Simon Soars

Lindsay Perigo's picture
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Tue, 2015-06-16 01:45
Simon Soars

Simon Soars

"Tenor is not a voice; it is a disease!" harrumphs a woman who just happens to be a soprano, in the 1951 Hollywood bio-pic The Great Caruso. The movie featured one spectacular carrier of the "disease" playing another, and spawned veritable epidemics of it, most notably in the forms of Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras. And it didn't stop there:

In 1990, as a 19-year-old music student, I decided the world of opera would be for me. Three things influenced this decision: the first Three Tenors concert in Rome to mark the World Cup and Jose Carreras's heroic conquest of leukaemia; a fellow brass-player introducing me to Jussi Bjoerling's stellar recording of 'E la solita storia' from L'Arlesiana; and the purchasing of my first Mario Lanza CD—'The Great Caruso and Other Favorites.' Through this CD I fell in love with Mario Lanza's voice, his artistry—his complete persona. Tracks like 'Parmi Veder le Lagrime' from Verdi's Rigoletto and 'Musica Proibita' sailed out of the speakers into my relatively young operatic head and utterly captivated it. The sense of urgency Mario Lanza brought to everything, the clarity of his diction, the thrilling 'ping' in his voice, the way he unleashed his high notes ... I was enthralled.

—Simon O'Neill, Foreword to The One Tenor: A Salute to Mario Lanza, 2014.

Sense of urgency. Thrilling ping. Clarity of his diction. Way he unleashed his high notes. Simon O'Neill might well have been describing his own singing (though he's far too modest a fellow to do so in that way). It was after all of his performance as Otello in Sydney, 2014, that The Guardian wrote:

As for Otello, the New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill commands from the minute he steps on stage. From his re-entry in Act 1 where he seeks to silence the fray ("Abbasso le spade!"/"Down with your swords!"), O’Neill’s vocal and physical presence never wavers. Taught the role by one of the great Otellos, Placido Domingo, and fresh from a season of Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera, it is with single-minded intensity that O’Neill’s Heldentenor pierces through the psyche of the beleaguered Moor.

And all the above qualities were evident in dazzling abundance on Friday night, June 12, 2015, as O'Neill joined stupendous soprano Christine Goerke and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen to present a "Wagner Gala" comprising highlights from Wagner's Ring Cycle.

As is well known, Wagner's Ring Cycle is a hundred times more preposterous than life and a thousand times longer, so selecting "highlights" of sufficient brevity to enable the audience to be released the same evening is no mean feat. And for singers, deemed by Wagner to be simply additional members of the orchestra with no special privileges, to make themselves heard above an orchestra that is on stage with them as opposed to being below them in an opera pit, is no mean feat either. To be candid, Siegfried and Brunnhilde were occasionally overpowered, and the charismatic Maestro Inkinen clearly had no intention of holding himself or his rampant orchestra (the magnificent beasts!) back in any way in one of their last performances together for a while—but for the most part the vocalists were sublimely audible above the competing cacophony. Physically and vocally, Ms Goerke is reminiscent of the towering Montserrat Caballe, and I was reminded of nothing so much as hearing Caballe, decades ago, in Tosca, her (and Jose Carreras's) glorious tones spinning off the walls of Covent Garden. O'Neill in turn often sounded like his friend and mentor, Placido Domingo; in fact, were it not for the pesky actual chronology of things, I'd be tempted to say Domingo reminds me of O'Neill! As a technical aside, I'd add that the purity of Simon's "eeeeeeeeeee" vowel on high notes where opera singers often modify it beyond recognition is a contemporary wonder of the world.

I am one of those philistines who ecstasise to tunes. When I go to the opera it's largely to hear melodies I can hum rapturously on the way home. I get grumpy with Wagner on account of the years that must pass, full of seeming dirge ("continuous music narrative"), between the tuneful bits. At a delightful, rustic Kapiti lunch the day before the Wagner Gala, Simon eloquently assured me that, au contraire, there is a point to every single note of Wagner's "continuous music narrative"; every note, in fact—even the most seemingly random and incidental—is "pure gold." It was clear to me that Wagner for Simon is not just a way of making a living—he lives for it and lives it. Sense of urgency. Thrilling ping. Clarity of diction. Way he unleashes his high notes. Mario, hardly a Wagner man either, would assuredly approve, so how could I not?!

The next evening, Saturday June 13, the orchestra accompanied the sweet-toned violinist Karen Gomyo, substituting for a pregnant Hilary Hahn, in a nimble rendering of Beethoven's Concerto in D, and then performed the entire Lemminkaienen Suite by Inkinen's compatriot, Jean Sibelius (usually one hears the second movement, Swan of Tuonela, as a stand-alone). This was a fitting finale to the "Inkinen Festival," as the two evenings combined were dubbed, a tribute to a conductor who prided himself, justly, on big, bold projects. He leaves to become Chief Conductor of the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Young, handsome and vibrant, he will assuredly enjoy a future as golden as his recent past: seven stellar years as Music Director of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

If The Inkinen Festival hasn't yet come to a place near you, and there are still tickets available, snap them up. "Continuous music narrative" and all, these are some of Western Civilisation's finest moments, past and present.