This concert given at the Royal Opera House had a somewhat troubled genesis. Originally announced as a celebrity recital for Rolando Villazon accompanied on the piano by Antonio Pappano, Dmitri Hvorostovsky agreed to step in after Villazon was instructed by his doctor to cancel all his engagements for the rest of the year. Sadly, Hvorostovsky also had to cancel at far shorter notice, having sustained an injury last week.
Luckily, Thomas Hampson and Joseph Calleja, who are currently singing in the Royal Opera's production of La Traviata, and Joyce DiDonato who is in town rehearsing the Royal Opera's forthcoming production of Il Barbiere Di Siviglia, agreed to sing, and Vasko Vassilev, the Royal Opera's Concert Master who by virtue of the fact that he is in everything is probably busier than anybody, agreed to play, all accompanied by Pappano.
Inevitably, this led to a rather unusual programme, since the limited preparation and rehearsal time will have meant that each artist had to perform whatever appropriate concert pieces they happened to have in their active repertoires. Unfortunately, this meant that, aside from the 'Pearlfishers Duet', it was not possible for them to present any ensembles. However, it also meant that each of them could do what they do best, and the rather old fashioned juxtaposition of different composers and forms across the evening was a charming and engaging change from most of today's rigorously planned and conceptualised concert programmes.
Calleja opened the concert with a selection of popular Italian salon songs by Leoncavallo, Donaudy and Tosti. As ever with this singer, when he began, it was impossible to focus on anything other than the arresting beauty of his timbre and the skill with which he deploys it. It was encouraging to see his relaxed, natural demeanour on the concert platform because his movement has always been his weakest area in his operatic work. However, as he progressed through his programme, it seemed increasingly as if his only concern is simply to sing everything as well as he can from a technical point of view. Emotions were generalised and muted, and there wasn't much sense of phrasing. Calleja's first contribution in the second half was the aria 'O Souverain, ô juge, ô père' from Massenet's Le Cid. Whether one breathes or not until after 'père', and perhaps one should for the sake of textual clarity, the line should surely be one musical thought, all part of one movement in the same direction. Calleja let the momentum dissipate with every breath, which was typical of his work across the evening. It was astonishing that he could perform all six items he sang without ever dropping so much as a single syllable. He is one of the most skilful singers on the current circuit, and he may have the most beautiful tenor voice of his generation, but he doesn't stand comparison with those of previous generations, such as Pavarotti or Bergonzi, because he lacks their instinctive musicianship.
DiDonato was the second singer to perform, after Calleja's first three numbers. She opened with Rossini's cycle of three songs, La Regata Veneziana. Whether because of her restrained delivery, the pieces themselves, or the fact that the cycle was probably designed for performance in a far smaller space, the impression made, though positive, was slight. Far better were her appearances in the second half, the first of which was a spell-binding account of the 'Willow Song' from Rossini's Otello. Opting for a well-projected piano as her basic dynamic, she created an intimacy and sense of tragic sorrow that was absorbing and heart-rending. The artistry with which she modulated the line, both with delicate filigree decoration and variations in colour and volume showed why she has risen to the front rank of international opera, and marked her out as one of the best bel canto stylists of our day. Similar good taste, where perhaps I might have enjoyed less of it, prevailed in her renditions of Kern's 'Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man' from Show Boat and Arlen's 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' from The Wizard of Oz. DiDonato's voice is uncontroversially beautiful and lyrical and so slimming it down further for these lighter numbers was, to my mind, unnecessary. Still, others often find opera singers attempting crossover to sound pretentious or excrutiating, and there certainly wasn't a hint of either on display here. Perhaps the emotional punch of both pieces might have been greater and seemed more sincere had she sung out, but the deftness and subtlety was certainly an unusual and ravishing approach.
Hampson closed the first half of the concert with Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Coming after the Italianate frivolity offered by Calleja and DiDonato, it seemed an incongruous choice, but such is Hampson's magnetism and artistry on the concert stage that he rapidly created the appropriate atmosphere and proceeded to give a performance of rare class and distinction. Hampson has always been as famous for his excellent Lieder recitals as for his opera work, and this Mahler cycle has featured prominently in his concert repertoire for a long time. His experience showed, both in terms of his ability to surmount a tessitura that most baritones would find murderous, and his ability to probe the emotional depths of the poetry. Age may have dimmed some of the bloom at the top of the voice in forte passages, but he didn't shirk any of the anguished exclamations in 'Ich hab' ein glühend Messer'. Elsewhere, the frequent pianissimo excursions into the highest register were breathtaking, and blended seamlessly with the rest of his instrument. Despite interruptions of applause between each song, Hampson held the tension throughout the emotional journey, ending with a 'Die zwei blauen Augen' of rare poise. In the second half, his performance of Harry Thacker Burleigh's 'Ethiopia Saluting the Colours' was packed with character, and he lent an effusive joy to Barber's 'Sure on this Shining Night'. Only in the 'Pearlfishers Duet' with Calleja did Hampson seem slightly ill at ease, perhaps because his style is so different from Calleja's own, but it was nevertheless very well sung and it certainly brought the house down.
Vassilev was the first performer after the interval. He played the 'Méditation' and 'Scherzo' from Tchaikovsky's Souvenir d'un lieu cher op.42 with a full-bodied yet very sweet tone and intonation of remarkable sensitivity, brightening or dulling notes depending on their harmonic context, an instinct which gets drummed out of too many of us in our quest for accuracy. He displayed a subtle virtuosity, particularly in his legato bowing, continuing the same note through a change of stroke. His ability to communicate was his most striking feature, particularly in a concert like this where he was the only artist who had to do so without the help of text. His performance of Rachmaninoff's 'Vocalise' with which he followed the Tchaikovsky was notable for its containment and under-stated, irresistible nostalgia.
Pappano was, of course, the linking factor throughout the whole evening, and his achievement was remarkable, appreciated strongly by the audience and solo performers alike. I hope it isn't patronising to remark that, given his other, enormous responsibilities, he probably doesn't have time enough in his schedule to practice as much as he might like to, and here he was, delivering a programme that had only been decided upon a few days in advance. Unsurprisingly, his accompanying was characterised by a spot-on stylistic grasp of the diverse styles of music he was prevailed upon to play, be it the deliciously late second beats in the triple time 'Mattinata' by Leoncavallo, the romantic sweep of the Massenet or the orchestral counterpoint in the Mahler. His co-ordination with and support of the singers was extremely sympathetic, aided no doubt by his mouthing of the texts almost throughout, putting himself in the place of the other artists to create a deep connection between them and the music. In terms of sheer pianism, what really stood out was the introduction to the aria from Rossini's Otello in which he managed to suggest the orchestral timbre of the harp and delicate winds with startling vividness. His entirely idiomatic, improvised jazz figurations in the accompaniment to the Kern left one wondering if there are any corners of the repertoire in which he is not gifted. It is an immense credit not only to Pappano's skill as a musician, but also, one assumes, his relationships with his singers and concert master, that such a high quality, enjoyable evening of music resulted from what had been a hastily thrown together event to save the evening from the double blow of Villazon's and Hvorostovsky's forced cancellations.
By John Woods
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