Soprano Alexandra Flood and pianist Alex Raineri presented the first of a series of recent studio concerts for Opera Queensland (OQ) in 2019. That program was very well received, offering a mixture of operatic hits and favourites. This second recital by the duo gave us both an interesting concept and a more esoteric program, the lesser-known repertoire having predominantly two aims: firstly, to uncover how different composers have treated female singers, while celebrating the virtuosity of the female voice; secondly, to look at a musical journey from West to East and how Eastern musical themes have influenced the Western classical tradition.
Celebrating the female voice was apparent in each of the songs that were chosen, clearly with virtuosity in mind, but there were less obvious connections in the ‘Eastern promise’ theme. Both Ravel’s Asie from Shéhérezade and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Eastern Song had clear links to oriental music, while others offered links such as Jake Heggie’s Japanese-inspired Water Stone (Noguchi), and Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ 1945 song cycle set in China, but without much clarity in terms of their resonance back to the West. The remainder appeared more tenuous. Debussy’s glorious Ariettes Oubliées (Forgotten Airs), was connected through musical impressionism and Verlaine’s poetry, while Rachmaninov’s Spring Waters and Lilacs also offered poetic links. Dvořák’s Gypsy Melodies and Kate Miller-Heidke’s Where? from The Rabbits offered no obvious rationale for their inclusion, apart from the latter’s link to colonialism.
Alex Raineri is a gifted and very fine pianist, technically accomplished with first-rate attention to detail. He produced some truly beautiful, considered playing and ravishing harmonics. He is both a terrific accompanist, as well as a fine soloist in his own right. His playing of both the softer passages, predominantly in the French repertoire of Debussy and Ravel, as well as the delightful Heggie work, alongside such fiendishly fast and difficult pieces as the Dvořák Gypsy songs and Rachmaninov songs, was exemplary. The piano certainly came into its own in many of the delicate and fiery works. It was therefore disappointing that, in a program offering 18 songs in total, not one of them was for solo piano alone. A few pieces of French or Russian piano repertoire that could have well-fitted the Eastern theme would have been welcome, and may also have given the soprano a well-deserved break.
Alexandra Flood has a highly unusual voice. The timbre is bright with some glorious top notes, which she puts to very great use. Her great gift as a singer seems to be an ability to sing sotto voce, softening her voice with near perfect intonation and giving it a floating quality. Such singing is highly appealing aurally, though when the voice opened up more the sound was not always as ravishing. She was good in the Debussy where the composer’s customary use of rhythm, colour and tone allowed Flood’s light lyric voice to offer delicate moments in the three differently paced songs, with some fine legato in the upper register. Her riveting top notes and vocal fireworks in the Szymanowski Songs of the Fairy-Tale Princess were impressive, as was Dvořák’s beautiful song to his mother, where Flood’s whisper thin legato offered beautiful controlled phrasing. Similarly, she gave us the ethereal quality of Heggie’s work with aplomb, and portrayed sensitively the gentle romanticism leading to the swelling top notes in the two gorgeous Rachmaninov works.
She was less successful in the middle range and extremely light at the bottom of her voice, where the legato proved difficult for her to sustain. This was noticeable in Ravel’s Asie, a much-revered work where the writer dreams of visiting the Orient. Flood imbued the work with much warmth, passion and colour but also seemed to swallow her words while singing. Being composed for a mezzo-soprano, perhaps the piece was just too low for her voice. As with the Debussy also, her French diction was difficult to understand, especially the famous and oft-repeated “Je voudrais voir” (I would like to see) which failed to have impact.
Diction and the understanding of the text and words being sung was unfortunately an issue throughout the concert. Flood sang all the songs in their original languages, five in total – French, Czech, Polish, Russian and English. It would have been good to have had a printed text to the words of the songs, especially those sung in unfamiliar languages. This could have improved the audience’s understanding of the pieces, even though both Flood and Raineri did introduce the works and composers. Flood also did her absolute best to sell the songs, imbuing them with emotion, and worked enormously hard all evening, with intelligent and committed singing.
Overall, the most successful sung piece of the evening was Kate Miller-Heidke and Lally Katz’s Where? from the 2015 opera The Rabbits, based on an allegory of the colonial settlement of Australia. The non-operatic style of this work, more a folk-song or musical theatre piece than opera, allowed Flood to lighten up, not try to over-sing and just allow the meaning to take shape. It was simple and authentic and it left an indelible impression.