It dawned on me yesterday that I have spent the last three and a half years quite unwittingly becoming a Stuart Skelton completist. Not that this is a bad thing to be; on the contrary, it's clearly a stroke of genius on my part. Just unintentional genius.
First there was his Mitch in Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, the opera I saw (just thinking about it wears me out) eight times on account of my Yvonne Kenny completism. That's the whole Sydney season plus the general. And then the next thing he did at Opera Australia was last year's Peter Grimes, and as we know, I went to every performance of that. Of course in that case — unlike Streetcar, which was definitely All About Yvonne — Stuart did have quite a lot to do with my repeated attendance, but still, it was the show as a whole which was my fixation. In between those shows I also managed to be among the crowd when he sang two arias (amazingly I might add) at the launch of OA's 2010 season.
And then this past week I ended up, somewhat to my surprise, seeing all three of his performances in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. I mean, I was always going to go. Partly for the piece itself, partly for lovely Lilli Paasikivi, and in great part, yes, for Stuart. But I only meant to go once. And then things changed: one turned into two, so I was there on the Wednesday as well as the long-planned Friday, and since both nights turned out to be such utter enchantment, well, how could I resist completing the set?
It's with a slight Mahlerian blush that I confess I really didn't know Das Lied very well at all prior to last Wednesday. My abiding crush on the Rückert-Lieder excepted, I've never been manic about Mahler; I'm usually delighted when he finds me, but I don't often seek him out. Thus my preparation really consisted only of the recording I listened to during the afternoon before the first concert. Even that augured well, though; I could feel it seeping into my brain, and already felt that this — especially the earthy, airy contralto stuff — was my kind of piece.
First impressions were correct. Das Lied von der Erde has turned out to be absolutely my kind of piece, perhaps even more than I expected. I heard it three times and loved it more with each performance. I loved its exuberance and its introspection, its Oriental traces and its rich Romanticism, its kaleidoscopic orchestration and its varied, taxing and oh-so-wonderful vocal writing. I loved the contrast between the tenor and contralto parts: without the other, each might be in its own way a bit too unrelenting, but side by side they're a match made in heaven — or should that be, a match made on Earth?
Of course my symphonic completism meant I also heard the first half of the program three times. I can't claim to have been thoroughly enraptured, but then, almost any first half would pale when succeeded by Das Lied, and so it should — two such ecstatic pieces in one night could do a person's head in. Anyway, we had a curiously operatic-but-not-vocal first half. The overture of Le nozze di Figaro followed by a slightly clunky Rosenkavalier suite. The Figaro was nice enough, if a bit blurry in the strings, though until the (pretty wonderful) third performance, I can't say it sounded like an overture I could imagine leading into a great performance of the opera itself. Strauss, meanwhile, is Strauss, and thus never unwelcome. I wasn't really won over by the suite, particularly its jarringly bombastic conclusion, but the Presentation of the Rose made me weepy even without the voices, and there were a few other magical moments too.
It was all about Das Lied anyway, though, and I was putty in the hands of Ashkenazy and his fantastic orchestra. The sound seemed richer, more shimmery and all-enveloping every time. Emma Sholl and Diana Doherty's solos (flute and oboe respectively) were sublime. If I needed another reason to feel guilty about how rarely I venture into the Concert Hall, this was it: the SSO is wonderful and my neglect of them definitely makes me a Bad Person.
Our soloists, it goes without saying, were just as stunning. I heard Lilli Paasikivi with the SSO last year, as the Angel in Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, so I knew she was beautiful. But I still wasn't prepared for just how beautiful. The radiant, unaffected simplicity with which she embodied every word and sound. The way the music seemed to flow through her. The voice. Oh, the voice, so warm and so pure; and how she used that voice, so that it seemed almost like speaking yet made of music. She was irresistible, and in "Der Abschied", transcendent. Time stood still as she repeated "Ewig...ewig..." If I stop typing and think — I'm still there.
Lilli was one kind of revelation. Stuart, despite all the aforementioned completism, was another. This was really quite different from anything I've heard him sing before and I was bowled over anew by his energy, his expressivity and just the sheer sound of him. For the second performance I abandoned my circle seat and moved to the second row of the stalls essentially in order to be blasted. And blasted I was, but in such exquisite fashion. Yes, he does loud exceedingly well, but he doesn't just do loud; there's a basic beauty to the voice, a sort of vast and monumental lyricism, so that even at his most clarion, there's still that honeyed quality round the edges. It's an addictive sort of sound, and it's so very much his sound. Stuart sounds like Stuart and nobody else and I could listen to him for hours. (So bring on the Wagner, Mr Terracini.)
So there you have it. The completism might have been last minute and unplanned but I'm thanking myself — and Mahler, and Lilli, and Ashkenazy, and obviously Stuart — for it now. One encounter with Das Lied von der Erde was a discovery. Three turned it into love. It is an extraordinary piece of music and I couldn't have asked for a more special introduction than this.