At last, at last: the first four semi-finalists in this year's Lexus Song Quest were broadcast on Concert FM last night. There are four more tonight, then the last four next Wednesday; the finalists are announced the following night. It's all terribly exciting. Nerve-shattering, I'm sure, for the singers involved (especially since it's been about four months since they made the recordings which are being broadcast). But wonderful fun nevertheless.
First up was Paloma Bruce, a Wellington soprano who also made the semi-finals of the 2002 Song Quest. I can't remember (tellingly, perhaps) what her first item was; we then had two arias: 'Donde lieta' from La Bohème, and Olympia's aria from Les contes d'Hoffman. It's certainly a very pretty voice, but sadly we didn't seem to get much past prettiness. The first item - the one I've forgotten - sounded at moments as if it was being sung by an incredibly talented twelve year old, not a grown-up soprano. And while all the notes - even the highest ones - were in place for the two arias, both were sung like vocal exercises and nothing more. I understand that Olympia's aria is an incredible technical challenge - but given the apparent ease with which she coped with those technical difficulties, I would have thought her capable of giving the aria a little more sparkle and life. 'Donde lieta' reminded me of primary school, when students would be asked to read aloud, and would proceed to recite the text in a monotone, ignoring punctuation and stopping at the end of every line, regardless of the meaning of the sentence. None of her singing was unpleasant or bad, but it was almost entirely lacking in personality. It's possible this had as much to do with the recording conditions as anything else - if she gets to the final we might see a very different kind of singer on stage.
After Paloma, we had James Rodgers, a tenor from Blenheim. We began with "Total eclipse" from Handel's Samson. I'd never heard this one before, and I don't think its piano reduction does it any favours: it sounded more like 20th century British art song than Baroque oratorio. In fact it wasn't until James' third and final item that I really took notice: Lensky's aria from Eugene Onegin was absolutely gorgeous.
Next up, Madeleine Pierard, musical jack-of-all-trades (singer, composer, pianist) and currently gloriously zwischenfach. Strauss' 'Ich trage meine Minne' was her first and best item, sung beautifully and delicately and with a true sense of Straussian style. Then we had part of a cantata by Carissimi, whose title I can't remember. (I recorded all of this, but the tape is at home and I am currently elsewhere.) There were some slight issues with the highest notes and with the relentless coloratura; but these really were only trivial matters: the voice is so naturally engaging that the odd technical misstep is more than compensated for. However, Madeleine's final aria, 'Una voce poco fa' was not, in my opinion, the best or most flattering choice she could have made. The coloratura was noticeably slowed down, and she just never seemed quite comfortable with what she was singing. She does, however, have a lower register to die for...
And finally, we had Robert Tucker, a Dunedin baritone, who came along and blew everyone out of the water. I thought he might. I've heard Robert quite a few times over the last couple of years, and every time he seems to be better and better. This was no exception. He sang Schubert's 'An die Leier', Finzi's 'Come away Death' and 'Piff paff pouf' from Offenbach's La grande duchesse de Gérolstein. I've already heard Robert sing all three of these multiple times: but I was still bowled over, and utterly enchanted. The Schubert and Finzi would, I'm certain, have been the envy of many a more established lieder singer; the Offenbach, well, it needs to be heard (and preferably seen) to be fully appreciated. Robert isn't just a fabulous singer, he's a brilliant comedian as well, and every time I've seen him perform 'Piff paff pouff', I've been left helpless with laughter. And now, happily, the whole country will have the chance to see him perform it: because I'll eat my hat and anybody else's if he doesn't make it to the final. What a star.