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Howard Smith

CD sleeve notes, critical writing, travel writing and programme notes.


Work Samples


Howard Smith, New Zealand's most widely published music writer.

Former Yorkshire Post / South China Morning Post Journalist: Publicity: Research / Chicago, Hong Kong, Minneapolis, Leeds, London and Wellington.

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The Marriage of Figaro, May 2010
Sovereign Quality

PUBLICATION: Music & Vision website -
REVIEWED BY: Howard Smith
DATE: 22 May 2010
WHERE: St James Theatre, Wellington - 22 May performance.



Sovereign Quality
Aidan Lang's 'The Marriage of Figaro',
recommended by HOWARD SMITH

Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, the first presentation of NBR New Zealand Opera's 2010 season [seen 22 May 2010 at St James Theatre,Wellington], offered comedic staging, modernistic vertical sets and wonderfully expressive singing; all in all a gorgeous, irrepressible production.

Regular opera-goers may justifiably have believed the company would be hard put to overshadow such recent productions as Janácek's powerful, grisly Jenufa and Rossini's zany, sunlit Italian Girl in Algiers. But not so.

The combination of neo-period costumes (designed by Elizabeth Whiting) and a set (designed by Robin Rawstorne) that brought to mind Le Corbusier combined to lend the Mozart/da Ponte opera buffa a degree of verisimilitude which is rarely achieved.

Whiting's costumes effectively spanned the (eighteenth to twenty first) centuries; especially via the arresting denim-clad Chapman Tripp Chorus.

Furthermore Rawstorne's large high circular window openings and larger, higher open ellipses, together with ceiling-less 'adjacent-adaptable rooms', facilitated director Aidan Lang's ingenious staging, serving to heighten the comic action.

Nuccia Focile as The Countess in New Zealand Opera's 'The Marriage of Figaro'.
Photo © 2010 Neil Mackenzie

Second in Pierre de Beaumarchais' Figaro trilogy of plays, Mozart's work follows the action of The Barber of Seville. Beaumarchais completed work on both plays in 1773 (Barber of Seville) and 1778 (Marriage of Figaro).

Here the plot is very largely concerned with comic stratagems concocted to forestall lecherous aristocrat Count Almaviva, intent on ius primae noctiswith Susanna, Figaro's betrothed.

These subterfuges were worked out and staged so ingeniously that Lang's production glimmered with an effervescence seldom encountered, even in the world's musical capitals.

Moreover, consistent top-drawer musical values were sustained within all four acts.

From the outset (Act 1), the situation with Count Almaviva is revealed in the duet between Figaro 'Se a caso madama la notte ti chiama', and Susanna 'Così se il mattino il caro Contino'. And here (husband and wife) bass Wade Kernot and lyric coloratura Emma Pearson displayed a spirited theatrical empathy maintained throughout the evening.

No strangers to Mozart opera, Kernot has appeared in the early Mozart singspiel Bastien und Bastienne (1768) and his final opera Die Zauberflöte (1791), and Pearson has featured in Così fan tutte (1790) and as Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte.

Pearson was no less persuasive in her scenes with other women (Marcellina, Barbarina, and the Countess) while duping Almaviva; indeed she commanded audience attention with a display of ardour, quick-witted gaiety, natural ease in conveying Beaumarchais' risible ploys, and singing of sovereign quality.

Marcellina was in shrewish, sharp-tongued voice as portrayed by multi-talented Helen Medlyn, last seen in contrasting guise as austere grandmother, Starenka Buryjovka (Jenufa, NBR NZ Opera, 2008). Multi-lingual Gennadi Dubinski, born and trained in Russia, excels in diverse roles and genres and here he appeared as Marcellina's opposite number, Dr Bartolo.

Others in the cast were tenor Richard Greager (Don Basilio), bass Richard Green (Antonio), tenor Derek Hill (Don Curzio) and soprano Alexandra Ioan (Barbarina). How meltingly Ioan lamented over the lost pin in her Cavatina 'L'ho perduta, me meschina'.

As Beaumarchais' Countess, captivating Sicilian-born soprano Nuccia Focile assumed the aura of a gracious, wily noblewoman; even more, she delivered Mozart's standout arias ('Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro' and 'Dove sono i bei momenti') with breathtaking warmth and beguiling vocal artistry.

In 1786 the year Marriage of Figaro was premièred in Vienna, French finance minister Charles Alexandre de Calonne, informed Louis XVI (1754-1793) that the royal finances were insolvent. Three years later, in 1789 the (Paris) Bastille fell.

By then 'Count Almavivas' of Europe must have seen 'the writing on the wall' and within this re-imagined 'time frame' lanky Italian baritone Riccardo Navaro strutted his stuff -- wholly convincing as the 'delusional' aristocrat; at first imperious and then befuddled.

Cherubino, by his nature, is a difficult character to re-create with conviction. Lang was fortunate in casting mezzo Wendy Dawn Thompson; extensive UK appearances have equipped her for Mozart's taxing 'counterfeit gender' role; they include appearanceas at the Aldeburgh Festival, English National Opera, Edinburgh Festival, Wigmore Hall, Birmingham Opera, English Touring Opera and the BBC Proms; she has also worked for Opera Australia and throughout New Zealand.

The stellar casting was complemented by bracing, adroit accompaniment from Vector Wellington Orchestra with distinguished English conductor, Lionel Friend.

From Mozart's perennial bustling overture to 'Gente Gente all'armi, all'armi ...' at the opera's conclusion, this was an exquisite performance, likely to linger in the memory when many other entertainments are long forgotten.



Copyright © 30 May 2010 Howard Smith,
Masterton, New Zealand

The Italian Girl in Algiers, May/June 2009
Wholly Captivating

PUBLICATION: Music & Vision website -
REVIEWED BY: Howard Smith
DATE: 21 May 2009
WHERE: St James Theatre, Wellington - 16 May performance.
Click here for the Full Story

The Genesis Energy Spring Season of Jenufa, September/October 2008
Unsentimental Realism

PUBLICATION: Music & Vision website -
REVIEWED BY: Howard Smith
DATE: 22 October 2008
Click here for the Full Story

The National Tour of Hansel & Gretel, June/July/August 2008
Indelible Magic

PUBLICATION: Music & Vision website -
REVIEWED BY: Howard Smith
DATE: 18 August 2008
Click here for the Full Story

The Winter Season of La Boheme, May/June 2008
Inner Strength

PUBLICATION: Music & Vision website -
REVIEWED BY: Howard Smith
DATE: 29 May 2008
Click here for the Full Story

NBR: New Zealand Opera 2008

"It was immediately heartening to find Wellington's fine St.James Theatre full to capacity for a vibrant production of Puccini's perennial 'LA BOHEME' opening NBR New Zealand Opera's winter season [seen Saturday 10th May 2008].

More than that, the strengths of the NZ re-creation reached clear across the footlights as . . . ."

"At the end of June and into August NBR New Zealand Opera showed its mettle in a enthusiastically received fifteen-centre national tour of its most recent production, an English-language version of Humperdinck's ever popular 'HANSEL AND GRETEL'.

. . . . During one of New Zealand's severest winters, with capricious road and sea conditions, the schedule of seventeen staging post performances from north to south with a two night season in both Wellington and Christchurch seemed perilously close to tempting fate . . . .".

"'JENUFA', the third and last offering of NBR New Zealand Opera's 2008 season proved a production with dazzling clarity of focus and extraordinary expressive power. It had remarkable principals; most notably Anne Sophie Duprels [title role], Margaret Medlyn [Kostelnicka Buryja] and Tom Randle [Laca]. Perhaps the most telling coup for NZ Opera -- CEO Aidan Lang had imported famed German director Niklaus Lehnoff: a creative artist with credentials second to none . . . . "

Anne Sophie Duprels / "Her technical ability is wonderful and her voice is totally unique - like no other", says Rodney Milnes, The Times

NBR: New Zealand Opera 2009

Two exotic NBR New Zealand Opera seasons are scheduled in 2009 - first, in the sultry heat of North Africa; Rossini's spicy comic opera, 'The Italian Girl in Algiers', [A co-production with Scottish Opera/Sung in Italian with English surtitles]. Then, set amid vast plains of the Russian countryside, the Genesis Energy Season of Tchaikovsky's 'Eugene Onegin', [Sung in Russian with English surtitles].

'L'italiana in Algeri'

WELLINGTON 9 - 16 May 2009

AUCKLAND 28 May - 6 June 2009

'Eugene Onegin'

AUCKLAND 17 - 26 September 2009

WELLINGTON 10 - 17 October 2009


Howard Smith visits the Centre Culturel Tjibaou, [Noumea], dedicated to Jean-Marie Tjibaou who died in 1989 while leading the fight for his country’s autonomy from the French government, is devoted to the cultural origins and search for identity of the native Kanak people of New Caledonia and the South Pacific. The iconic centre is the work of Renzo Piano's Building Workshop [1998].


Small vintage wartime aircraft take proudly to the open skies in rural New Zealand.


A tale of tourists and nickel in the exotic, French-speaking, tropical west Pacific.


Inna and Sasha Ptildi leave the troubled Ukraine for an easier, more settled life in faraway New Zealand.


A young 'church-planter' sews seeds of Christian community in the South-west Pacific.


Russian musicians feel the winds of change as 74-years of Soviet Communist rule come to an end.


Oil ousts art in Moscow [Anglican] church.


Legendary soprano Maria Tanase [1913-1963] and present Alexander Balenescu strings in mesmerising Balkan folk CD.


South Africa's 'Apartheid' past comes alive in Red Dust, a BBC movie thriller centered on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [Covering 1969 to 1994].


Tragedy, hope, praise, and inspiration co-mingled when international musicians assembled in Yuhzno-Sakhalinsk [Pacific Russia], to rehearse and perform the first-ever Messiah east of the Urals.

Howard Smith assesses the revolutionary 2nd International Violin Competition in Uralsk, Kazakhstan and observes the Uralsk (Chamber) Philharmonic Orchestra. Article

The story of 'Stroma'; an ensemble of Wellington musicians formed to present world premieres of Kiwi music and first New Zealand performances of new overseas composition.
Full story
(This is an external link)

King's flower may bloom again.
Reprinted from New Zealand Deer Farming Annual 2002

Kazakhstan's City of Music
A brief but exotic musical journey in Central Asia.
Page 45, STRINGS (Volume XVII, Number 4 - Issue 106), Nov./Dec. 2002.

A story telling how the string orchestra, Ensemble XXI Moscow, was banned from Bolshoi Hall at Moscow's 'Tchaikovsky' Conservatory, when it dared to propose a programme with 20th Century music only. Full story (This is an external link).

Howard Smith profiles Bridget Douglas, Principal Flute with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra – North and South Magazine. Article

Marat Bisengaliev with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
40th Birthday Anniversary Concert (illustrated); Almaty,

Kazakhstan, May 11th, 2002. Howard Smith attended the RPO/Bisengaliev concert while in Almaty at the invitation of the Kazakh State Philharmonic
Orchestra (This is an external link).

Strad magazine article. New Zealand String Quartet world premiere (Oct. 2000).

Bartok & Zoltan Szekely topics / The Press (Chch) : Dominion (Wgtn) - 2001"....During the intervening 56 years, the story of Bartok's Viola Concerto has developed like a work of fiction, and today three completed versions are in circulation, each one claiming to mirror the composer's intentions. Hungarian violist Csaba Erdelyi was in New Zealand in July this year to record his own edition of the viola concerto with the NZSO and conductor Marc Taddei. This version is banned throughout the northern hemisphere, although widely regarded as the truest summation of Bartok's original." Full story.

Full NZSQ/Szekely story was published by the New Zealand Herald (Auckland) on Monday, 8 January 2001 (This is an external link).

When prize-winning horsewoman Catriona Williams (nee McLeod) broke her neck while riding at New Zealand's Mitavite Horse Trials in November 2002 she eventually decided to attend Project Walk, a non-traditional American spinal therapy centre (Carlsbad, California); endorsed by former Superman actor Christopher Reeve. Before her life-changing accident this remarkable Martinborough woman spoke to HOWARD SMITH of APN NEWS AND MEDIA. Catriona had met the standards demanded by Olympic Games officials and awaited the New Zealand selectors to decide whether she and her horse NRM Falcon would compete in the Sydney games. (Full Story)

For the MINNEAPOLIS STAR-TRIBUNE (USA) freelance journalist HOWARD SMITH sums up Harrison Salisbury's account of cataclysmic forest fires in Northern China.

In June 1890, newspaper editor Mr W.C.Nation, suggested an annual Arbor Day at a meeting of Greytown. Borough Council. Eighteen years earlier (1872) in faraway Omaha editor, J.Sterling Morton of the Nebraska City News proposed the 1st ever Arbor Day. Howard Smith tells how the American initiative began in New Zealand with Greytown as its epicentre. (Story attached)

Howard Smith has written the sleeve notes of these well known classical music CDs. (67 K.)

An update on recent song cycles, stage works, and cabaret opera, 'Barnum's Bird' (regarding legendary soprano, Jenny Lind); works by the prolific, widely-praised American composer, Libby Larsen. (This is an external link).

Excerpts of CD reviews and travel writing/photography by Howard Smith.Excerpts of programme notes by Howard Smith.

A selection (front covers only) of just some of the many publications Howard Smith has written for (these are PDF files).

A selection of photographs (119 k.) by Howard Smith that have been published alongside his travel writings and destination stories.

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