Concert Review: Viva Verdi – Singapore Lyric Opera 23 Mar 2007

Review by Derek Lim

Recently at a press conference with the world-renowned soprano Renee Fleming, she expressed surprise when she was informed of the existence of an opera company in Singapore. Unknown to many, the Singapore Lyric Opera has, under various guises, been in existence since as early as 1985. This year, the company would be 22 years old – a suitably long period of time to have developed a standing orchestra, a house cast as well as a choir.

Complete opera performances are staged only once to twice a year and what we hear the rest of the time are ‘filler’ concerts made up of excerpts. Of the complete opera/operetta that have been staged (27 productions in all), there have been repeat productions of The Magic Flute, The Merry Widow, Tosca, Die Fledermaus, Carmen, Madama Butterfly – so the total number of opera staged is actually only about 22. In this coming year, the SLO will stage again the Barber of Seville as well as Traviata, works hardly in need of a revival.

Though two productions might seem reasonable, the fact remains that it remains dismal by any other standards – the equivalent of an orchestra putting up two concerts a year or a concert pianist playing two recitals, or a broadway production house putting up only two different musicals in a year – unthinkable. When one realizes that Singapore Lyric Opera is our de facto opera house, it’s not hard to see why Singapore is still opera-starved after twenty years.

But I think in recent years (or at least in the last few concerts) that the SLO has featured talented singers which I’d gladly hear again. This includes a fabulous Rachelle Gerodias, whose radiant presence (and voice!) would benefit any production.

We heard a little more of the Lyric Opera’s future in tonight’s concert, and despite all I said above, it is promising. Lim Yau conducted the orchestra sure-footedly, amidst rumours of issues with the originally advertised conductor.

An all-Verdi concert is at once easy and difficult to program. You must have the favourites – Traviata, Trovatore and Rigoletto – mostly likely used in some form in a recent previous fund-raising concert, and thus likely to be re-used here. Sure enough, there was Violetta’s first act scene, the elder Germont Act II aria, as well as the various favourites from Rigoletto and Trovatore.

The SLO attempted to widen this scope by featuring the overture to one of Verdi’s first hits, Nabucco, followed by two generous excerpts from Ernani.

While the overture served little more than as a warm-up (couldn’t something a little more musically interesting have been found, though?), the Ernani excerpts – the soprano recitative and aria Surta e la notte… Ernani involami, with lyric soprano Cecilia Yap, showed a taste of what SLO audiences might expect – very secure technique, blossoming in the higher range, with ease and freedom in the singing that was welcome, as well as some real dramatic flair with no sacrifice to beauty of tone.

The trio ‘Solingo, errante e misero’ was effectively performed by Yap, who was joined by Korean tenor Lee Jae Wook and default SLO baritone William Lim. Lim was not in his best voice here, projection proving a problem beside the clear, focussed voices of his colleagues. His quick vibrato, while tamer than previously, still plagued his arias, including Di provenza il mar and Cortigiani, vil razza dannata.

It is the first time I’ve had the chance to hear Lee. His moderately large voice is technically very secure and even, though I heard whispered complaints that it wasn’t bright enough. Well then, how boring it would be if every tenor sounded like Pavarotti!

Like most members of the audience, I thoroughly enjoyed Lee’s singing as well as his theatrics, for example, wielding an imaginary blade in the Ernani trio. Though not the most imposing in stature, his figure belies his voice and largely Italianate vocal production. His Questa o quella and La donna e mobile were highly enjoyable, with ringing high notes. It’s not difficult to see how he would do well in any number of Verdi tenor roles, though perhaps not Otello or Radames.

Much as I have loved Nancy Yuen’s singing in the past, I feel neither voice or acting is quite what it used to be. The virginal interpretation of Gilda in Caro nome is apt, of course, but the same wide-eyed earnestness is surely misplaced in Violetta’s Act I solo scene, where the courtesan is supposed to be wanton and frenzied. E Strano could have benefited from more dramatic weight. Her top notes seemed strained (though still beautiful) in Caro nome, but I was delighted to find that she engaged the colouratura runs easily by the time she came to Sempre libera, ending off with a focused, interpolated E-flat.

One mustn’t forget the orchestral and choral contributions. The Forza Del Destino and Luisa Miller overtures were efficiently played, as was the playing throughout. There was some stunningly beautiful wind playing in the long introduction to Cecelia Yap’s Mia madre aveva una povera ancella…Piangea cantando from Otello (no ‘h’, please! – this is Verdi, not Shakespeare) – an involved interpretation that was a tad too expansive.

The choir, reprising its Anvil Chorus, did well also in Fuoco di gioia (Otello), but were less fortunate in Rataplan.

How could the concert have been improved? What I missed most, oddly enough, was probably the presence of the compere, as the last two concerts had featured. Opera is usually already in a different language from what the audience is used to, and the presentation of the ‘Opera on the Silver Screen’ concert had given them a way to connect with the music, even though no translations had been provided. The programme notes, too, were woefully inadequate. And this being an all-Verdi concert, could we not have ended with something more upbeat, for example, the Brindisi from Traviata, or (ambitiously) the Triumphal March from Aida (how could there not have been an Aida selection?!). And wasn’t there a single mezzo aria worth featuring?

The SLO’s status as a fully functional opera company is, and I suspect, has often been precarious. Though it seems to have at last gained, to no small effort from Lim Yau, an opera orchestra in the form of the Philharmonia Orchestra, as well as an opera chorus (The SLO chorus, made up of volunteers), the soloists who make up the most important part of any opera company seem constantly to be changing. And it’s no wonder – you can’t maintain a company with only two productions a year and having a standing cast of singers who appear in productions constantly so that the audience develops a relationship with them is difficult. The fault probably lies squarely with the lack of a working budget, which by all accounts is much smaller than that of Singapore’s other musical institutions, the SSO and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. Can Singapore truly be called a cultural ‘hub’, to use a now-popular term, without a fully-running opera company? What is clear is that in the absence of official support, the SLO has to make the right decisions to maximize whatever budget it has, as well as increase the size of its audience.

All in all, it was a mixed season opener for the SLO, then. I look forward to a production of Il Barbiere di Seville, which will show in July with the beautiful and talented Ning Liang, and wish it all success.

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