Opera Reviews
19 November 2018
Untitled Document
A musical reunion
by Sarah Noble

Cheryl Barker, Peter Coleman-Wright & Piers Lane in recital Musica Viva
City Recital Hall, Sydney
2 June 2008

Evidently talent, like misery, loves company. Monday evening's Musica Viva recital was both a musical event and a reunion of sorts, bringing together a divine trio of musicians whose links to one another are both professional and personal. Soprano Cheryl Barker and baritone Peter Coleman-Wright are one of opera's most appealing couples, a better-behaved counterpart to the notoriously poisonous Alagna-Gheorghiu duo. They're joined on this tour by another renowned Australian performer, pianist Piers Lane, who also just happens to be a long time family friend. The singers' voices are as attractive a pairing as the couple themselves, with Lane's sensitive playing is a perfect partner. The close rapport among all three is obvious, and they draw the audience effortlessly into the intimacy of the evening.

Mendelssohn's "Ich wollt', meine Lieb" and "Gruss" opened the programme, a pair of light and tender love duets in which Barker's gleaming tone intertwined seductively with the gravity of her partner's. Coleman-Wright returned alone to explore more expressive Romantic territory in five of Wolf's Mörike settings. A pre-concert announcement had alerted us that he was suffering from the dreaded lurgy, but only in the mournful "Verborgenheit" did wayward phlegm threaten seriously to interfere. Otherwise he moved convincingly from the macabre spectacle of "Der Feuerreiter" to "Er ist's", an evocation of Spring whose bright delivery belied his stately tessitura. Most successful was his comic singing of "Abschied" in which perfectly timed gestures allowed even those with no German to share the joke. The song also offered Piers Lane an opportunity for some particularly illustrative playing, as the narrator recounted kicking a critic down the stairs and watching him tumble.

Husband and wife rejoined for another pair of duets, this time by Schumann. "Herbstlied" was a gorgeous tribute to love lost, but soon to return; the unusual "Ich bin dein Baum" (I am your tree) - apparently a paean to intimate botany - was sweet, if not quite so seamlessly sung. More even than the Mendelssohn, these duets allowed Piers Lane's warm, evocative playing a chance properly to share centre stage.

Barker's time to shine came in five songs by Richard Strauss, perhaps the highest point of the evening. Barker's voice is ideally suited to the beguiling, sinuous lines and aural decadence of Strauss' writing for soprano, and she brings to the recital stage the same meticulous response to text which makes her such a vivid operatic performer. Her "Cäcilie" eschewed the Sturm und Drang of some interpretations in favour of impatient, infectious ecstasy. She melted gorgeously into the hard-to-bear beauty of "Morgen" - aided by the devastating serenity of Lane's accompaniment - and then to a "Wiegenlied" charmingly dedicated to her son. Barker's final song, "Allerseelen", was especially moving, building to a climax of stunning intensity which unleashed upon us the full majesty of her frankly exquisite voice.

The second half of the programme began with a song cycle by Richard Mills (Musica Viva's 2008 Featured Composer) devised with these three artists specifically in mind. Entitled Songlines of the Heart's Desire, the cycle sets ten varying texts (of which nine were sung) mapping the life of a love affair. Though contemporary in flavour, Mills' songs fit surprisingly well into their German Romantic surroundings, with their complex, expressive (if occasionally overpowering) piano parts and wide-randing vocal lines. Peter Coleman-Wright was excellent here, his singing sensitive and lyrical and his diction exemplary, although Mills' setting did at times hinder intelligibility. The songs set for soprano make thrilling and fruitful use of Cheryl Barker's upper register and bring out the instinctive actress in her - even while silent, she is so responsive to her partner's singing as almost to transform his songs into duets. It would be interesting to see this cycle performed again with the pair freed from their scores; the cycle, by its very nature, demands the sort of interactive performance which music stands made largely impossible.

We were treated also to a solo turn by Piers Lane who played Brahms' four Piano Pieces (op. 119) with radiant tone and bold expressivity. His rendition of the second Intermezzo (Andantino un poco agitato) was mesmerising, and he powered through the heroic Rhapsodie in E-flat major with suitable aplomb.

Barker and Coleman-Wright then emerged once more for two duets from Kurt Weill's operetta The Firebrand of Florence. Admittedly these songs represent neither Weill nor Ira Gershwin at their best, but they are endearing, if a little corny - and Cheryl and Peter rescued them from total treacle immersion by singing with such a sense of fun, their voices appropriately softened to suit the musical theatre idiom. However, it was in their single encore that they outdid themselves, with the best known Weill piece of all - a sly, sexy rendition (in German) of Mack the Knife. It was the perfect frisson with which to end such a delectable and satisfying musical exploration of love, loss and lush romanticism.

Text © Sarah Noble
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