The untimely death of the dramatic soprano Elizabeth Connell in 2012 deprived the operatic world of one of its most vibrant and individual voices and personalities. This concert, devised by her sister Rose, and her friend the soprano Sally Silver, not only commemorated her life but inaugurated an annual prize in her name, to be competed for in Sydney and funded by the gift of one million Australian dollars in her will.
The evening, as with all such occasions, was a curate’s egg in terms of singing and selection of works. No doubt all were chosen to reflect Connell’s repertoire and special affections, so it was possible to set aside some reservations about some of the extracts. Highlights of the evening included Stuart Skelton’s authoritative Florestan, singing that demanding aria with passionate intensity, clarion tone and complete command of the dramatic import of the scene. It’s a brave man who takes that on, as indeed was true of Lohengrin’s farewell, sung by Thomas Moser with affecting sincerity, and Kathryn Harries’ gripping account of ‘Co chvila’ from Jenůfa.
The concert’s second half focused on the recital hall, with a deeply felt performance of Strauss’ ‘Allerseelen’ by Christine Teare, and a fervent ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’ (Finzi) from Morgan Pearse. There were a few vignettes recalling Connell’s sense of humour, with Yvonne Kenny reminding us of her magnetic stage presence in Gershwin’s ‘By Strauss’ and David Wakeham giving us a splendidly languid ‘I take your hand in mine’ (Tom Lehrer). Perhaps the most moving singing came from Sally Silver, who bravely took on the traditional South African lullaby ‘Thula thula.’
Apart from the roster of singers of every stage of musical development and style of voice, there were some wonderful pianists including Tessa Uys, whose Schubert Impromptu in G flat was the one solo instrumental piece of the evening, Phillip Thomas and David Gowland. Most of the singers and pianists joined forces for a heartfelt ‘Va, pensiero’ which recalled the importance of Verdi in Elizabeth Connell’s life.
Further details of St. John’s, Smith Square concerts can be found at www.sjss.org.uk