Stuart Skelton: Shining Knight
‘All my life’s buried here …’ Stuart Skelton writes, quoting Oscar Wilde with self-deprecating irony, at the end of the booklet note for his first solo album. ‘Shining Knight’, one suspects, is in some ways deeply personal – a summing up, perhaps, of what he describes as the ‘confoundedly successful career’ that has established him as one of today’s finest Wagner singers. Yet his recital also contains much that is new. Of his signature roles we possess only Siegmund on disc, so this offers us a first opportunity to hear him as Lohengrin, Parsifal and Rienzi away from the theatre. In place of Tristan, however, considered by many his finest achievement, he gives us the Wesendonck Lieder, before closing with Griffes and Barber, whom he regards as embodying the post-Wagnerian tradition in American music.
He’s in fine voice throughout, his tone shining and bronzed, his dynamic control often immaculate. Rienzi’s prayer is gloriously bel canto, as it should be. In the Lohengrin and Parsifal extracts, we’re aware of the wider contexts of narrative and character, so a sudden shaft of regret at imminent parting intrudes on the mystic introversion of ‘In fernem Land’, and the juxtaposition of his anguished ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde!’ with the spiritual certainty of ‘Nur eine Waffe taugt’ reminds us of the immense psychological distance that Parsifal travels during the course of the work. Asher Fisch and his West Australian Symphony Orchestra are finely alert throughout to the ebb and flow of Wagner’s music, so the concert endings feel unusually brutal, in Parsifal above all.
The Wesendonck Lieder in Mottl’s orchestration, meanwhile, have always been a difficult prospect for tenors. They lie comparatively low, sometimes taking Skelton into territory where the sheen drains from his tone, though there are compensatory insights: fastidious attention to the gloomy mood of the text; his use of a creepy mezza voce in ‘Im Treibaus’; and an almost shocking surge of passion at ‘Glorie der ganzen Welt’ in ‘Schmerzen’, which colours the rest of the cycle even as its beauty ebbs away.
The songs by Griffes and Barber are tremendous. Skelton clearly loves this music, and his voice blazes with conviction in Three Poems of Fiona MacLeod, where the emotions are intense and confrontative: Fisch does wonders with Griffes’s darkly sensual textures, too. Barber’s ‘Sure on this shining night’, relaxing the tension into wonder at the beauty of the universe, forms a perfect envoi. It’s a fine recital that leaves you wanting more – of Skelton singing Griffes, perhaps, above all.