; nowadays any such incongruities have become commonplace – it’s a matter of bringing it off, which these two singers did with a combination of humour and vocal ease. Spiteri and Wilson brought the same qualities to Rossini’s Les amants de Seville, which followed, reveling in the expressive opportunities afforded by Rossini’s engaging celebration of love.

The mood developed a somewhat more serious flavour with Massenet’s Chanson des bois d’Amarante. A consistently involved singer, Dinopoulos watched as the trio embarked on the undulating rhythms of the first of the cycle’s five songs about the joys of nature and the pains of love, ending with a very lovely soft “pour moi, pour toi”. The unaccompanied third song for the quartet was a study in finely blended harmony as were the female duetting echoes in the fourth song. With drama along the way and a final elevating flourish, this was a work that rivaled Rossini’s in terms of enjoyment and accessibility.

With Turina’s Poemma en forma de canciones came a substantial helping of Spanish passion and Spiteri was just the tenor to deliver it with suitable Mediterranean fire. A cycle of four songs, it begins with “Dedication” for solo piano. Unmistakably Spanish in idiom, it was invested with Latin spirited colour by Andrea Katz. I doubt that Spiteri, or anybody else for that matter, could have poured more emotional intensity into these splendid songs as he nudged the extremes of his vocal powers while never pushing beyond his considerable technical limits. Of the many gratifying discoveries that this program had to offer, this song cycle struck me as the most remarkable.

Katz introduced the penultimate work, Costa’s charming Perche due cori insieme, reminding listeners that this Italian-born conductor and composer had been responsible for transforming Covent Garden into the opera house we know. She also suggested the final Rossini item: Ridiamo, cantiamo, che tutto s’en va, might have been written when he was very, very drunk one night. There is much in its the text and the catchy tune to support this. By the end I would have been only too happy to join in the singing with a glass in my hand and a spring in my step – Rossini’s “Sins of Old Age” make exhilarating company.

That this program was finally assembled in a matter of a couple of days is an astonishing tribute to the musical talent and outstanding professionalism of all involved. Thanks to Andrea Katz, her Songmakers team and guest artist Brenton Spiteri we had a feast of bel canto, stylish interpretation, technical virtuosity from one and all and lots of fun. This is a program that deserves to be repeated many times.

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 Heather Leviston reviewed “Mediterranean Feast” presented by Songmakers Australia in the Melbourne Recital Centre, Primrose Potter Salon on May 1, 2019.