★★★★☆ Thrilling choral theatrics abound when the church goes to the opera.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
May 6, 2017

Clever idea for a programme this: an evening of musical prayers juxtaposing a sacred masterwork by a great Italian opera composer with a series of operatic supplications to divine beings by his contemporaries. The combined forces of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs Festival Chorus and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir under SPC Music Director Brett Weymark were joined by a fine quartet of Opera Australia regulars and the frankly excellent Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra in an appealing concert of Mediterranean passion and religious sentiment.

As a prequel to Rossini’s Stabat Mater – an underrated masterpiece if ever there was one – the first half began with one of Verdi’s most tuneful pieces from his neglected ‘galley years’, the overture to Giovanna D’Arco. From the dramatically energised opening, through the beautifully finessed woodwind trios of its pastoral central section and on to the martial finale, Weymark proved a dab hand in the genre, unafraid to relish the rum-ti-tum jollity of it all. His tempi were spot on, while his sense of phrasing lifted the music from the routine to the genuinely inspired.

Once a staple of 19th and 20th-century concert programmes, the prayer from Rossini’s Mose in Egitto has fallen by the wayside in recent decades. A full, fat choral sound, and fine solo contributions from Warwick Fyfe, Jaewoon Kim, Taryn Fiebig and Jacqueline Dark, reminded us of what a fine piece it is. Each soloist then got to perform his or her ‘party piece’, judiciously chosen to give the chorus a chance to shine in a supporting role.

Fyfe, a genuine Verdi baritone, was in excellent voice in the oath scene from Verdi’s Don Carlo, his dark tone riding easily over the orchestra. Kim’s lighter voice – more of a Rossini tenor – was less successful, becoming drowned out at times, though he blended nicely with Fyfe in the ensemble singing. Fiebig’s light and graceful soprano delivered an attractive Casta Diva, especially impressive in the athletics of the cabaletta. Dark, particularly alluring in the upper register these days, embraced the passionate plea of Maria Stuarda’s final prayer before soaring over choir and orchestra in the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana.

The choral contributions were excellent throughout, especially in the Mascagni where with disciplined singing and throbbing organ underpin they rose to a terrific climax. The men’s voices, perhaps, could do with a little more Italianate bite, but the commitment was never in doubt and attention to text was evident throughout. Weymark proved especially adept at helping each piece to stand on its own two feet as a miniature dramatic scena, his attention to introductions and internal matters of phrasing and balance aided by his fine orchestra.

Rossini’s Stabat Mater, with its extraordinary level of melodic invention, has become almost a victim of its own success. Critics of a later generation became suspicious of its easy, hummable tunes in the context of the poor old Virgin lamenting at the foot of the cross. Admittedly Rossini goes over the top at times, making the tenor aria into a march on the basis of a single reference to a sword, but he’s never less than impassioned in what is, let’s face it, a passionate and dramatic text laden with grief, suffering and lashings of trembling breaths.

The work relies at least as much on its soloists as it does on its chorus, Fiebig and Dark doing sterling work in the soprano duets (the work is actually scored for SSTB). Elsewhere the four singers blended superbly, particularly fine in the opening Stabat Mater and the early sections of the tricky unaccompanied penultimate quartet. Despite not being the requisite basso profundo, Fyfe was characterful in the darkly dramatic Pro peccatis. Dark was special too in the Fac, ut portem, her powerful voice thrilling at the top. Sadly Kim struggled with the taxing Cujus animam. His voice tends to thin out the higher it gets, which is not ideal for this music and his painful crack on the killer top D Flat was unfortunate.

Weymark’s reading was generally brisk, wisely preferring not to wallow in music that does your wallowing for you. He never stinted the drama, however, bringing plenty of theatrics to a piece that demands a bit of musical scenery chewing.

From the opening onwards the chorus proved themselves capable of a beefy, exciting sound, their finest hour probably their confidant entries and deft handling of the a cappella sections of the Eia Mater. They also impressed spitting out the text of the Inflammatus – Rossini’s precursor to Verdi’s Dies Irae – where Fiebig too was at her most mesmerising. The final fugue went at such a lick it almost caught the choir off guard, and the tenors were a little stretched by the end, but rock solid Amens were perfect for a choral work that appropriately contrives to end exactly like an opera.