Before this concert began, Patrick Nolan, the artistic director of Opera Queensland, told us that we were in for a treat. But it was much more than that. To hear a program s well prepared and as beautifully performed as Eastern Promises was, in these times where so many musical performances are cancelled, is truly balm for the soul.
Eastern Promises was a voyage into the Orientalism of the 19th and early 20th century, so penetratingly encapsulated by Edward Said, plus a comment on that Orientalism by the American composer Jake Heggie and a couple of Australian pieces. Thoroughly aware of the conflicted nature of this subject, both soprano Alexandra Flood and pianist Alex Raineri took us onboard their ship of delights.
Flood sang in five languages, and I am unable to comment on her Polish, Czech, or Russian, but her French was exquisite. She began with the best three songs from Debussy’s Ariettes Oubliées, and followed them with that textbook of Orientalism, Asie from Ravel’s Shéhérazade. She inhabited the fin de siècle world of these songs so completely she even moved in a French manner while singing. Gorgeous in both low and high registers, she was wonderfully partnered by Raineri who played the picturesque and ecstatic orchestral reduction with commitment and zeal, drawing amazing colours from the piano. In all four French songs I was struck by his capacity for making the postludes a resonance of the songs’ endings, rather than a comment on them.
In two songs by Szymanowski, and also in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Nightingale, Flood showed off her impressive coloratura in the extensive passages of vocalise. Pure and clear, she revelled in the wordless singing, conscious that these passages took us into the essence of the voice, where sound and meaning are one.
Raineri’s playing increases in stature every time I hear him. He is so relaxed now, letting the piano speak and the phrases breathe, and conveys a striking command of the architecture of the music. This was particularly evident in the Debussy set, and also in three songs by Dvorak which made their way into the program by virtue of their gypsy references, gypsies being somehow tinged with orientalism in their otherness, like Kundry in Parsifal. Raineri starred in two songs by Rachmaninov, especially Lilacs, in which the piano, at first seeming only to offer a countermelody to the voice part, takes over until by the end it sounds like a piano concerto.
Two rather slight songs by Peggy Glanville-Hicks were sandwiched between a marvellous tableau by Jake Heggie, Water Stone, and a disturbing piece by Kate Miller-Heidke from The Rabbits, an operatic metaphor for the white despoiling of Australia, which concluded the concert. Water Stone finished with one of the most extraordinary notes Flood produced in the concert – begun softly, it tapered off into an almost inaudible pianissimo without wavering for an instant. This virtuosic moment was not lost on the audience, which, deeply appreciative of all these wonderful performances, cheered, but only after holding their breath in what Keats called “soft amaze”.
Opera Queensland presents
Alexandra Flood and Alex Raineri
Venue: Opera Queensland Studio | South Bank, 140 Grey Street, South Bank QLD
Dates: 17 – 18 September 2021