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Friday, 23 November 2012

John Tomlinson masterclass at the Royal Academy


John Tomlinson hardly needs introducing, but suffice it to say that he's one of my favourite currently performing singers. Yes, the voice is now well past its prime, but he's one of opera's best singing actors in my opinion, always living completely inside a role, nothing extraneous, nothing overwrought, we're never in any doubt about the musical and dramatic intent, and his presence and impact are always massive. And despite the serious vocal wear I still enjoy hearing that huge voice in Wagner with its virtually bottomless depth and superb diction. Some people see him as a thunderer and find him lacking in subtlety, but I have to say I've never seen this side of him.

credit: Robert Workman
Initially he seemed to have a bit of difficulty in communicating his ideas with the young singers, taking long pauses to think and try to articulate himself better. But soon he got into a rhythm and had helpful things to say to all the students. Gareth John is a vocally very accomplished baritone but wasn't communicating with enough immediacy with the audience in the prologue of I Pagliacci, so Tomlinson had him come into the room several times, and bring his centre gravity forward so that it was over the balls of his feet, which forced him into the right posture and attitude. Nicholas Crawley sung La calunnia from Rossini's Barbiere with great character, style and assurance, but Tomlinson helped him sing with a greater legato line, stressing the importance of breath support and movement - he said the breathing apparatus must always be moving and that when it stops, so does the air flow. This seems obvious, but only once it's been said. Proper support became a theme for the other singers too. Thomas Elwin gave the cutest account of the lascivious Count's Questa o quella from Rigoletto that I have ever heard, which impressed Tomlinson greatly, though he again stressed the importance of legato and taking care of all the notes, giving each one its due. Top notes need a definite shape and a rest in a phrase does not mean the ending of the phrase. Also an important but humorous point of tempo - if this is sung too fast, and indeed with a lot of Verdi, there's a danger of it becoming Gilbert and Sullivan!

I was most impressed by Ross Ramgobin, a young baritone with immensely finessed vocal control, capable of some very beautiful singing. Timbrally I was reminded of Kaufmann, that is, somewhere between a tenor and a baritone sound, but especially that special focussed intimacy in quiet passages, and he's well on his way interpretively too. He sang O du mein holder Abendstern from Tannhauser very nicely, but with a little too much Italianate squillo, and not enough quiet rapture and innigkeit. Because the technical apparatus was so secure, Tomlinson was able to instruct his student on a higher level, and Ramgobin was able to effect significant changes immediately and really improved his interpretation in the short space of time that they worked together. Ramgobin is one to watch.

Tereza Gevorgyan is also an interesting singer. She sang Quando m'en vo from La Boheme with flirtatious swagger and with an astonishing intensity in the sound considering how slender her frame is. Tomlinson's comments chimed exactly with Barbara Bonney's comments on the attitude that this aria requires - there's no need for Musetta to moon around and be overly flirtatious - she knows her power and barely needs to move to be captivating and the centre of attention. Tomlinson identified a tendency to sing slightly flat in the passagio, but simply focussing on becoming conscious of this, not pressing, and making the sound shimmer and spin on the sharp side of the note was the difference between "OK, and classic". He was right - just this small change made these sections much more beautiful. Gevorgyan's voice is attractively full, with an especially lovely lower register - occasionally the top is over vibrant and too intense for comfort - though with more vocal support Tomlinson coaxed her into singing quieter. Her Donizetti (so anch'io la virtu magica) was delightful. She's not yet as finished as Ramgobin but she's definitely got something unique.

Not the most enlightening afternoon, but certainly enjoyable. One sensed that Tomlinson might have worked better on interpretive matters and acting with more finished singers, as these have always been his strengths, but there was still much to be gleaned here.

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