Enough. If I don't write about Cheryl Barker's new CD soon, I think somebody (he knows who he is) from Select Audio-Visual might beat me up. So here goes.
I find writing about this disc strange, mostly because I don't really think of Cheryl as a recording artist. It's her live performances which are the core of my experience of her, and I find that I can't approach this disc as I would the latest by, say, Joyce DiDonato or Cecilia Bartoli, singers who exist in my world primarily through their solo albums. And yet I have a feeling that it's to people like me (well, you know what I mean) that this album will exercise its strongest appeal — people who come equipped with a sense of the full Cheryl experience. Because she isn't Montserrat Caballé, and nor is she Carolyn Sampson. Her irresistibility lies not in world-beating pianissimi, or laser trills, or a single, mouthwatering note, but in the emotional honesty of every single aria, and how tangible that connection is to a newcomer with only her voice to go by, I really don't know. I mean, I don't even know what it was like when I was that newcomer; she just got to me, somehow, and next thing I woke up with six tickets to Arabella.
However, that's where I think the language of this disc comes in handy. Opera In English can feel like a necessary evil, but in this instance I think it's a positive virtue. What the studio takes away from Cheryl's performances, the immediacy of the vernacular goes quite some way to restoring. Of course, every singer in this series has the same theoretical advantage, but where Cheryl stands out is in her commitment to these new texts. Her approach to them is as scrupulous, as convincing and as sensitively coloured as if they were the only texts and as if they were all Great Poetry. She brings such truthfulness to these arias that you could be fooled into thinking that those notes were always meant for these words: she sounds like she believes it, so why wouldn't we?
I think the selection of arias on this disc is very very interesting. Rather than two dozen lollipops, we have just twelve tracks; that number includes two tracks each from The Queen of Spades, Adriana Lecouvreur, Arabella and I Pagliacci, along with selections from La Wally, Mefistofele, The End of the Affair and The Violins of Saint-Jacques. It seems to me above all a very serious program. These Chandos discs usually contain a comic aria or two (and often a token bit of musical theatre) but Arabella is as lighthearted as Cheryl gets — the rest is either pain and suffering or dignified declamation.
And the album is all the better for it: it feels like a considered, coherent concert rather than a hit parade. Adriana's "humble servant" carry-on is a slightly unusual beginning, but it's quite a lovely (and novel) thing to have on record from her. Adriana's other aria, "Poveri fiori" is probably the better done, however. The publicity blurb suggests that some of the arias on this disc are included by way of homage to Joan Hammond (with whom Cheryl studied) and in that sense they're charming inclusions. Her rendition of Wally's big aria I imagine falls into that same category; it's also admirable for her ability to be understood almost throughout — I've heard Yvonne sing the same translation a thousand times and never quite picked up all the words till now. The best of the Italian selections, though, are the Leoncavallo and the Boito. Nedda's "Stridono lassu" and her fervent, sensuous duet with Silvio are a tantalising taste of a role she's previously sung in its entirety. Marguerita's "L'altra notte" is still more extraordinary, her voice etched deep with grief as she sings "What hope is left me?" and makes a few searing excursions into that lower register of hers.
The non-Italian half of the album is even better. Lisa's two arias from The Queen of Spades exemplify everything I said above about the way she treats her English translations: they're so convincing in this language that they sound as if they were always written that way, even though I've heard them so many times in Russian. They also scream one thought to me, over and over again: Opera Australia must stage this opera for her. It's wonderful, of course, to have some of her Arabella committed to disc, and interesting to hear the differences a year and a language have made to her approach. Gillian Keith is a very sweet Sophie, although not to my ears as impressive as Rebecca Evans, who sings the same duet (in the same translation) on Yvonne's second one of these. It's mildly disconcerting to have Cheryl's Arabella swear devotion to a Mandryka who isn't Peter, but William Dazeley is excellent nonetheless, and in any case, it's in the Pagliacci scene that he really struts his stuff.
But the real revelations are the two untranslated arias. The sultry, swaying "How can I explain to you" from Malcolm Williamson's The Violins of Saint-Jacques is something to treasure. I'd imagine it's the only readily available recording of this rarity, but it has more than rarity to recommend it: it's also a very beautiful aria, maybe a little high for her, but when sung with such warmth, oh, what does it matter? (A certain eminent customer told us recently he had a hand in this aria's inclusion. To which I say a heartfelt thank you, M.) And then there's Sarah's aria from Jake Heggie's The End of the Affair, which just tears me apart. The shrill, panicked first section gives way to an astonishingly lyrical and moving prayer, in a way almost reminiscent Desdemona's death scene, and the utter desperation in every syllable is hard to bear. I defy anyone to listen to Cheryl sing "What kind of sacrifice do you need?" and not feel a little dagger to the heart.
There you have it. I'm sorry this is so long but I doubt that surprises you. And I did promise somebody (again, he knows who he is) that this would be the longest CD review in the history of the world ever, so at least I've done my job in that respect. Oh, and in case you're wondering, and despite the links to Presto Classical, yes, I do think that if you're inclined to own this CD, you ought to buy it from Fish Fine Music. Preferably on King St — that, after all, is where the posters are.