The South Bank Centre was rather brave to choose such unusual fare for a Monday night: Rossini's salon songs were hardly likely to pack in the masses, and indeed even the relatively small Queen Elizabeth Hall was half-empty for the occasion. Nevertheless, this latest instalment in the Song on the South Bank Series had much to recommend it, and it was Rossini, rather than one of the performers, who came away with the honours.
The composer's prolific output at an early age came to an abrupt stop with Guillaume Tell in 1829. After writing several dozen operas for the major houses in both Italy and France and providing the world with such masterpieces as La Cenerentola, Il turco in Italia and of course Il barbiere di Siviglia, he suddenly reached the end of the road at the age of 37, and the massive five-act Parisian Tell was to be his final opera.
But the composer lived until 1868 and in the remaining years of his life composed numerous religious works, as well as the famous groups of songs called Les soirées musicales and Péchés de vieillesse (the latter better known in English as 'Sins of Old Age'). These were charming, witty and often irreverent miniatures written for the Saturday night parties that Rossini and his wife held in their Paris home; they played host to the likes of Liszt, Meyerbeer and Verdi, and Rossini would play the piano in one room while his wife served food in the other. With such an enormous intellect devoted to little else in his extensive retirement, it's no surprise that many of the songs are amongst Rossini's most admirable works, and it was a delight to hear a varied selection of them in this recital.
However, the performances were of inconsistent quality, ranging from Miah Persson's hilarious rendition of 'La chanson du bébé' (a song that parodies the limited vocabulary of babies) to Bruce Ford's rather strained account of the lively brindisi or drinking song, 'L'orgia'.
Contrary to expectation (considering his brilliance in past performances of Rossini's stage works), Ford was the most disappointing of the three singers to appear in the concert. His voice has lost its bloom, his projection was surprisingly poor, and there was strain on his vocal production in the upper register in almost every song. To counter this, though, his presentation was extremely charismatic, intelligent and lucidly characterised: he has the benefit of many years of experience, which he used to contribute rather affectingly to the concert. 'L'esule' ('The exile'), for instance, was very touchingly delivered, and he worked well with accompanist Roger Vignoles to give the song an emotive tranquillity. His somewhat excessive vibrato made Rossini's Spanish duet 'Les amants de Séville' ('The lovers of Seville') a challenge that mezzo-soprano Stella Doufexis struggled to live up to, and the celebrated tarantella 'La danza' was fudged by both pianist and tenor. Nevertheless, the voice opened up towards the end, and the evocative 'La gita in gondola' was very sensitively controlled.
Doufexis was initially very problematic for me, simply because her intonation was poor in the early stages of the concert. She looked great in her blue gown and connected well with the material; she was by far the best linguist of the three singers and articulated the words with great strength. However, I found both 'Il rimprovero' ('The reproach') and Rossini's rather irreverent setting of the Ave Maria (on just two notes!) very difficult to engage with, on account of her going out of tune so often. Yet things really heated up for Doufexis with a stylistic account of 'L'orpheline du Tyrol' ('The Tyrolean orphan girl'), her phrasing and portamento well-judged, while the three arias under the heading of 'The Venetian regatta' were wonderfully evocative of Venice and demonstrated an ability for nimble coloratura. And for me, the highlight of the evening was her exquisite duet with Miah Persson, 'La regatta veneziana', in which both singers showed radiant tone and a natural flair for the piece.
With the exception of her opening song, which fell flat emotionally, Persson was by far the star of the evening. She ran the gamut of emotions, from tears to laughter, and coped well with the tricky acoustic of the QEH. The leaps of an octave in 'Mi lagnerò tacendo' ('I will lament in silence') were negotiated with ease, and, despite some odd pronunciation (the word 'coeur' sounded more like 'core'), 'Adieu à la vie' ('Farewell to life') was sung with heart-rending intensity. The only disappointment was a tendency to back off the leaping coloratura of 'La pastorella dell'Alpi' ('The alpine shepherdess'), though even here the artist's great quality shone through.
Roger Vignoles was a sympathetic and hard-working accompanist from the very start. Aside from the understandable discomfort of the manic writing for the instrument in certain pieces - especially 'La danza' - this was a near-ideal performance from Vignoles.
I applaud both the hall's decision to hold such an interesting concert and their attempt at recreating something of the ambience of the original salon soirées with chairs, a table and some flowers (it was nice to have all the singers onstage for the whole programme). Nevertheless, unfortunate vocal deficiencies threatened to undermine the concert at several points during the evening, even if the event as a whole was more than worthwhile.