To hold an audience rapt for over two hours is no mean feat, but it seemed to be all in a day's work for Nelly Miricioiu at this, her first public recital in London for many years. At the age of 57, the Romanian soprano shows no sign of vocal wear and tear, indeed she continues to grow both artistically and technically.
The programme was already a demanding one, even before offering three big encores. Mixing Verdi and Donizetti with Enescu and Ravel, and finished off by Meyerbeer and Lennox Berkeley, Miricioiu was determined to work hard for her supper, and she pulled the challenge off brilliantly.
The opening group consisted of Rodrigo's Quatro Madrigales Amatorios. The soprano's approach was perhaps a little tentative in the first two of these charming little songs, with their inflections of sixteenth-century Spanish folk music. But Miricioiu visibly relaxed with 'De donde venis, amore?', and completely charmed her audience. Her rendition of this song was especially notable for the way in which Miricioiu controlled the voice and sang in a sweet, understated manner, whilst still communicating the character of the text and nailing the coloratura passages with impressive accuracy.
That said, there's no denying that the two Donizetti songs which followed find Miricioiu in her home territory, and she excelled particularly in the tragic 'È morta'. Pausing for a moment to thank the London audience for their support over the twenty-odd years since she took up residence here, Miricioiu then went on to sing the apt choice of 'Grâce, grâce pour toi-même' from Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable. This is ideal material for the soprano, moving from a sustained, sincere passage to a visceral, fiery passage, and it proved one of the highlights of the evening.
Miricioiu then dedicated the performance of some of Romanian composer Nicolae Bretan's settings of texts by Mihai Eminescu to her mother, who turns 80 this year. If the impact was inevitably less dramatic than that of the Meyerbeer because of the more contained nature of the pieces, the attention to text and varied vocal colour was no less commendable.
But the climax of the first half of the concert was the rendition of Elisabetta's 'Tu che le vanità' from Don Carlo. Miricioiu's performance was complete in every sense: she acted all the way through the lengthy introduction; she produced full-blooded tone through every register of her voice, as evinced by the arpeggio-like shape of the opening figure; she communicated the character's psychological shifts by contrasting the mood of each stanza of the aria; and her emotional commitment was palpable.
Songs by Enescu, Ravel and Lennox Berkeley graced the beginning of the second half of the concert, and Miricioiu explained how the contribution made by the Berkeley family to the start of her career in this country, as well as the connections between Ravel and Berkeley. The soprano apologised for using the music when singing these pieces. It was a totally understandable measure to take, given the amount of material being sung, and although there was a slight barrier between performer and audience in these pieces because of the use of the score, Miricioiu's musicality and specific response to each piece was as excellent as before.
Still, there's no denying that the diva inhabits the world of Verdi in a particularly special way, and it was a special treat to hear Desdemona's aria from Otello. In Mircioiu's hands, the aria has far less of the emotional cool that it can have when sung by lighter sopranos, and in consequence we had a far more intense feeling of Desdemona's presentiment of death than is normally the case. The build-up of tension across the verses of the Willow Song was especially well handled, and by the end of the number Miricioiu was singing so powerfully that I wondered how she would cope with Lady Macbeth's entrance aria from Verdi's Macbeth. The cavatina was beautifully shaped and thrillingly executed, and though it was clearly a huge effort to then go on to sing the cabaletta, the soprano nonetheless sang with excitement and conviction.
Three party pieces were offered as encores, lasting somewhere around twenty minutes in total. First was 'Vissi d'arte', an appropriate reminder of how, like Tosca, Miricioiu has lived for her art; next was 'Io son l'umile ancella' from Adriana Lecouvreur, an aria that sits very well for her voice and which she shapes with apparent ease; and, after giving the audience a choice between two Puccini arias and 'Pace, pace, mio Dio' from La forza del Destino, she ended with a barnstorming rendition of the latter. She was met with rapturous applause from a clearly affectionate crowd, whose numbers ought to have been larger for such a thoroughly enjoyable recital.
In all, Miricioiu's relaxed stage manner, her warm personality, innate musicality and vocal strengths combined to provide a memorable occasion, which also served to remind us that this powerful artist could and should still be singing major roles in major opera houses. This recital had a sheen and a potency about it that ought to have been documented; one hopes that a record label will snap up the opportunity to make an album of Miricioiu performing some of this music.
Interview: An interview with Nelly Miricioiu about this recital and her career
Review: Nelly Miricioiu as Lady Macbeth in 2008
Review: Nelly Miricioiu as Adriana Lecouvreur in 2009
Review: Nelly Miricioiu as Beatrice di Tenda in 2007
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