07 November 2016

Dredging a Channel for opera

(This review appeared in the Straits Times on Monday 7th Noevmber 2016)

Singapore seems to be awash with opera at the moment.  We had Turandot a couple of months ago, The Flying Dutchman last month, and this weekend sees L’arietta’s production of Operacalypse Now! 
Welcome as such an upsurge in operatic activity is, none of it has quite captured the classic image of Italian operatic grandeur as powerfully as did a recital held in Singapore School of the Arts Concert Hall last Friday evening.
The Belgian company Dredging International Asia Pacific marked its 20th year of operations in Singapore by inviting two Belgian musicians and their American guest to present a programme celebrating, in the first half, the great Italian tradition of Bel Canto in excerpts from operas by Bellini and Donizetti.  The second half offered more popular fare in the guise of famous arias and duets excerpts from Verdi.
Belgian coloratura soprano Elise Caluwaerts and the American tenor Franco Farina send out such strong operatic vibes that you can’t imagine them doing anything else.  If you saw them on the top deck of a no.65 bus you would still know they were opera singers. 
For her part Caluwaerts has one of those gloriously flexible voices which can simper like the most innocently naïve young girl, ooze tenderness like the most seductive of lovers, spit venom with all the passion of a wronged wife and shake with murderous rage at the behaviour of errant husbands.  She did not hit all her top notes successfully, but missed them with such self-assurance you could not be certain she was not doing it on purpose.  Her vivid personality and the drama she brought to her performances totally swept aside any tiny vocal imperfections.
Farina is a huge stage presence both physically and vocally.  Indeed, so powerful and far-reaching was his voice that even when he was deep in the wings behind a solid closed door singing the off-stage part of Verdi’s classic Sempre libera, he still dominated.  As one of the audience, perhaps more used to dredging than opera, suggested over the free Belgian beer in the interval, “How could I sleep with all that noise going on?” 
Using just the piano lid as his prop, Farina brought the whole world of opera to the concert hall platform by means of a twist and turn of the body and wonderfully descriptive facial expressions.  His mischievously delivered La donna e mobile was truly unforgettable.
Discretely accompanying them at the piano and occasionally urging them to keep to the well-dredged channel of tonality, Belgian pianist Kim Van den Brempt chose as his one solo item the nearest thing Chopin wrote to an operatic aria – the Etude Op.25 No.7 (it was incorrectly given in the programme as Op.25 No.5 but as nobody seemed to be reading the programme, that probably did not matter).  This was a delicate and subdued performance which was the perfect foil to what was otherwise an evening of high pressure and high octane Italian opera.

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