Sacred music without the frills



New Opera Singapore

Victoria Concert Hall/Last Friday

The Stabat Mater, composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi in 1735, is generally accepted to be one of the finest pieces of sacred music ever written.

Almost from the day it was first performed in a Naples church, composers have shamelessly stolen its ideas for their own use. Most famously, Bach turned it into a large-scale work for orchestra and four-part chorus.

New Opera Singapore took no such liberties, paring it down to its barest bones. It performed the work with just four singers - although never more than two were singing at any given time - a string quartet and a chamber organ so discreet that one wondered why keyboard player Shane Thio even bothered to hide himself behind the capacious music stand.


Cellist Chan Wei Shing helped keep the speeds under control, giving the voices every opportunity to show their individuality.

Glenn Camillus Wong was a pure-toned alto with a sure-footed command of the musical style, while contralto Jade Tan revealed strong musical instincts as well as a firmly balanced tone, although she never seemed totally at ease with the rarefied style of Pergolesi.

Matters of style were brushed aside by the two sopranos.

Felicia Teo revealed a gloriously powerful upper range, full of operatic fervour, but her jumps from low to high were uncomfortably abrupt.

Christina The had impressive security of pitch, but her diction was totally indecipherable. I suspect only her most intimate acquaintances will have known whether she was singing in Latin, Greek, Mandarin or Cymraeg, which is spoken in Wales.

Before the Stabat Mater - and the extended interval - five arias by Bach, given a mellifluous piano accompaniment by Benjamin Britten, were performed by four singers, all in their mid-teens.

It is probably unfair to expect a 14-year-old boy to sustain any real stability of tone in a tenor part conceived by Bach, but full marks go to Corey Koh for maintaining such composure as well as for his immaculate diction.

Also 14, Jasmine Grace Towndrow's charming soprano voice was notable for its flawless pitching.

Unfortunately, as with Mikako Martin, another singer whose tuning and diction were beyond reproach, projection was a problem and, despite the hugely sympathetic support from Thio at the piano, neither voice really carried into the body of the hall.

Mathematicians will, by now, have calculated that with five songs and four singers, one singer will have had to sing twice. Wisely, that double exposure was given to Evangeline Ng. Hers was by far the most impressive voice here.

Graceful, poised and consummately confident, one cannot doubt that, with a voice of this quality at this stage of her career, she is destined for great things when she fully matures as a singer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2017, with the headline 'Sacred music without the frills'. Print Edition | Subscribe