My new concert strategy — cultivate low expectations. Tonight I went to Opera Australia's "Christmas at the House", expecting to endure boredom and/or sappy family concert antics while awaiting the concert's Special Guest Star, whose name you can probably guess. Even as I arrived at the opera house I was still having to remind myself that I did want to go, that there was a reason I bought the ticket. I sat down expecting the worst. And then it was fantastic.
Simon Burke — no doubt famous for something over here but I've no idea what — was the perfect host, several steps up from Anthony Warlow's autocued emceeing at the Anniversary Gala. He spoke and acted and sang up a storm. David Hobson, Australia's Favourite Tenor, featured heavily. Now I shall be honest. Hobson was one of the main reasons I felt so oddly reluctant to be at this concert — though his Ferrando in Opera Australia's 1992 Cosi was fine, he's really not a singer I've been able to warm to. I arrived at work one morning last week in time for the tail end of one of his CDs and found it pretty much unlistenable. In person tonight, however, all of that changed — his singing was brilliant, engaging and entirely listenable. Add to this the fact that he's ridiculously charming and hilarious onstage and I begin to understand why he's attracted such a committed and enthusiastic fanbase. I know I've completely changed my mind about him. His facial expressions while singing still remind me of Dudley Moore but this only adds to the fun. Alongside David was another gorgeous tenor, the adorable Henry Choo. Henry was one of my highlights in the anniversary gala; the chance to hear him for a longer stretch was much appreciated. His "O Holy Night", sung in both English and impeccable French ("Minuit chrétiens") was especially beautiful. Henry will sing the role of the young collector in A Streetcar Named Desire, which ought to be interesting.
Ah, but enough of these men. The concert opened with (after a cringeingly bad "ain't baroque" joke) soprano Taryn Fiebig's "Let the bright seraphim". Intriguing this. Her voice is lovely, sort of bronzy and somehow American, with hints of Kathy and Renée here and there, and she gave a spirited performance. But there were consonants which disappeared, some rather dubious coloratura, and she seemed to sing the whole aria as if it were a joke — it's fast and happy, yes, but could do with a little sincerity too. Still, as I say, intriguing — both the quality of the sound and the faults have me curious to actually hear her in opera and sans microphone. But the real discovery of tonight for me was mezzo Catherine Carby. Knowing that she sang Cornelia in this year's Giulio Cesare, I almost wish I hadn't decided to give it a miss. I'm not certain what she's singing in the coming season, other than the Bela Lugosi-esque (think Glen and Glenda) Mexican Woman in Streetcar, but hopefully there's something, and something which will show off that velvety sound off to maximum advantage.
And, of course, Yvonne. This isn't fair. I wish she had been a revelation like all the rest, a new discovery to whom I could accord all my best adjectives for the very first time. But I've done all that. What can be added to two years (almost to the day, incidentally) of celebration? Still I need to say something. In the first half she sang Franck's "Panis angelicus" and was her usual glorious self. In the second half, however, magic happened. My Christmas miracle perhaps. With only the very barest of orchestration behind her, she stood there and sang an "Away in a manger" which I can't describe. It was the point in the show at which I fell apart. A moment of pure, intense beauty, overwhelming in its simplicity. Unlike any other performance I think I've ever seen her give — and I can't say why I think that, but it was different somehow, revelatory even. Heavenly.