05 Sep 2020

Royal Opera House Gala Concert

Just a few unison string wriggles from the opening of Mozart’s overture to Le nozze di Figaro are enough to make any opera-lover perch on the edge of their seat, in excited anticipation of the drama in music to come, so there could be no other curtain-raiser for this Gala Concert at the Royal Opera House, the latest instalment from ‘their House’ to ‘our houses’.

The first of the ROH’s ‘Live in Concert’ performances was fittingly somewhat sober and refined. Now it was time for some razzle-dazzle. 67 members of the ROH Orchestra and Chorus were spread across the stalls and along the grand tier, respectively - the first time the Chorus, readied for performance by Chorus Master William Spaulding, had gathered to perform together in person since the ROH doors closed to the public on 16th March. Sir Antonio Pappano was stationed, as he put it, “a kilometre” from the stage, in danger of falling down the Stalls’ rear exit stairs should he take a step backwards. The posh frocks and evening attire had been aired. And, a programme of ‘favourites’, ‘big numbers’ and ‘climactic finales’ beckoned.

The Figaro overture was punchy and, occasionally, quirky - the fiddles’ accents had swagger, the sforzandi stamped their feet brusquely and the tempo was well-judged, a graceful sprint rather than a madcap race to the finish. It was Rossini’s, rather than Mozart’s, Figaro who got the show rolling, though. Vito Priante was a forthright and decibel-raising barber in ‘Largo al factotum’, but his bellows were a bit ‘rough-edged’ at the top and his baritone seemed a little tight; while he loosened up for the patter, which was neat and clean, he pushed Pappano’s baton and sacrificed tuning for volume at the close. Priante was in more relaxed voice later in the evening, as Dappertutto in ‘Scintille, diamant’ from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. This aria lies lower in the voice and Priante’s velvety duet with the low strings was graceful and expressive: think melted dark chocolate with a hint of bitterness.

Charles Castronovo was rather ‘full-on’ as Nemorino in ‘Caro elisir!’, both in terms of dynamics and characterisation. The difficulty of performing to an invisible audience was apparent: gestures and antics that might garner a chuckle in a full house seemed over-emphatic when directed at a vacuum. Lisette Oropesa seemed to have the opposite problem, finding it difficult to get into Adina’s skin. Both singers fared much better in their solo numbers subsequently.

I don’t think that Oropesa has performed the role of Amina in a staged production of Bellini’s La sonnambula, but her interpretation of the final scene here makes one hope that she chooses to (and viruses permit) sooner rather than later. Her vocal control was consummate; the phrasing was immaculate - complemented at the start by warm, sustained horns and woodwind; her vibrato was expressive, creating nuance and colour. She rose to the top exquisitely, lamenting, “but my tears cannot restore my love”. Filipe Manu, a Jette Parker Young Artist, was an earnest, soothing Elvino and, with the ROH Chorus making an energetic contribution, Pappano held the wide-spread performers together superbly, pumping up the visceral dynamism towards the final section of the scena in which Oropesa’s soprano shone with joy. She’s a keen runner and, despite the passion and intensity conjured, in conversation with the BBC’s Katie Derham immediately afterwards Oropesa didn’t seem to have been unduly taxed by her exploits and exertions!

Lisette Oropesa.pngLisette Oropesa

If anything, Oropesa was even finer as Massenet’s Manon, evincing tremendous allure, gloss and power: the stamping of the ROH Orchestra’s feet at the close warmly conveyed their appreciation. Castronovo returned as Riccardo in ‘Forse la soglia attinse’ from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera), singing with compelling expression, thoughtful phrasing and dynamics, varied colour, sustained strength and fine lyricism.

Former Jette Parker Young Artist, Aigul Akhmetshina, rose to the moment in ‘Non più mesta’ from Rossini’s La Cenerentola; her mezzo glowed with vibrancy and her cascades were full-voiced, warm and finely articulated. Again, Pappano’s ability to set the scene was notable: in the instrumental preface the harmonies yearned, enriched by woodwind interjections, the pedal points pumped like a burning, beating heart, and recitative chords were places with absolute precision, like rhythmic springboards. Akhmetshina returned in the penultimate item, the whole of Carmen’s final act, as a sultry and cruel Carmen, mocking Castronovo’s desperate Don José and luxuriating in the gleam of glamour that Priante exhibited as Escamillo. The ROH Chorus clearly relished finally being able to give their lungs a good workout! But, alongside the spectacle and showy excess there was tenderness and intimacy, the act opening with some lovely tender cello playing which emphasised the poignancy of the former lovers’ estrangement. Again, the dramatic cohesion that Pappano mustered was impressive.

Aigul Akhmetshina.png Aigul Akhmetshina

Replacing the advertised Sonya Yoncheva, Kristine Opolais sang Dvořák’s ‘Song to the Moon’ (Rusalka) with gleam and power, the focused intensity and easeful expansiveness of her soprano transporting us to another world. The tenderness, enhanced by harp and woodwind, and silvery shimmer suggested a timelessness which was a welcome refuge from ever-present cares. Opolais’ aria was also a cleansing reprieve after Iago’s poison-dripping ‘Credo in un Dio crudel’ in which Gerald Finley pushed sanity to its limits, relishing every word of the text, his baritone black and fierce but always lyrical. Pappano brilliantly balanced orchestral drama and details. In the final stages of Iago’s hellish declaration, with the lower strings descending into dark, tormented realms, Finley - one eye screwed up painfully, the other darting wildly - seemed truly deranged. Iago’s explosion, “Heaven is make believe!”, was terrifying.

Finley seemed destined to play the villain on this occasion, returning as Scarpia in the final item, the Act I duet and ‘Te Deum’ from Puccini’s Tosca, alongside Opolais as the eponymous diva, Manu as Spoletta, with Jeremy White making a fine Sacristan. Finley’s baritone was dangerously seductive. Opolais sang with plushness and passion, though her choice of dress did make it very difficult for her to undertake much ‘movement’ on stage - fine for the stillness of Dvořák’s moon-caresses but less effective in conveying Tosca’s agitation, and exacerbating the ‘social distancing on stage-problem’ which had prevented Don José from stabbing Carmen, the latter forced to exit the stage to signal her demise.

Vito Priante.jpgVito Priante

The ‘set’ for the evening was borrowed from Richard Eyre’s 1994 La traviata, specifically Bob Crowley’s curving crimson terrace and angled gilded ceiling for the Act 2 gambling scene. The ROH didn’t take much of a risk by laying their bets on the tried and trusted, but we’ve all had enough ‘risk’ for a while. And, when ‘safety’ comes in this star-studded, sumptuous and very satisfying form, it is just what we need at present.

Claire Seymour

Lisette Oropesa (soprano), Kristine Opolais (soprano), Aigul Akhmetshina (mezzo-soprano), Charles Castronovo (tenor), Filipe Manu (tenor), Vito Priante (baritone), Gerald Finley (bass-baritone), Jeremy White (bass), Antonio Pappano (conductor), Orchestra of The Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus Chorus (William Spaulding, Concert Master).

Mozart: Overture from Le nozze di Figaro’; Rossini: ‘Largo al factotum‘ (The Barber of Seville); Donizetti: ‘Caro elisir!’ recitative and duet (L’elisir d’amore); Rossini: ‘Non più mesta’ ( La Cenerentola); Bellini: La sonnambula, final scene; Verdi: ‘Forse la soglia attinse’ (Un ballo in maschera); Verdi: ‘Credo in un Dio crudel’ (Otello); Dvořák: ‘Song to the Moon’ (Rusalka); Offenbach: ‘Scintille, diamant’ (Les Contes d’Hoffmann); Massenet: Recitative and Gavotte ( Manon)l Bizet: Final act of Carmen; Puccini: Act I duet and ‘Te Deum’ from Tosca.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London (broadcast live); Friday 4 th September 2020.