Australian ears might apprehend this disc with less puzzlement. The iconic significance of Joan Hammond is more obvious to those who lived through the late 1960s, when her English-language recordings of Puccini arias were best-sellers. Observing Cheryl Barker follow in Hammond’s footsteps over the past decade with English-language opera recordings no doubt prepares one’s ears for enjoying her virtues rather than being distracted by the obtrusive quirks that are now rampant, both in the voice itself and the singer’s compulsion to push it hardest when the music (and the microphone that’s recording her) least needs stentorian vocalism.
The disc starts well enough with dramatically adept readings of Tatyana’s Letter Scene, Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria and the Don Carlo aria ‘Tu che la vanità’, though interpretative specificity is tempered by the spreading vibrato and strident, mannered effects that come with making her essentially pleasing mid-weight voice into something larger and more penetrating. In Antonia’s lovely aria from The Tales of Hoffmann, one is dumbfounded at how Barker ultimately ignores the music’s demure emotional temperature and, though a student of Hammond’s, strays so far from the confiding warmth and vocal storytelling that were her teacher’s hallmarks.
The songs that end the disc are even more disheartening. Besides giving them moments of inappropriately operatic magnitude, each note is sung more as a separate entity, not as part of a musical conversation. Orchestra, conductor and pianist may well be doing excellent work, though it’s difficult to tell amid the distraction of Barker’s problematic vocalism. Were I a pure diva, I wouldn’t have let this disc be released.