In the self-effacing liner notes to accompany his debut solo album Shining Knight Stuart Skelton quips about his ‘confoundingly successful’ career. The Australian tenor is regarded as one of the greatest heldentenors of his generation and at age 50 has conquered the opera houses of the world. This week he will sing the epic Wagner role of Tristan in the WA Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of Tristan und Isolde, followed by his signature role Peter Grimes at the September Brisbane Festival then Siegmund at Covent Garden, Otello at the Metropolitan Opera and on it goes.
Skelton’s steady climb to the pinnacle of operatic repertoire comes as no surprise to the rest of the world, even if it leaves Skelton bemused. Australian audiences have watched his ascent from winning the 1993 Australian Singing Competition to his early Siegmund in collaboration with Asher Fisch and the State Opera of South Australia in 2004 and his Peter Grimes for Opera Australia in 2010.
Skelton is now based in Orlando, Florida and his decision to record his debut solo album with the WA Symphony Orchestra is perhaps a tribute to his Australian roots and his friendship with the orchestra’s principal conductor Fisch. The album is a gift to listeners: Skelton’s enormous heldentenor voice beautifully recorded so that his impeccable craftmanship can be fully appreciated in the intimacy of your own loungeroom/headphones.
Skelton’s musical selections chart Wagner’s development as an opera composer from the French grand opera of Rienzi and the romantic Lohengrin to the gesamtkunstwerk of Die Walkure and Parsifal. Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder are also included plus works by American composers Charles Griffes and Samuel Barber that reveal Wagner’s influence on 20th century composers.
Despite the weighty repertoire, Skelton’s voice is decidedly un-gargantuan. The album was recorded in the Perth Concert Hall and while there are stirring moments where the music can be heard reverberating through the hall his voice is elegantly contained, flawlessly controlled and sung with deep feeling.
In this he is matched by Fisch and the WA Symphony Orchestra who play with unfailingly glowing warmth. Pomposity is eschewed for sinuous, lyrical lines with hints of vibrato and rounded edges.
In the operatic repertoire Skelton demonstrates his mastery of Wagner’s dramatic architecture, producing a weightless intimate sound which can expand a bar later into the resplendent triumphalism of a true heldentenor. The aria Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab from Rienzi makes a sublime opening, with shimmering wind and harp chords cushioning Skelton’s sweetly restrained undertone. The journey from heart tugging intimacy to soaring conclusion in In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten from Lohengrin is simply ravishing. Amfortas! Die Wunde! Die Wunde! from Parsifal is more weighty with its dark low brass but Fisch creates transparency too with clean string lines tumbling around the heft of Skelton’s tenor.
In the more intimate lieder (Felix Mottl’s orchestration) Mathilde Wesendonck’s poems are conveyed with a rich palette of colours, from melancholic sighing to radiant optimism and the suspended bliss of a reverie. Griffes’ Three Poems of Fiona MacLeod is a welcome addition to the album with hints of Britten’s modal dissonance paired with lush orchestral swells reminiscent of Strauss. Barber’s Sure on this Shining Night makes a gentle, pensive end to the album.
This is a landmark album which captures Skelton at his prime with the WA Symphony Orchestra at their zenith under Asher Fisch. It is a fabulous birthday present for the orchestra which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, and augurs well for WASO’s much-anticipated Tristan und Isolde later this week.
Tristan und Isolde is on August 16th and 19th at the Perth Concert Hall.