Where oh where do I even start to begin? I have ten thousand things to say, and all of them want said immediately, but clearly that's impossible: so we'll just proceed at a leisurely, chronological pace, shall we?
There were no performances to attend on Wednesday, my first full day in Auckland, so I spent it shopping. Yes, that kind of shopping. I started at one end of Queen St., with Real Groovy, faced the Borders monster at lunchtime, and spent a leisurely mid-afternoon at the beautiful Marbecks classical store. I bought fourteen CDs in about four hours. Apparently that's quite a lot. (I suppose it is. I bought twenty one in three weeks in Melbourne. But never mind.) Anyway, I've got fourteen lovely new children now. An Yvonne compilation, her English songs, her Christmas CD, Kalman's Csardasfürstin and Lennox Berkeley's A Dinner Engagement, in both of which she stars; the incomparable Véronique Gens' Berlioz CD; Isabel Bayrakdarian's CD of Pauline Viardot-Garcia songs (somebody picked up my telepathic vibes!); Renata, Birgit,
Franco Jussi & co in Turandot; Debbie Voigt's Obsessions ($12 thankyou very much!); Cecilia's Armida under lovely Nikolaus Harnoncourt; Arcadian Duets (you were right about the cadenza Gregory!); Elisabeth Schwarzkopf having her way with Mozart Lieder; Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Bach Cantatas; and Les fantaisies de Patricia Petibon which you- yes all of you- need to own.
I could pay quite lengthy tribute here to the classical CD stores/sections of Auckland (particularly the wonderful man who served me at Marbecks, who I had fabulous discussions with about all my purchases) but I know that 99.9% of you couldn't care less, so let's move on...
The Lexus Song Quest.
Madeleine Pierard Is A Star. Duparc's Chanson triste was gorgeous. One of the few moments I was able to forget that it was a competition and just think about enjoying the music (while the tears welled up, that is). 'Parto, parto' was brilliantly executed and seriously good. But the clincher was 'Una voce poco fa. The radio is a deceitful harridan in whom I shall never place another ounce of trust. Some might remember, I was not as impressed as I wanted to be with Madeleine's 'Una voce' as it sounded in the broadcast. On stage on Thursday night it was a LIGHTNING BOLT. Or rather, a whole electrical storm full of 'em. My exact thoughts while she was singing? [Insert expletive here]. Beautiful beautiful sound, incredible agility, wonderful characterisation and some simply impossible decorations. When she finished, there was thunderous applause, foot-stomping, and shouts - among them my own first ever brava. The feeling in the hall was unbelievable: we could all feel she'd won. Which, thank God, she had. It was a close competition, to be sure, but there's absolutely no doubt she was The Winner.
Second place went to Allison Cormack: more proof of the evils of radio. Allison's place in the finals was, if I'm honest, that which surprised me most, based on the broadcasts. But in person: my god. 'Wie Melodien zieht es mir', which sounded fine but nothing more to me on radio, was just mouth-wateringly gorgeous. And 'Senza mamma' - which I can't get through dry-eyed anyway - just about did me in. Until someone comes up with a more appetising adjective, we'll have to settle for creamy-voiced, I suppose. In terms of sheer gorgeousness of sound, I think I'd rate Allison above everyone else who sang. She well and truly deserved her second-placing: and the thought of the good which the cash and the scholarships she's won will do for her singing has me very excited indeed - it wouldn't surprise me one bit if she turned up in the 2007 Song Quest and blows everyone off the stage.
Third went, predictably enough, to Jamie Frater. I was basically unimpressed by Jamie on radio but was assured he was much better in person, so willing to give him a chance. And yes, he was much better. It's clear he's totally at home on stage: his apparent lack of nerves was quite comforting to see, and I enjoyed all his fooling about while he sang Ravel's Chanson à boire. But still, that little something extra seems missing, for me at least. 'But who may abide' from Messiah was fine but, you know, it is Handel after all: even when it's oratorio, if you treat it right, it can be an experience and not just an aria. The aria from Eugene Onegin was, I imagine, his best moment. Thankfully our illustrious and beautiful adjudicator was listening with objective, judge-like ears, and able to tell. As for me, I was still recovering from Madeleine's 'Una voce', which Jamie had the bad luck to come immediately after.
Among the unplaced finalists, I think my favourite was probably our Dunedin girl, Penelope Muir. Penelope had the unenviable task of being the very first singer of the night, singing 'Die junge Nonne', and coped superbly. There were some slight nerves I think, but they were more evident in her hands (I was in the second row) than in her singing - it was excellent. Rusalka's Song to the Moon was likewise lovely, and Monica's waltz was sounding absolutely brilliant. By this time I think Penelope was much happier to be onstage: in any case it certainly came across that way, and the Menotti aria was the highlight of her programme. Robert Tucker, another Otago graduate, was sigh-inducingly lovely as ever. 'An die Leier' was wonderful, Pierrot's Tanzlied from Die Tote Stadt just unfairly gorgeous - but my favourite, I'll admit, was 'Miei rampolli feminini' from La Cenerentola. It was a good night for Rossini! Robert's as natural a comedian as a singer, it seems, and the Cenerentola aria was hilarious. And at the same time, beautifully sung - no mean feat. And finally, Joanna Heslop. Joanna was not at all as I expected, really. She obviously knows what she's doing, and she had some flashes of brilliance. But there were some rather less than attractive high notes, and the Rachmaninoff song which, given she's living and studying in Russia, she must surely be able to magnificent things with, somehow failed to inspire. The ability, however, is clearly present; and she's had some serious successes overseas already, so here's hoping the best is yet to come.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.
Right. So, honestly, I could have survived if her speech at the end of the Song Quest, and her announcement of the winners, had been all I ever got to see of the DIVINE Grace Bumbry. The words of wisdom, the beautiful speaking voice, the fabulous dress and those wonderful red fingernails: all this, I tell you, would have kept me going for the rest of my life. But no. It didn't stop there. Last night, we had the masterclass. Two and a half hours spent just metres from the Woman Herself, as she praised, criticised, advised and demonstrated the art of singing to five incredibly fortunate singers. And of course, to us, her adoring public, as well. This, believe me, was Heaven on Earth; and if we'd all been Tannhäuser, we'd simply never have even bothered wanting to leave our Venus.
The class started at 7pm. We arrived at 6.20, and not a moment too soon. There was no allocated or reserved seating, and the crowd behind us grew and grew. But when the doors opened, we were among the first through. And I triumphed with the seating: there was no closer seat to La Grace than mine, I'm certain. At times I think I was closer than the singers. Even before she arrived, though, I had an almost-brush with celebrity- or at least, I might have. The man sitting beside us overheard me saying I had 'O don fatale' in my head. He leaned over and said 'I can tell you a story about that aria and Grace Bumbry'. And proceeded to tell me how he sat in on the recording sessions for Georg Solti's Don Carlo - during which Grace, having caught a bit of a cold, was promptly flown off to the Bahamas to recover. I should think so! When he went on to list the cast, my head was in my hands: Renata, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Carlo Bergonzi, Nicolai Ghiaurov... But unfortunately there was no interval, and I never had the chance to ask this gentleman how in the world he came to be sitting in on the recording sessions. From the comments he was making during the masterclass, it was obvious he was seriously knowledgeable: I do wish I knew who/what he was!
The class itself was one of the greatest experiences of my life and, I'm sure, exactly what a good masterclass should be. Ms Bumbry (oh I'm so besotted..) was gracious and gentle, but straightforward and honest as well. Never vague, never hurtful: she just spotted the problems and did something very meaningful towards remedying them. It's the most incredibly brave thing that these singers were doing, getting up in front of hundreds of people and Grace Bumbry to be picked over, and I'm sure it was more than a little nerve wracking - particularly for those who weren't finalists, and thus hadn't already had opportunities to work with Grace in the week before. Nevertheless, there was no reason why any one of them should have gone home upset or disheartened, and the improvement in each was marked. Except, perhaps, Robert Tucker: Grace suggested one change in his aria from Billy Budd, and worked with him on a couple of early phrases from Pierrot's Tanzlied, but further than that had no criticisms, no improvements to make: Robert, it seems, is wonderful all on his own. Suspected as much.
But even better than the pearl after pearl of wisdom dropping from the lips of Amazing Grace (and believe me, there were many of those) were the demonstrations. Believe me, at 67, the voice is still one hundred percent there. As talented as all the singers were, it was the little snippets of Grace which thrilled me the most. In just a moment of two of singing, you could hear all the beauty and richness of sound so abundantly evident in her recordings. And there was the added treat of hearing her sing outside of her repertoire: phrases from 'Deh vieni' for instance: where else would you ever get to hear that? She is, no question about it, A Goddess. Perhaps even THE Goddess. I could have sat and listened and watched the maestra at work for another three hours. For days, weeks even. She truly is a wondrous person.
I got to hold a door open for her too. My one and only brush with greatness. But I cherish the (vain, no doubt) hope of crossing paths during the brief time she's here in Dunedin. And I can't believe I actually get to watch another masterclass. Surely such bliss is illegal. Or immoral at least. I hope the Dunedin singers who get to work with her on Monday realise (I'm sure they do) just how lucky they are to have such an opportunity. I can't wait to see the further miracles which she shall unquestionably work.