Soloists: Marie Claire Breen, Natasha Agarwal, Chrystal E. Williams, Phillip Rhodes
Accompanist: David Cowan
Opera North certainly believes in spreading its net far wider than the main opera performances, and Twilight Concerts constitute an appealingly unassuming element in its programming. The newly reopened Howard Assembly Room is the venue for occasional short early evening concerts. So, as the audience was assembling in the Grand Theatre for the company’s excellent Bernstein double-bill, next door four singers from around the world were performing a huge variety of songs with the theme Home from Home.
The most exciting performance came from Chrystal E. Williams (this season’s Carmen) recalling her religious upbringing in the United States with two spirituals. In the version by celebrated choir leader and arranger Hall Johnson This Little Light of Mine emerged as more art song, given an emotionally charged treatment by Williams, but Ride on, King Jesus was all dramatic intensity and triumphant vocal attack. As well as providing an immaculate piano accompaniment to all the singers, David Cowan introduced the songs and the singers who then talked about their choice of songs – and Williams’ bubbling enthusiasm and infectious enjoyment communicated with the audience as much as her superb singing.
Also from the cast of Carmen, New Zealander Philip Rhodes (Escamillo) sang two very contrasting sets. The first consisted of three songs from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, set to words by Robert Louis Stevenson whose Samoan sojourn provided a sort of link to Rhodes’ homeland. The Vagabond burst with robust life, Rhodes’ baritone richly resonant, before a more meditative element broke in. For his second set Rhodes chose two Maori songs, the first a glorious all-action foot-stamping number that sounded to untutored ears like a rehearsal for the haka, the second the affecting Pokarekare Ana, one of the few Maori songs familiar to UK audiences thanks to the version by Hayley Westenra.
Unsurprisingly traditional song featured strongly, with Ayrshire-born Marie Claire Breen topping and tailing the programme with a mixture of Gaelic song from Skye, Robert Burns settings and James McMillan arrangements of songs from Ayrshire. Often singing unaccompanied, Breen brought an unaffected style and purity of tone to all the songs, even finding a delicacy of feeling in Auld Lang Syne.
British-Indian soprano Natasha Agarwal was a late inclusion owing to cancellations through illness and some of her programme related less obviously to the theme of home, but her opening number was fascinating. Ravi Shankar, the sitar virtuoso, was a genuine fusion artist, playing classical Indian ragas and mixing successfully with Western classical and popular musicians. So it’s not surprising that his opera Sukanya is an evocative blend of Indian and Western music. Agarwal, who performed at the Royal Festival Hall in a recent revival of the opera, was assured and idiomatic in a solemn prayer from the opera.
Reviewed on October 20th 2021