(Songs for Shakespeare was the actual title: the Sydney Philharmonia's latest concert, which I saw at the Concert Hall on Friday and Saturday nights.)
There were a few irritations, mostly overcome. No definitive list of repertoire ever materialised in the publicity, but in the end I just embraced the mystery, didn't buy a program, and let myself be surprised. I'd been booked for a seat that didn't actually exist, but this gave me the chance to choose a new strategic one from among the mostly empty four front rows. The film clips were exactly the Olivier speeches you'd expect, though sometimes curiously at odds with music which followed. Finzi's "Let Us Garlands Bring" was broken up with bits of Rutter for the choir (grr) but at least it was there, my little heart was set on it. Aforementioned Rutter was decidedly not my cup of twee tea, but the choir was in fine voice in any case. The orchestra had a few nice solo turns too.
And if all the above sounds bit rushed and dismissive, well, that's sort of inevitable. Because for all my in-principle griping about the specific repertoire not being publicised, the fact is that if the Sydney Philharmonia had simply announced "Untitled Concert. Repertoire TBA. Soloist: Peter Coleman-Wright", with no further detail, I'd still have booked for every performance, no questions asked. Peter is enough. He's why I was there, and he's what I want to write about.
You know, I'm still not entirely used to this: to a baritone, any baritone, being the object of this sort of adoring completism. The days when only female voices could make a fan of me are long past now: a list of my favourite Australian singers now would probably contain more men than women. But with Peter it has gone a bit beyond that, he's surpassed the other boys and sits up among my sopranos. At the beginning, for me, he was just sort of incidental to the extraordinariness of Cheryl, and thus inevitably overshadowed; but somewhere along the line he became the Tracy to her Hepburn, as captivating in his own right as in partnership with his stunning wife. That doesn't mean he occupies quite the same place in my heart as Cheryl — whatever that place is, it's neither divisible nor transferable — but nevertheless, he must be somewhere nearby, because there I was, two nights in row, front and centre in the Concert Hall, purely in order to hear him.
In a sense it wouldn't have mattered what he'd sung. I struggle to think of anything he could sing which I wouldn't enjoy, one way or another. But I was, as I say, depending on the Finzi; or rather, I was depending on the first song of the cycle, "Come away, Death", which is just one of those songs that's stayed with me ever since the first time I heard it. I was granted my wish immediately. Alas, the format of the concert meant the cycle was broken up, obliging us to applaud each song individually, but nothing could seriously tamper with the spell Peter cast with each of these beautiful songs. In the jollier songs, he was as lighthearted and endearing as anything, without a trace of affectation; my brain is wired to cringe at the words "hey nonny nonny", but when he sang them, it forgot, and I smiled instead. And if Janet's "Come away, Death" was haunting me when I arrived, it was Peter's "Fear no more the heat o' the sun", which followed me home, and whose singular combination of warmth and eerie stillness is even now playing on my mind.
The Finzi was one sort of gift. In the second half, we had another: two good, old-fashioned 19th-century arias, magnificently sung. There's a reason every single program bio of this man begins by lauding his versatility. In the Finzi he was in his element. In Verdi he was in his element. In Ambroise Thomas he was in his element. Macbeth's "Perfidi!... Pietà, rispetto, amore" was sensational; in character right to the tips of his fingers, voice aflame and phrasing to die for, every word cracklingly focused. And then he came back, all wry smiles and expansive gestures, for a rollicking rendition of Hamlet's "O vin, dissipe la tristesse", irresistible insouciance underpinned by precision and pretty fabulous French. To finish, he and Brett Weymark led the choir in — what else? — "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" from Kiss Me, Kate. I, selfishly, would rather have kept it as just a duet — the massed voices slightly blunted some of Cole Porter's racier rhymes — but that's another concert. It was still a charming conclusion, and I doubt I was the only one wishing the concert could continue as a Baritone Aria Gala — a night of Peter singing this sort of repertoire is something Opera Australia or the SSO really ought to consider organising. I know I'd go.
There has been quite a lot of Peter in my life these past few months, but it's all been about Bliss. And as much as I love that opera, and as eternally fond as I am of Harry Joy, I have to say, it was rather wonderful to see and hear him in a different mode. Harry was his creation, he was setting all the precedents and doing it brilliantly, but it's a thrill to be reminded that in repertoire for which there's a hundred years or more worth of precedents, he is just as brilliant. I sat there on the Friday, in the wake of his Macbeth aria, and I thought: it really doesn't get much better than this. Bias and background and whatever else aside, the fact is that to sit and listen to this exceptional singer as he plies his trade is an operatic experience to be cherished by anyone, anywhere.
And it's certainly an experience cherished by me. I know, I don't really need to point that out any more; the extent to which Peter has dominated my blogging of late is proof enough. Well, what can I say? I think he's completely deserved all of it. This might be my last excuse to write about him for a while now, but the presence of Peter Coleman-Wright in my own little operatic universe is a continuing revelation and delight. I have, it seems, found myself a favourite baritone, and I've a feeling that won't be changing any time soon.