It's criminal when a special concert takes place to a half-capacity audience, and it must be pretty dispiriting to the artists to have to sing to a row of empty chairs. Yet baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore seemed relatively unfazed by the disappointing attendance, and nobody could accuse him of giving himself an easy ride. He presented an imaginative programme of songs and arias by Schubert, Ireland, Massenet, Vaughan Williams, Tosti and Verdi and performed them all with equal measures of emotional commitment and textual insight.
The first group was an inspired choice: Schubert's final three Italian songs, D901, written for the renowned bass Luigi Lablache. All three were a revelation, in that they showed Schubert's ability to adapt his vocal writing to a unusually (for him) Italian style; this made 'L'incanto degli occhi' ideal for Michaels-Moore to open up his voice, while 'Il traditor deluso' suited his talent for impassioned operatic singing down to the ground. And 'Il modo di prender moglie' was an opportunity for him to perform a buffo aria with astute characterisation.
Michaels-Moore's choice of five songs by John Ireland took him into quite different territory. It was wonderful to hear him singing in English after being mainly familiar with his performances of Italian opera, and his diction was crystal clear. He made 'Santa Chiara' grave and sombre while still bringing variety to the dynamics; 'Sea fever' was notable for his emphatic delivery of certain evocative words such as 'windy day' and 'seagulls crying', and the final word, 'over', was fabulously eerie. The highlight of the group, however, was the setting of Rupert Brooke's 'Spring': the singer managed to produce an astounding hollow sound when mentioning the numbness of Winter, which heightened the meaning of the text.
Closing the first half were two arias from operas by Massenet that served as a reminder of how unjustly neglected the once-famous composer is. 'Vision fugitive' from Hérodiade was the stronger of the two, though both were superbly delivered; Michaels-Moore held the audience in rapt wonder during the opening a cappella section then turned up the dramatic temperature for the rest of the aria, his rich baritone rendered at its most golden. Accompanist Michael Pollock had a few problems with the hurtling piano part of 'Voilà donc la terrible cité' from Thaïs, but Michaels-Moore covered up well by projecting his voice above the accompaniment during the trickier passages; his cries of 'Je te hais!' ('I hate you!') were thrilling.
After the storminess of the first half of the programme, the singer moved onto more reflective, contemplative repertoire at the start of the second. Vaughan Williams' Songs of Travel are based on Robert Louis Stevenson's final collection of verses of the same name and deal with a wanderer's varied experiences on the road. Michaels-Moore toned down his voice to great effect in the penultimate section of 'The Vagabond' but didn't quite recover from a false start in 'Let Beauty awake' until the cycle's centrepiece, 'Youth and Love'. This was a marvel, full of textual nuance in the opening stanza then broader and utterly captivating in the second verse.
But it's in the Italian repertoire that Michaels-Moore is at his best, and so it proved here. Tosti's 'L'ultima canzone' was wistfully acted, bringing a slightly darker edge to the song than is sometimes the case, and the ecstatically beautiful 'Tristezza' had a beguiling serenity.
After a witty anecdote about his baptism of fire into making his debut as Monforte in Verdi's I vespri siciliani, Michaels-Moore delivered a searching rendition of the same character's 'In braccio alla dovizie' (a shame the programme didn't include the texts of the recitatives of either of the Verdi arias) that amply communicated the character's moral dilemma.
Yet the phrase 'save the best till last' genuinely applied here. A truly brilliant performance of Rodrigo's death scene from Don Carlo, the likes of which I may never hear again, brought many in the audience to their feet. In the opera itself, the aria requires a huge emotional outpouring as a man on the brink of his death says goodbye to his friend; Michaels-Moore brought all his stage experience in the role to this performance, transporting us momentarily to the heart of the opera's story. It was a pleasure to watch and listen to a master at his work.