Obviously I can't let Opera Australia's concert performance of The Pilgrim's Progress pass without some kind of blog comment. After all, it did involve practically the entire Opera Australia roster. This is not a review as such — I'm writing one of those, when I figure out how on earth to do it, for NZ Opera News. But no sensible print review is going to be able to mention every single singer — there are too many of them (forty-one solo roles!) and too much else about the piece and its performance to talk about. So that's what I thought I'd do here. A sentence at least — often more, because that's what I'm like — for everyone involved. Here goes.
Conal Coad started things off nice and solidly as John Bunyan himself, with gratifyingly clear diction. There was no text provided in the programme, and the Concert Hall can't do surtitles, so we were at the mercy of the performers if we were to have a hope of understanding what was going on. Alan Opie as the Pilgrim began sounding suitably burdened; later his singing grew broader and more lyrical as he moved towards serenity and peace. To do him justice I'd have to mention him about twenty more times in what follows. So just take it as read that he responded brilliantly to all the piece's shifting moods and sang with persuasive passion throughout. And while I'm making sweeping statements — stellar contributions throughout (that's completely an understatement) from the Bach Choir and the Opera Australia Chorus. Shane Lowrencev, who is nine or ten feet tall at least, was a commanding Evangelist. The Four Neighbours were pretty great, with their quickfire cries of "Danger! Back!" — all reappeared later in other roles, with the exception of Graeme Macfarlane, a bit of a shame as a mark in my programme indicates I rather liked him. The Three Shining Ones were Lorina Gore, Taryn Fiebig and Pamela Helen Stephen, who appeared from on high — meaning through a door into the stalls behind the orchestra. A pretty coup de théâtre though it did make them a little difficult to hear or see. It also required them to walk in solemn procession all the way down the steps to the stage in high heels which I was especially impressed by. Audience members in lower heels fall down the stairs quite often. They blended beautifully and wore appropriately sparkly frocks. Henry Choo had the first swoonworthy solo of the evening; this kind of repertoire would seem to be his ideal home. Barry Ryan as Watchful, the Porter followed him with a solo almost as swoonworthy and sung almost without accompaniment. Michael Lewis was sort of frighteningly intense as A Herald, partnered by appropriately triumphant trumpet solo. And speaking of scary, Richard Anderson's unseen, gravelly Apollyon was menacing in the extreme. Two Heavenly Beings then swept in, the shape of Hye Seoung Kwon and Catherine Carby. For my tastes, Catherine was the more genuinely heavenly of the two — she's fast becoming a Mezzo I Like A Lot — but Hye Seoung was very sweet. Kanen Breen, previously the Neighbour Pliable, reappeared in Vanity Fair as Lord Lechery, amazingly resisting the opportunity to completely over-act. He sounded more comfortable vocally than he was a while, even in Vaughan Williams' vastest moments not as swallowed up and tiny as he was in Arabella. Andrew Moran, Charlie Kedmenec, Tom Hamilton and David Corcoran all enjoyed themselves as a group of shady characters. I think I might be beginning to see why the judges so enthusiastically named David Corcoran winner of the McDonald's Aria. Lorina Gore had a chance to slip back into character as Fiakermilli to sing Madame Wanton, though the shining charm of her Fiakermilli wasn't quite so much in evidence here. Alongside her was Pamela Helen Stephen as Madame Bubble. I like Pamela Helen Stephen and only wish there was more of her in the Sydney season — she's Carmen in Melbourne but as far as I can recall, this is her only Sydney appearance for OA this year. Please, Maestro, more nepotism! (Pamela [or does one call her Pamela Helen?] is married to our illustrious Music Director.) Abraham Singer — yes, A. Singer is a singer, and I don't imagine that joke has ever been made before — was brief but effective as Pontius Pilate. Another appearance by David Corcoran as the Usher; I hope those judges are right about his potential, lord knows this company needs another convincing Italianate tenor in its stable. And then Conal Coad as Lord Hate-Good. I liked him better as Bunyan, where he was obliged to be serious; his evil as Lord Hate-Good was a bit much and a bit too buffoonish. Antoinette Halloran made her long-awaited (by me, at any rate) appearance as Malice, and in her Antoinette way, immediately commanded the stage. The little she had to sing sounded fabulous. And there were a million people (well, almost) on stage and all kinds of things going on, but there is something about Antoinette which draws the attention. That said, Dominica Matthews was also pretty commanding, dominating the ensemble with the kind of contralto which Must Be Obeyed. There's a very distinctive Dominica Sound, and it's growing on me. Henry Choo is back, as Superstition. In my programme, I've written "again, swoon" and that doesn't really need elaboration. Richard Anderson is a bit less scary the second time around, as Envy. Matthew Clark has an interminable solo as the Woodcutter's Boy. My apologies, I cannot abide boy sopranos; no doubt he's a good one but I'm afraid I just wanted him gone. When he was, Kanen Breen was back yet again. This time in the most characterful of his roles, Mr By-Ends. This piece really is a good choice for him. The oiliness which irritated me no end in his Elemer is completely right here, and in any case, more refined. His wife, Madam By-Ends was lovely Catherine Carby, gleefully misbehaving. And after all havoc and raucous mischief of the Vanity Fair scene, we moved into its polar opposite — a totally gorgeous, serene and perfect encounter between the Pilgrim and Three Shepherds. Henry Choo was lilting as ever. Shane Lowrencev also good. But oh. Joshua Bloom. Here was the highlight of my evening, the moment of enraptured enchantment. What can I say? We know I'm his fan, despite his not being even slightly a soprano. He has one of the most beautiful voices I know of, male or female; and I am happy to find that he is as utterly engaging in solemn mode as he is in comedy. While I recovered, a few non allegorical solos. Solo Soprano was Hye Seoung Kwon, more compelling than she had been as a Heavenly Being; it was a nice change to hear her in something which required real thrust and power rather than smiling prettiness. Pamela Helen Stephen in her third frock of the night was a passionate Solo Alto. As the Solo Tenor, Kanen Breen back yet again — I've said all I need to already. Then more Lorina Gore, on the quiet side as the Voice of a Bird. And David Corcoran as a Celestial Messenger which means the Pilgrim's journey is over at last. Conal Coad as John Bunyan returned, a little woollier before but still making his point. Then a silent re-entrance from Alan Opie and the piece comes to its radiant conclusion.