American soprano Barbara Bonney is internationally known as a lyric soprano, particularly for her roles in Mozart and Strauss and for a repertoire of Scandinavian song; she has an extensive discography. She has been seen on stage infrequently in recent years, so a chance to catch up with her in concert in Perth was an attractive proposition. This concert featured an equal contribution from home-grown mezzo Fiona Campbell, well known across Australia and beginning to attract international attention. It also featured the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO), one of the excellent Australian state orchestras, conducted on this occasion by Graham Abbott, an extremely high-profile radio presenter of classical music as well as versatile conductor.
The concert took place in the open air, in a natural amphitheatre in King’s Park, with the audience seated on low chairs or lolling on blankets with picnic hampers and the rest. This was a relatively well-behaved crowd, but “relatively” in this case did not exclude a certain level of talking through the performances, canoodling and singing along (not near me, fortunately). Added to this was a battery of technical equipment including a giant screen with close-ups of the performers (especially the harp), a changing light show against the arc of the sound shell (distractingly psychedelic if not ignored) and a necessary, one supposes, evil: amplification. There are many problems with electronically driven sound systems, not least the way they flatten out the dynamics of acoustically produced music, masking subtleties in orchestral playing and singing alike. For singers, particularly sopranos, high notes are subject to distortion, long-held notes can produce a level of reverberation and an unnatural shrillness can be evident.
The program was chosen to negotiate a way between serious singing playing to the strengths of the artists, and crowd pleasing, playing-to-a-lowest-common-denominator stuff. The first half was all Mozart, the second half included Humperdinck, Saint-Saens, Grieg and lighter material. A song from West Side Story listed in the printed program did not eventuate on the night. The WASO opened with a brisk run-through of the overture of Le nozze di Figaro. This was followed by Barbara Bonney taking the stage for “Porgi, amor” from the same opera. This sounded a little brassy and somewhat off pitch - to what extent an artefact of amplification? - but the trademark warmth and seductive shimmer of the familiar Bonney voice were detectable. The first duet between the two singers was “A guarda, sorella” from Così fan tutte and electronic distortion was clearly evident, especially in the higher range, and again the pitch did not sound right. The voices however blended well tonally, but the duet lacked dramatic nuance.
Campbell last year scored a considerable success as Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, and her first solo appearance on this occastion featured his two arias, "Non so più" and "Voi che sapete". Her rich but bright mezzo was enhanced by excellent characterisation of the page’s boyish impetuosity and hormonal overdrive, with immaculate pitch and phrasing evident. The overture for Così fan tutte was vigorously dispatched, before Bonney returned for “L’amero saro costante” from Il re pastore, again bothered by seeming intonation problems, and not very expressively delivered. In the duet “Sull aria” (Le nozze di Figaro), the singers’ voices were again well blended, but again lacked dramatic interplay; and this applied also to “Prendero quel brunettino” (Così fan tutte), which was sung with the requisite lightness of touch but not much apparent involvement.
After an interval, the pace changed considerably for the overture to Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, played quite sumptuously but with crisp articulation by a larger version of the WASO. The “Evening Prayer” from that opera was sung with more evident interaction, as the singers entered into the roles of the abandoned children, looking at each other and reaching out to clasp hands. Fiona Campbell’s rendition of “Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix from Samson et Delilah was replete with soaring high notes and warmly sounding low notes with only a hint of gear shift between registers. This was followed by Grieg’s Våren, and here Barbara Bonney seemed totally at home. Her intonation was now impeccable (perhaps because this quieter work challenges the sound system less?), and the lovely tone of her voice was bodied forth with feeling and expressivity. An enfolding “Barcarolle” (Offenbach, Les contes d’Hoffmann) pretty much finished up the serious music part of the evening.
Obviously feeling relaxed and cheerful, Campbell launched into a gloriously unsubtle “I could have danced all night” (Loewe My Fair Lady), followed by Bonney with the "Viljalied" from Lehar’s Die lustige Witwe). The crowd loved both. And, surely to no-one’s possible surprise, the evening concluded with the Flower duet ("Viens, Mallika, les lianes en fleurs”) from Delibes’s Lakmé. Thus concluded a highly successful evening, certainly as far as most were concerned. It was certainly a glorious night weatherwise, and one can hardly dispute the merits of a venture which pulls a large crowd along to hear a night of classical music. One might however wish for an additional, more intimate recital to hear one of the world’s leading art song exponents in a more suitable setting for the subtleties of her art.