In September 2018, Australian mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup won enthusiastic praise for her captivating performance as Romeo in Victorian Opera’s presentation of Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues at Hamer Hall. With an established successful international career and a strikingly beautiful voice and stage presence, here was a recital not to be missed.
On a busy Melbourne Recital Centre early weekday, somehow The Word had not been spread sufficiently to draw a full house, so deserved by Caitlin Hulcup & Friends. With many competing events, school term preparations, a live-streaming option too, the smaller live audience was unexpectedly but kindly relocated onto the magical and intimate setting of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall stage. How special that was, to be immersed in the finest acoustic and atmospheric lighting of the stage beside world-class musicians was an honour.
Dressed in luscious glowing shades of springtime turquoise – the colour that traditionally connects heaven to earth – Hulcup had a magnetic stage presence. All texts were communicated with powerfully honest, spontaneous, sincere and understated facial expressions and hand gestures. With pianist Kristian Chong, whose role was more comrade-in-arms than accompanist, this exemplary program of mainly Romantic works opened with four Schubert lieder. In “Ganymed”, the essence of Goethe’s poetry – Spring, desire, love’s addiction and yearning, youth and beauty – was gorgeously projected in Hulcup’s rich, rounded, golden-toned voice. So expressive, so romantic, heartfelt and gently seductive, the audience was spellbound, silent and captivated for the evening. “Das sie hier gewesen” showed more poignant expression of Ruckert’s poetry, with lingering thoughtful silences between the text, and superb pianissimos and gentle crescendos from both voice and piano. The well-known “Gretchen am Spinnrade” further allowed Hulcup to share a deeper musical language, drawing us in to the composer’s intangible expression of beauty, love, loss and the human condition. Chong’s highly sensitive partnership, offering varied fullness and colouring of timbres in solo instrumental passages or in mirroring the changing emotions in Hulcup’s performance, first with Schubert and then Schumann, was also striking. From both performers, little physical gesture or excessive stage movement was ever needed to portray the changing intensities of the music.
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Associate Principal Violist, Fiona Sargeant, brought a wealth of European experience and fine artistry to the stage for two movements of Schumann’s Marchenbilder, Op. 113. The first, Nicht schnell, allowed Chong to shape the poetic D minor mood with a breadth of tender sparkling silvery lights on the highest keys. Sargeant’s viola was indeed expressive but, with mute, carried less projection in the lowest and more shadowy notes beginning some solo phrases. The second, Lebhaft, leapt from an agitated opening, which showed Chong’s most fluent and cleanest articulation, making vivace appear easy. Both instruments intertwined in a devilish gallop, a terrific ride before shifting all musical gears downwards quite suddenly with surprise and humour into a “Whoa!” and a gentle halt.
In Hugo Wolf’s Mörike Lieder, new Wagnerian-flavoured tonal harmonies allowed Hulcup to show an impressively wide range and colour palette, a grand dynamic with substantial power on long low notes, and exciting high notes that held colour and pitch without losing beauty. Against crystalline tremolo fragments and turbulent chromatic runs on the piano, Hulcup’s entries were strong and defiant in “Lied vom Winde”. Two Gesänge, Op. 91 by Brahms brought moments of drama and virtuosity to a soulful close for the first part of the program, with Chong’s beautifully pedalled sonorities and Sargeant’s finely woven lyrical viola phrases colourfully underscoring Hulcup’s persuasive delivery.
Most striking in the French program following interval was Hulcup’s brilliant vocal technique as she purposefully moved from the unique vocal tone of the German language to the charming flavours of French texts. Diepenbrock’s Berceuse gave us a lyrical lullaby, with the viola, still understated in dynamic, adding charming decorative frills and melodic conversation. In three songs from Poulenc’s Métamorphoses we enjoyed rhythmically active and variegated articulations, with virtuosic instrumental work in Paganini, which brought spirited applause.
Sargeant took centre stage to perform Vieuxtemps’ Capriccio “Hommage à Paganini” for solo viola, Op. 55. This gentle gypsy-style piece with sensual glissandos, delicate pizzicato lines and modest, suggestive climaxes was a pleasant interlude. Essentially French, 4 Poèmes, Op. 5 by Charles Martin Loeffler, allowed Hulcup to continue to demonstrate more flamboyant and brightly coloured vocal tones, with sensitive viola and surprising celeste-like imitative colours from the piano adding magical sparkle to the scene. Hulcup surprised us further with a passionate and powerful ending, superb high notes projected to fill the whole concert hall, in an arrangement by William Primrose of Massenet’s Elégie. Entranced and unwilling to leave, the audience received a heartfelt encore: “Music, when soft voices die”, by Frank Bridge.
Julie McErlain reviewed the recital “Caitlin Hulcup & Friends” presented at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on October 3, 2023.