REVIEW by Clare Martin of Bach Musica NZ’s Opera Gala at St Matthew-in-the-City, March 2022

A night of opera choruses and arias performed live in the wake of the peak of Omicron was the miracle delivered by Bach Musica NZ at St Matthew-in-the-City, Tamaki Makaurau/ Auckland. A miracle because choral singing has proven to be a super-spreader of Covid and was avoided like, well, the plague. Almost exactly two years ago to the day of this concert, Aotearoa first went into level four lockdown. And for almost two years Bach Musica NZ and groups similar have had to cancel programmes and attempt to reschedule when it was safer, knowing that they need a minimum audience to break even. With all income kneecapped, performing arts groups fell into serious jeopardy.

But in order to weather these storms, Bach Musica devised some shrewd strategies. Down-sizing from the usual Auckland Town Hall to the smaller but amplifying acoustic of St Matthew-in-the-City would have cut a chunk of costs, I’m sure. Saturday night was without the usual orchestral forces and therefore those extra costs were saved too. One feels for the pockets of the missing instrumentalists, but we had the full range of colour supporting the voices from the deeply impressive pianistic and artistic skills of Lindy Tennent-Brown.

With the programme being mainly carried by the operatic soloists and Tennent-Brown on piano, we didn’t have the usual generous dose of the very excellent Bach Musica NZ choir. But this is understandable given the scarcity of rehearsal opportunities in recent months. And the choruses we had were sung with the choir’s hallmark pliable musicality. “Andiam! Andiam!” from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci was a sparkly choice for an opener even if there wasn’t an operatic-sized sound. The choir was lively and engaged when accompanying a charming Alexandra Francis in Die Fledermaus’ “Mein Herr, Marquis”.

A shining gem of the evening was the highly technical “Glitter and be Gay” from Bernstein’s Candide. It was sung with exquisite extravagance by soprano Amelia Berry. Wonderful to hear Berry’s voice again since I last heard her in La Boheme with NZ Opera in 2018. Her tone has filled out without losing her extraordinarily brilliant top notes. And a nicely paced duet from Verdi’s La Traviata with the pleasing voice of tenor Taylor Wallbank makes me wonder when Berry will get an opportunity to prepare the role of Violetta.

This evening would not have been possible without the tenacity and talent of artistic director and conductor Rita Paczian. Bringing an event together in these times was gold-medal worthy. Together with pianist Tennent-Brown, Paczian designed a programme that didn’t fall into the sugar-trap of classical bon-bons but included pieces we often don’t get to hear performed in Aotearoa. The excerpt from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes maybe didn’t work as well, being cauterised from its context but it gave opportunity to hear Amanda Atlas’ powerfully emotional soprano voice. Despite Tennent-Brown’s ability on the keyboard, I really missed an orchestral uplift to give wings to the Trio from R. Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. Nevertheless, it was sung with poise by Atlas, presence and line from mezzo Sarah Court and Berry once again.

All photography by Peter Jennings

A treat to hear Patrick Power’s tenor tones. Singing “E lucevan le stelle” from Puccini’s Tosca with such tenderness from a veteran was inspiring. Performing a lesser-known Puccini aria – “Questo amor, vergogna mia”, baritone James Harrison sang with a warm and secure tone.

And to finish the evening, Paczian brought the choir to its feet to perform one of the most beautiful choruses ever penned – “Regina Coeli” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Along with warmly received compering from Murray Shaw, this book-ended the evening beautifully. With the soloists adding operatic gusto to the choir, here we had a real taste of an opera gala with united voices rising to the heights of St Matthew-in-the-City’s stone arches. And with a touching encore of Va Pensiero dedicated to the people of Ukraine, it was almost rude to be spilled out into the night of the City with its traffic and sirens. I can’t wait to hear more from these very alive voices. You can catch Bach Musica NZ again when they perform Handel’s Samson later this year.