El Marks the Spot – Classic Delights

This reviewer is a former member of the Woden Valley Youth Choir.

As you may have noticed by now, I and my fellow reviewers tend to focus on modern indie, rock and pop music. There is precious little about the other experiences on offer in Canberra but there is far more than that around. The Canberra jazz scene is far more animated than the classical one; however, there is the occasional gem.

Coaxed out of the house by the promise of spending time with my mother in a strictly no-talking environment, I went to watch the Morgan State Gospel Choir at Llewellyn Hall. Guest artists Woden Valley Youth Choir opened with a tightly controlled set of Australian works which displayed the best elements of the genre – vocal lightness, flexibility and, to be frank, the cute factor. Morgan State themselves opened with an exceptionally disappointing first bracket. I’ve always believed that operatic sopranos do not belong in choirs and the complete obliteration of the melody line by their uncontrolled warbling demonstrated exactly why. They more than made up for it, however, with a stunning second bracket of modern American music including ‘Sleep’ by Eric Whitacre. Moving on, Morgan State truly came into their own with a spontaneous selection of gospel songs which brought not a few audience members to their predominately elderly feet. We also discovered that the best voice on stage belonged to the accompanist who took a break to solo in one of the best pieces of the concert. Ultimately, however, they overstayed their welcome as the afternoon performance strayed into the evening and its third hour.

The Canberra Institute of Music and Related Arts has been around for quite some time. Working with a fine mix of local amateurs and trained singers, directors Colin Forbes and Patricia Whitbread have staged a number of operas and Gilbert and Sullivan comedies at St Philips Church in O’Connor. This year, the company tackled Mozart monster Don Giovanni with surprising results. Peter Laurence in the title role was vocally excellent but over-acted throughout, aiming for comic effect at the expense of dramatic impact. Veteran Peter Smith also brought out the comedy as Leporello, the Don’s servant, delivering a hilarious rendition of ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’ (‘Madame, this is the catalogue’). Madeleine Rowland as a coquettish and playful Zerlina and Elisha Holley as the spurned and vengeful Donna Elvira were both excellent, despite both struggling slightly with the demanding intervals and quick runs. The highlight, however, was Tanuja Doss’ Donna Anna. Handling the demanding role with supreme command, she was particularly strong in duets with a vocally weaker Charles Hudson (Don Ottavio) which brought out a lovely, silvery quality to her voice. Although she missed a few abrupt leaps above the stave, her control was generally masterful.

While vocally strong, the production did, however, disappoint in some areas, failing to bring out the dramatic elements and serious themes and coming across instead as a light comedy. Given the nature of the space and the accompaniment, with Colin Forbes’ flawless piano replacing a full orchestra, this is largely unavoidable however the general tenor of the performances exacerbated it. In some places, this was slightly disturbing as lines about domestic violence and sexual assault are delivered with a light-hearted lilt. The fall and damnation of the Don come across as comic rather than dramatic and much of the gravitas and drama is lost. It is a shame to see one of Mozart’s most magnificent and darkest operas reduced to comic farce but it is wonderful to see the quality of singers available in Canberra and to listen to some of the most beautiful melodic lines ever written.