Stunning concerts from the NZSO and APO

Westpac Opera in Concert
Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi
Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Auckland Town Hall
August 17

Cathedral of Sound
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Auckland Town Hall
August 18

Auckland music lovers had two major events late last week, with the APO’s concert version of Verdi’s Nabucco and the NZSO playing Bruckner’s huge fifth symphony.

Nabucco is probably the favourite opera of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, telling as it does of the biblical Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed Jerusalem and exiled the Jews from their homeland.

He may not be all that thrilled with the ending though, where it is acknowledges that the man was mad and eventually allowed the Jews their freedom.

Verdi, however, did not write his opera about Middle Eastern politics for those in the then Ottoman Empire but rather for his own people. This was a patriotic work about the Austrian overlords and the Va penseiro chorus of the exiled Jews became a popular song for the masses with its heartfelt love of country. 

In concert versions of operas the chorus and the orchestra are much more apparent. The chorus is better able to concentrate on singing rather than having to act as a group of slaves pondering their fate.

In the APO’s concert, the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus played a starring role. With the choruses predominately written for the Hebrew slaves, the chorus becomes the main character of the opera and they gave a magnificent performance, not only giving Va penseiro but all the choruses a forceful vitality.

There was a great line-up of soloists, both local and international. A standout performer was Paoletta Marrocu as Abigaille (Nabucco’s unnatural daughter). 

She brought to the role a gripping forcefulness, creating a character full of vehemence and anger. Her steely voice combined a raw sensuality and venomous hatred, and she added an intense emotional quality with her acting.

As Zaccaria, Burak Bilgili provided a beautifully rounded voice, while Alejandro Roy’s subtle, robust singing gave Ismaele a real gravitas.

Helen Medlyn as Nabucco's daughter gave a confident presentation but occasionally appeared to be underpowered in contrast to Paoletta Marrocu.

Sebastian Catana, who replaced Boris Statsenko in the title role, displayed a genuine understanding of the part, providing a furious voice in the first half and a more tender and compassionate tone at the end.

In the minor roles, Ben Makisi, Grant Dickson and Anna Lees added greatly to the lineup and their voices were well used in their various encounters with the principals.

The orchestra itself was in fine form, responding magnificently to conductor Eckehard Stier. They played with confidence and precision, adding to a superb evening of the political and the poetic.

The NZSO’s Cathedral of Sound on the night after the APO triumph was an equally stunning concert.

Making it an even more exhilarating evening was the presence of the flamboyant conductor Simone Young, who for several years worked with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.

The architectural reference in the title of the concert was borne out in the two works they played.

With the first, Mozart’s Symphony No 36 (The Linz), the focus was on the architectural elements. There was a clear division between what was structural and what was decoration.

Young measured this out crisply, exposing the clarity of the classical structure overlaid with elaborate Baroque surface detail.

She appeared to be shaping the music with a very physical approach to conducting with grand gestures, seeming to swim into the music.

With the major work on the programme, Bruckner’s Symphony No 5, she was less demonstrative but kept a tight control of the players.

Like a vast cathedral, the work is full of strong elements in which the delicate, light passages are contrasted with the dark, while tumultuous sounds emerge from the quiet passages.

There was a sense of a tumultuous struggle with the competing forces of nature and man. The natural landscapes present in much of much of the work occasionally erupt, hinting at the intrusion of human activity.

In the first movement this was evident in a clash between the sweetness of the woodwinds and the drama of the horns, drums and bass.

The music takes us on a grand adventure exploring a great structure. Massive walls of music contrasting with lyrical passages, the various sections abruptly changing as though describing the alternating solidity and lightness of the structure.

Holding this all together was Simone Young, who appeared to alternate between dancing and marching to the music in a bravura display of conducting.

Next concerts:


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John Chen, piano

Brahms Piano Concerto No 1
Sibelius Symphony No 5

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Thursday, Ausgust 30, 8pm 


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Stephen Hough, piano

RITCHIE Diary of a Madman: Dedication to Shostakovich
SAINT-SAËNS Piano Concerto No 5 Egyptian

Wellington, September 22, 8pm

Napier, September 25, 7.30pm

Hamilton, September 27, 7.30pm

Auckland, September 28, 7pm