Of music director Anthony Hunt’s devising, After Shakespeare searched into the quirkier, lesser-known byways of a large body of music that has been inspired by Shakespeare’s plays.
A worthy escapade it was, too, mainly on account of the rare opportunity to hear Gerald Finzi’s superb song cycle Let us Garlands Bring, with baritone Jeremy Tatchell joined by Hunt at the pianoforte.
Not that this music is anything like the blood-soaked drama of Macbeth. Finzi’s take on Shakespeare is of another dimension, more to do with the whims of love and nostalgia for the lost innocence of youth.
Beginning with “Come Away, Come Away, Death”, from Twelfth Night, these five songs are simply wonderful. Finzi is a superb writer for voice: he responds to poetry like Britten, finding intimate, secret rapture in Shakespeare’s text.
And what a joy and surprise to hear it done so well – the surprise being that this is art song, where trained opera singers need to own a different set of skills to do it well.
“If opera is intoxication, with its rituals and curtains, art song is mystery, nothing but a blind listening,” French writer André Tubeuf once observed.
Tatchell clearly knows all about this. His fixed intensity left behind all histrionics and opened up miniature worlds of meaning in each song.
Shut your eye and it all took on a heightened reality, from the love smitten “Come Away, Come Away, Death” and “Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun” (from Cymbeline), to the gleeful frolic of “O Mistress Mine” (Twelfth Night) and “It Was a Lover and His Lass” (As You Like It) – the latter describing a truly delightful picture of what young lovers get up to amid the hay bales in springtime.
Tatchell, moreover, possesses just the right interior darkness: his hooded tones even remind one of Bryn Terfel. A singer who otherwise takes supporting roles in larger opera productions (such as Voss and La Traviata last year), he really ought to be doing more of this kind of repertoire because he is so admirable at it.
Hunt, meanwhile, is the ideal accompanist. He has the ability to breathe and move in perfect synchronicity with the singer. Plus his pithy and unlaboured pianism lends a fresh immediacy to art song.
Let’s hear Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel and Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake from this marvellous pair of artists.
Desiree Frahn is more the opera singer when she moves into Lieder, but she has such a beautifully polished, expressive voice that such matters tend to recede into the distance. She sang two Shakespeare songs by Schubert, “An Sylvia” (from Two Gentlemen of Verona) and “Hark, Hark the Lark” (Cymbeline), with total charm. As if mesmerised by her gliding soprano, a flock of white cockatoos circled the gumtrees during the second song, right on cue.
UKARIA Cultural Centre really is the ideal setting for these utopian songs.
While many composers have clearly found inspiration in Shakespeare, the results are sometimes a little bizarre. Hearing Poulenc’s clunky setting of “Tell me where is fancy bred?” was proof of that, especially when paired with Britten’s altogether more fluent rendering of the same lines immediately afterwards.
Most curious of all was Shostakovich’s Song of Ophelia for soprano and cello, not least of all because the words are in Russian and take on a strangely desolate character. It seems Shakespeare triggered in Shostakovich feelings of the deepest despair.
Cellist Sharon Grigoryan was excellent in both this and another work that was even more off the beaten track, Ned Rorem’s After Reading Shakespeare for solo cello. This American composer (who died last year just short of turning 100) presents vivid little portrayals of various characters from the plays, and they offered another dimension of interest to this otherwise vocal program.
One item that stuck out like a proverbial sore thumb though was the final duet, Thomas Pasatieri’s Antony and Cleopatra. As Hunt explained to the audience, Pasatieri is probably better known as an orchestrator of such movies as American Beauty and The Little Mermaid than he is composer of more than 20 operas. This duet is not quite Hollywood, but it comes awfully close.
Never mind that blip. The State Opera crew have perhaps never shown more versatility than they did in this intriguing concert.
State Opera South Australia presented After Shakespeare at UKARIA Cultural Centre on August 26 as part of its 2023 Recital Series. The series also includes After Rachmaninov (October 21) and After Mozart (November 19).
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