There's intimate, and there's intimate. We praise the intimate nature of performances in the City Recital Hall. Even the Opera Theatre seems pretty intimate compared to a grand American opera house. Intimate is a relative concept.
Intimate is one thing. Pacific Opera's fundraising concert last night, billed as "An Intimate Puccini Evening" was quite another. The Barnet Long Room at Customs House is a pretty tiny venue to begin with, seating only 160 in what they call "theatre style". For last night's concert, I doubt it sat even that many. We entered via the stage, stepping down into the seating area to find only four or five long rows arranged lengthways in the centre, facing a stage not much larger than a reasonably large dining room table.
This was intimate and then some, the sort of set-up where it feels almost inappropriate to sit in the front row. Almost. I did, of course, sit in the front row. Front and centre. Hardly surprising, since I am always a front row kind of girl, but even less so when you realise that this intimate evening was to be shared with the extraordinary Cheryl Barker and her gorgeous husband, Peter Coleman-Wright. Masterfully accompanied by Pacific Opera's music director Andrew Greene, they sang excerpts from Madama Butterfly, Tosca and Manon Lescaut, interspersed with shorter pieces from Pacific Opera alumni, James Roser and Penelope Mills, and commentary and anecdotes from the always engaging Moffatt Oxenbould.
Moffatt opened proceedings, praising, before anything else, the extraordinary acoustic of this unusual venue. He was clearly excited as he explained to us that they had discovered, in first trying the room out, that it produced a "rehearsal ambience", that live, resonant acoustic which performers always strive to reproduce in the more cavernous space of an opera theatre, but which, in its raw, ideal state, is not often experienced by us mere punters. He promised us something "quite extraordinary", underlining repeatedly the intensity of what was to come. His words could also have been construed as a warning to the faint hearted.
Intense was putting it mildly. Incredible acoustic, small space, singers in full flight and an audience so close that even those in the back row were probably not much further from the stage than a front row audience at the opera house would be. It's not every day you experience a concert in such conditions, and thank god for that — this was magnificent, but if all performances were like this, it would be a health hazard. As it was, the sheer power and richness of sound might have proved a bit overpowering for some tastes. The concert might have been on a very small scale, but the performances certainly weren't. If you loved the voices in question, this was heaven; if you didn't, well, it might have been hard going.
But I can't imagine anybody could have felt anything but love, or at the very least, admiration, for these four voices. Penelope Mills was all sweetness and light, particularly touching as Mimi in the duet with Marcello (one of only two points in La bohème which soften my stony heart) and James Roser's smooth baritone was lovely to hear.
And then there were Cheryl and Peter. Are we spoilt, or what? I know it's standard Antipodean practice to gaze, green-eyed, at the concert schedules of Paris, New York, London and Milan but there are moments when such jealousy is left in the dust. This was one of them. There was nowhere I would rather have been last night than Circular Quay, sitting barely five feet away from the one soprano I'd rather hear than any other in the world, listening, awestruck, as she blazed her way through the kind of "Vissi d'arte" which, had I been hidden away in a big, dark theatre, would have made an embarrassing mess of me. The fact that all I had to do to get there was finish work, change my shoes and take a two minute train ride just adds to the preposterous good fortune of it all.
They began with Butterfly, the scene between Sharpless and Cio Cio San. What a luxury to have Peter as Sharpless. I love his voice more all the time, partly by association, it's true, but mostly because he's fabulous. He's one of few baritones whose voices I think I would recognise immediately. Nobody else sounds quite like Peter, and nothing sounds quite so good as Peter did in this particular venue. And if we're speaking of luxuries, the greatest of all is to have such an intimate audience with the Butterfly of Cheryl Barker, one of the Butterflies of her generation. Adjectives are redudant, she just owns this role, and that's that. Her "Che tua madre dovra" was wonderfully hard to take at such close range, and when she mimed the sword-in-neck on "Morte!", I flinched.
Then Tosca, the duet between Scarpia and Tosca. The woman who, only ten or fifteen minutes earlier, had been such an earnest and finely wrought Butterfly, was instantly a fiery, imperious Tosca, so terrifyingly real that you'd scarcely believe it was the same woman, in the same dress. And yet she was, and she was...oh, I don't know. Supply your own superlative. Peter was indecently smooth and suave, quite genuinely lecherous in his advances even if they were on his own wife. Peter and Cheryl, it has to be said, do chemistry remarkably well, be it this kind or the Arabella kind. Their duetting was fantastic, but Cheryl's "Vissi d'arte" was on another plane — despite all of us breathing down her neck, and without sets, costumes or more than a few minutes of context, she was utterly, thrillingly in character, singing those oh so familiar words with revelatory conviction and that steely yet graceful voice of hers, the one which slices my heart into a thousand besotted shards.
Finally, a fragment of Manon Lescaut, truly only a fragment as they'd opted to drop Manon's "In quelle trine morbide" and begin from "Poiche tu vuoi saper". A shame to miss out on the aria, but just quietly, I love the subsequent duet even better. It's included on the duets disc they recorded for ABC Classics, and I never tire of hearing Cheryl's impassioned "Vieni! Vieni", so it was bliss to hear it (and the rest) in the flesh. Peter was a beautiful big brother, and Cheryl an irresistible Manon, moving convincingly from coquetry to sincere affection and concern. As if I needed another reason to look forward to her debut in the role next season.
And that was it. No encores, partly, I suspect, because the set-up in the theatre meant it took them most of their ovation just to get backstage again. My calculations tell me it was a two hour concert, so I suppose it must have been, but it felt quite a lot shorter. I could happily have taken a lot more of the same. Then again, just that "Vissi d'arte" should sustain me for quite a while yet. So, thank god for Pacific Opera, and for their need to fundraise. Philanthropy never felt so good.