“I have been coming to concerts in Melbourne all my life” said the gentleman next to me on our way out of Melbourne’s Dame Elizabeth Murdoch Recital Hall “and I can never remember such an ovation ever”, not even for Sutherland.
Such was the compliment paid to the simply extraordinary coloratura soprano from Leipzig in Germany Simone Kermes, who was the very special guest artist with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra in September 2013 singing Baroque music fearlessly as promised and with great style.
And if after such fears
Our hearts can rejoice,
Even sweeter will be
The pleasure that we feel*
Wearing glorious costume from tears to turmoil, from tempest to triumph Simone Kermes, held her audience completely captive whether she was delivering a tune demanding her to convey a scene of tempest, throughout her truly marvellous moments of quiet restrained classical elegance, as well as tremendous tears of triumph as the French horns blazed and the double bass richly resonated within the superb acoustic of this simply splendid Melbourne performance art space.
Sublime is not really enough of a superlative to describe the notes Simone Kermes ended the truly memorable Melbourne recital that I attended on Saturday September 14th. It’s good to record the date because those present witnessed something very special.
As a true artist Simone Kermes pushed through and exceeded the usual boundaries of classical performance. With great strength of purpose, sheer determination and amazing agility she brought singing opera arias single handedly onto yet another plane, one that now has a higher bar for others to seek to attain; an extraordinary level of elite excellence.
A lady with character, creativity, great depth, beauty, integrity and with an extraordinary technique and fearless delivery might be the best way to begin to describe the mind boggling abilities and extreme gift Simone Kermes has, which really should be seen and heard live if I am to be believed.
She is renowned for not being elitist, wanting to bring her passion for operatic works into the realm of the 21st century in a way the new generation will embrace. She understands the responsibility that comes with achieving celebrity status. Her latest album Dramma achieved No 1 on the Aria Classical Album Charts this week ensuring that she’s a rock star opera chic.
The control she exhibits over the powerful musical instrument that her voice is, and was completely heart stopping to experience. In an interview with Limelight magazine she noted that “without Baroque I couldn’t live”…it was ‘ in its time the same as our pop music – it was new.
This, her second last concert in Australia at Melbourne, was a resounding success. Here was yet more wild applause to come from an audience, who stood for her as one in both respect and awe. They stood and cheered and clapped loudly and long following each of the three encores she offered.
They were together a stand alone diverse virtuoso mini concert experience, full of light and shade and glorious singing.
Kermes brought tears of joy and laughter to bear with her first show-stopping encore piece, composed by the brother of the eighteenth century’s most famous Italian castrati (countertenor) Farinelli – Riccardo Broschi (1698–1756).
Two young men in the front row, who had obviously impressed Simone during the course of the evening as they responded to her magic, leaped joyfully onto the stage when she invited them both to come and sing and dance along with her.
Youthful hopeful twin brother singers, who we were all amazed to discover knew the Broschi piece, Ben and Chris Underwood joined in and sang with great alacrity. They had a natural bent for gimmickry too and provided a perfect foil for this shining star.
After this truly delightful experience, the Brandenburg’s artistic Director Paul Dyer assured the audience that what they had just witnessed was entirely un-staged. And, it was not surprising to see them all pop up on facebook not long after.
Once again, inspired by her surroundings, Simone had everyone instantly to his or her feet.
The second encore was a heart-wrenching rendition of the ‘peace’ song Lili Marlene, which was truly sublime, requiring another standing ovation.
It was followed by the third and last encore, the completely soul uplifting power of the very emotional and beautiful soprano aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” from the opera Rinaldo by London based German born composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
This popular piece deserves to be admired the world over and especially when rendered by this extraordinary and amazing young woman.
It is one of my favourites and I will admit to everyone that I nearly wept with joy at hearing it sung so beautifully.
However the evening didn’t demand it, because what shone through was Simone Kermes very real raison d’étre, courage, which inspired everyone there.
Then there was the concert itself, which surely for Paul Dyer and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra members must have been a very happy event.
What you have to love about the wonderful musicians who make up the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra is their willingness to reveal how much they are enjoying themselves on centre stage. How can they not love their job?
They are playing the music they love, on superb authentic instruments and to the constant cheers of the crowd, who on this night were surely more vocal than ever before.
Simone said it – the Melbourne crowd was, well in a word, WOW while we all thought that she was the real WOW factor.
The evening started with the orchestra setting the mood for a concert of noble greatness by passionately playing the Overture to Agrippina, an opera by Nicola Porpora (1686-1768) the man who was the teacher of history’s great castrati Farinelli, which was the stage name of Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi (1705-1782).
With Paul Dyer the artistic director and leader centre stage, and Tommi Anderson on Lully’s favourite instrument the Theorbo, this delightful piece of music settled the audience and established the mood for the first half of this amazing night.
It was to be a program of wonderful works from the repertoire for ‘opera seria’ or serious opera.
Many of these have been revealed by artists such as Simone Kermes, who has willing researchers and followers combing the music libraries of Europe looking for early works by Baroque composers, who were all acclaimed in their day.
She is boldly going where no one has gone before and bringing their music back into the light with great majesty.
The libretto or the text was an important aspect of these works. Their initial structure was all about communicating conversations by the character in a language that a cultured audience would tune into at the time.
It was the composer’s job to ensure that everyone understood what was really going down and if they were really clever like Nicola Porpora, that meant well.
The side door on stage opened in anticipation just as the orchestra started playing the first notes of Porpora’s Aria ‘Vedra turbato il mare’ from Mitridate, a work Porpora had prepared in 1730 for the Carnival season at Rome.
This was the period when castrati sang the role of women, as they were not, under the Pope’s express orders, to appear on stage.
The amazing thing about the music of this period and in this genre, was that the singer themselves contributed to the interpretation. After they had sung the first part of the text as written, it would then be repeated and they would be expected to improvise.
In her first sensational dress by celebrity designer Alexander McQueen, Simone Kermes was a sound and scene trend and style-setter as she strode onto the stage in her gown inspired by the court dress of the 18th century, with wide panniers but over a short front black mini skirt and wearing black diamante studded shoes.
She quite literally brought the house down with her eager, energetic, slightly eccentric, enthusiastic and tempestuous performance of sensational sounds of music the audience was hearing for the very first time.
They loved it and it took them a while to settle after she had finished. The purity of her high notes was quite literally gob smacking.
With this showstopper to start we were all well in the mood to listen to the finely drawn playing of the little known superb Violin Concerto in C Major RV 190 by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), which is another piece that has more recently come to light.
It was a sensational solo by the orchestra’s resident concertmaster Matt Bruce and it superbly punctuated the orchestra’s sensational support performance for Simone on the night.
There were three movements and the second movement the Largo had moments of pure exquisite perfection as Bruce delivered a soulful story of heart-aching beauty.
Dyer is a Director supremo, he’s everywhere on stage and not a static commander in chief but coaxing, cajoling and conducting everyone to give their best 100% of the time. It is entirely admirable.
Then the side door opened again and in strode Simone Kermes to sing Nicola Porpora’s Aria “Alto Glove” from Poliferno, captivatingly.
Purity, poetry and surreal sound combined as we moved from soft almost whispering pin-drop moments to a soaring swelling crescendo of notes to die for. It was easy to understand why this amazing piece of music when it premiered in London on 1st February 1735 with Farinelli singing was a sensation.
This is the one that drew tears, both for the sheer beauty of sound and the joy of hearing her sing it.
After such incredible perfection Simone threw herself with great gusto into the Aria “Empi se mai disciolgo” from the opera Germanico in Germania.
The story was taken from the Roman campaigns of the Roman General Germanicus …it is about revenge and fury and her performance ranged from tears to turmoil with a foot stamping theatricality that brought the house down for interval.
After recovering our equilibrium in the buzzing foyer at interval it was back to Baroque business. To commence the second half Simone Kermes strode on stage with confident grandeur. She really rocked in her second glittering gorgeous gown.
This one was bead-encrusted mauve silk over literally layers of pastel tulle supported by toned down panniers and for fashionistas, she was wearing diamante-studded short boots, like really serious shoes and she looked simply amazing.
She delivered a triumphant aria ‘Se dopo ria procella’, again from Germanico in Germania by Porpora, with the French horns at full throttle echoing her glorious notes as Simone guided the ship at sea in the tempest of a fierce storm into the safety of port.
If after a fierce storm
a ship is guided into port
by the light of a friendly star,
a great relief is felt
by its fearful captain.
We all enjoyed the ride. It was great stuff and the audience responded accordingly.
However as Kermes and the extra players were exiting stage left and right after this monumental start Dyer and the orchestra jumped straight into a splendid Sinfonia in g minor by Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751) with sheer joyful abandon before they were gone and the doors shut.
It was entirely fitting because a Sinfonia was originally designed to keep momentum going and its ‘decisive first movement was meant to quieten the audience’ so that the orchestra could get down to the business of serious playing.
But this was only a short instrumental interlude and no matter how poignantly perfect it was it was all about setting us up for the Baroque bonus booty, Simone Kermes final sweeping performances of the evening.
The first work was by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710 – 1736) who was a contemporary of Porpora who tragically died aged 26. What he had composed before he left the earth was so sublime that he had become well known in his own day. So much so that he was posthumously copied by others cashing in on his celebrity status. Today the academics have more or less sorted out what’s his and theirs.
His wonderful aria from the opera Adriano in Siria a popular libretto at the time entitled “Sui mio cor” was followed up by the instrumental overture for the opera played by the ABO.
They were both full of brilliant virtuosity and simply splendid vehicles for such a sensational solo coloratura singer and a period instrument orchestra playing powerfully at the top of their game.
This powerhouse of a performance set the stage for the final work by a composer. who is still little known in our day, but was a huge hit in his own.
He was the incomparable Leonardo Leo (1694-1744) from the Neapolitan school and he wrote his first opera aged 20 in 1714.
The aria was “Son qual nave” from Zenobia in Palmira, which took place in a gentler storm than the one imagined by Porpora.
It was full of the sweet pleasure we had all felt so keenly throughout this outstanding evening.
The aria showcased Simone Kermes voice as one of the most pure and powerful on the planet. It was very well done indeed and what a lucky girl I felt to have had the privilege of being there.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013