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Stravinsky ‘Oedipus Rex’/ Puccini ‘Gianni Schicchi’ Benjamin Britten International Opera School at the Royal College of Music, June 26. Verdi 'Falstaff' Royal Academy Opera, June 27. Schumann, Brahms, Honegger, Ibert etc Sarah Walker, Jonathan Lemalu, Roger Vignoles, St. John’s Smith Square, June 29. Brahms, Schubert, Fauré & English song Jonathan Lemalu & Roger Vignoles (debut CD) Edward Rushton The Young Man with a Carnation Almeida at King's Cross 30 June


The end of June offered Londoners a huge range of opera, with some special singing off the beaten track as well as in the major venues. Pride of place must go to the meteoric rise of bass-baritone Jonathan Fa'afetai Lemalu, whom I first encountered at the Wigmore Hall Kathleen Ferrier Awards 2002 in April, when (unaccountably) he was only a joint winner. With one Brahms Serious Song, one from Winterreise, arias from Eugene Onegin, Faust & the Barber, he established his credentials as an operatic star of the future and, in Fauré, Finzi and Bolcom, as a recitalist. Soon followed an outstanding debut recital with Roger Vignoles (EMI Classics 7243 5 75203 2 4) of lieder, melodies & song, which confirms one's highest reasonable expectations of so young a singer, and it should be acquired as the first in an important discography to come.

The same week I saw and heard Lemalu again at the Royal College of Music as Gianni Schicchi and in solo songs and duets with Sarah Walker, and Roger Vignoles at St. John’s Smith Square (29th June). The latter event was especially felicitous and memorable, the one an object lesson in how the right technique can maintain a fine voice in good health into later life, the other a demonstration of uncommon maturity in relative youth and limitless promise. Rapport between the two was perfect, balance too with exemplary consideration, and each must have enjoyed an opportunity to work together which they, and all who heard them, will remember for ever. The programme was carefully constructed (with advice from Roger Vignoles, no doubt) and charmingly choreographed, and would be treasurable on DVD (the event was being filmed at the time). Their sequence of mostly little known items by Schumann and Brahms should certainly find its way onto a CD by this illustrious trio of musicians.

With numerous singing prizes in New Zealand and Australia, and having won 14 competitions in the UK, it is high time for Jonathan Lemalu to stop competing and to concentrate on developing his singing and, importantly at 26, husbanding his resources. A major career on the opera stage and the recital platform is a certainty.

The cunningly chosen double bill by the International Opera School at the RCM's Britten Theatre confirmed its high reputation. Oedipus Rex is Stravinsky's powerful exposition of the story of the inexorable operation of fate and punishment by the Gods for murder compounded by incest, whereas Gianni Schicchi is a farcical treatment of greed and duplicity around a death; both operas were dressed mainly in black in economical, austere settings. The Stravinsky, in perfectly acceptable Latin as intended, was the more moving and memorable, Julianne de Villiers, as Jocasta and Andrew Kennedy as Oedipus completely assured and idiomatic, completely natural in Stravinsky's not-easy vocal lines. We were kept on course by the bookish narrator (Andrew Wickes in English) and his services were missed in the Puccini, given in Italian.

The colleges (and ENO!) seem to be resisting the public's preference for sur-titles to help listeners understand what is going on - necessary for most Opera in English too; the text of Turnage's Silver Tassie revived at the Coliseum was hard to follow, taking attention away from the music. The availability of language choice with DVDs has made that rearguard action seem like King Canute on the beach.

Gianni Schicchi is very wordy, and to compensate, all the participants caricatured and over-acted excessively. But even though the general drift of the proceedings is obvious, it felt a long hour. Kim Savelsbergh sang beautifully the only song that everyone knows O mio babbino caro and Jonathan Lemalu had the deceased's relatives and all of us in the palm of his hand, with masterly comic acting and singing, making us think towards his Falstaff sure to follow, and no doubt the prospect of some Wagnerian villains in due course.

Lemalu's Schicchi was a hard act to follow for the RAM's Falstaff, seen the following day, again in Italian without surtitles! Alex Ashworth was but modestly padded and although he sang decently, there was no real charisma and the performance as a whole was fatally compromised by an unattractive modern setting and production which was not interesting or consistent.

A new one act opera for Almeida Opera by the Swiss-based British composer Edward Rushton compressed, to the point of incomprehensibility, a story about a young man with writer's block. It stood alone, lasting only 45 minutes - really not likely to make a satisfying evening out for an audience which had to tackle the hazards of London's travel systems! One critic suggested that anyone contemplating seeing it needs to read first the original story in Winter's Tales by Dinesen! With no orchestra pit, a wind dominated chamber orchestra compelled the 'hero', sung by Peter van Hulle, to force his voice, but there was a nice touch in that the players on stage joined in singing a sea shanty during a scene in a bar. The other parts were shadowy and unrewarding, and one failed to become engaged in this Charlie's self-absorption and nocturnal roamings.

Peter Grahame Woolf



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