Wednesday, 8 August 2012

LIVING WITH G.F.HANDEL / The Basso Canaries / Review

The Basso Canaries
The Living Room @ The Arts House
Monday (6 August 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 8 August 2012 with the title 'Chinese soprano upstages Singaporean baritones".

Every male who thinks he can sing fancies himself to be a tenor. Reality dictates otherwise, and it takes a rare bird to settle being a lower-voiced and less glamourous baritone. The recently-departed Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau showed that baritones could combine seriousness with an avuncular sort of glamour, and be more than a match for those egotistical and attention-hogging tenors.

Thus it is a minor triumph that two young Singaporean baritones have mustered enough guts and gumption to pair up and presenting themselves in concerts as the tongue-in-cheek named Basso Canaries. Both Xiao Chunyuan and Steven Ang are vocal students in Singapore and Taipei respectively, and their second concert together took on the lofty challenges of George Frideric Handel’s operatic music.

During his time, Handel (1685-1759) wrote some of the most florid and technically demanding arias for his Italian operas and later English oratorios. It takes a singer with enormous range, utmost flexibility and almost implausible agility to do justice to these highly theatrical numbers. It would be an understatement to say that both Basso Canaries gave their bravest and best shots within a steep learning curve.

Xiao, more heftily built, had the bigger sound that was called for in Revenge, Timotheus Cries from Alexander’s Feast. He certainly can dramatically project and vary his dynamics, but tends to swallows his words. Thus his English sometimes becomes indistinguishable from his Italian, as in the passionate aria Tu se il cor in questo core (You are the Heart of my Heart). Also that all too provincial Singaporean trait of pronouncing “their” as “diar” should be dropped for good. 

Ang, the leaner of the two, displayed no shortage of pathos in See The Flames Arise from Joshua, was able to emote and identify with the protagonist’s angst in Aure, deh, per pieta (Ye Breezes, In Pity) from Julius Caesar. His rather constricted range, wavering intonation and straining to reach higher notes were however limiting factors in this demanding repertoire.

In duets with Shandong-born soprano Elaine Su Yiwen, a student at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, the disparity became more apparent. In the final mellifluous duet of Cleopatra and Caesar, Caro, Bella, piu amabile belta, Su sounded natural and effortless while Ang struggled to hit the high spots. Su had her own aria, So Shall the Lute and the Harp Awake from Judas Maccabeus, which was thrilling as she clearly relished in the typically virtuosic Handelian runs. All three singers were ably supported by pianist Beatrice Lin.  

On this evening, two Singaporean canaries were upstaged by one Chinese nightingale.

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