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Antonio Pappano [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
29 Jun 2009

Antonio Pappano and Friends — Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

It’s not often that the accompanist is given top billing in a vocal recital, even when he’s the venue’s musical director.

Antonio Pappano and Friends — Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Above: Antonio Pappano [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera House]


But having been the only consistent presence in this ill-fated Royal Opera House recital concert, it was only right that “Recital: Antonio Pappano” was the strap-line on tickets purchased on the day.

’Twas not ever thus. Rolando Villazón had been booked to give a recital with Pappano at the piano, but in early May, following a repeat of the vocal problems which plagued him a couple of years ago, Villazón withdrew from all his engagements until well into 2010. The Royal Opera was relieved to secure the services of Dmitri Hvorostovsky as a recitalist, as were Hvorostovsky’s fans, particularly after a concert he was scheduled to give at the Royal Festival Hall last month was cancelled at a day’s notice after his recital partner, Anna Netrebko, became ill.

Fast forward to Monday of this week, with the recital due to take place on Wednesday, and Hvorostovsky too became indisposed following what Pappano worryingly described as ‘a nasty accident to his vocal chords’. Step forward Joyce DiDonato — currently in town rehearsing Rosina for the Royal Opera — and Joseph Calleja and Thomas Hampson, on a night off from La traviata. By the time I arrived at Covent Garden on Wednesday evening to collect my ticket, I had given up on speculating who might appear, and I really cared not a jot what any of them was going to perform. I was just pleased they were there.

As the operatic repertoire is rather short on trios for mezzo, tenor and baritone, the scene was set for a programme consisting primarily of solo pieces — and that is what we got. Against a mirrored backdrop which looked suspiciously like part of the set for the last act of Un ballo in maschera (which opens later this week), the programme consisted primarily of song with a couple of music-theatre numbers thrown in.

Calleja started off with three crowd-pleasing Italian concert bonbons; if the final moments of Tosti’s ‘A Vucchella’ were a touch flat, it didn’t detract too much from the pleasure of hearing a voice so integrated from top to bottom; there was real sunshine in the top note of Leoncavallo’s ‘Mattinata’. After the interval he had less success with ‘Ô souverain’ from Le Cid, that old Domingo favourite, which suffered from fragmented phrasing and a lack of care for legato. But his delivery has an endearing honesty — he sings from the heart, and his final solo, Guy d’Hardelot’s ‘Because’ was a real winner.

The highlight of DiDonato’s performance was a spellbinding Willow Song from Rossini’s Otello, all limpid melancholy and faultless legato, following a charming and entertaining account of the same composer’s playful song cycle La regata veneziana. She went on to finish her programme with two American musical-theatre standards, ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ and ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’. It was the Jerome Kern song that really showed off what a gifted and versatile musician Pappano is, busking an intricate jazz accompaniment, though I would personally have preferred to hear DiDonato sing a fiery Handel aria.   Hampson’s programme was perhaps the most interesting of the three, starting with Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. This concert, having been cobbled together in haste, offered neither surtitles nor a translation sheet, but the eloquence of Hampson’s performance was testament to his intelligence and gift for narrative. He continued in the second half with two American songs, Harry Thacker Burleigh’s ‘Ethiopia Saluting the Colours’ and Barber’s ‘Sure on this Shining Night’. It was a shame he chose not to perform any opera, other than the barnstorming Pearl Fishers duet which we got from the two gentlemen as the final item on the evening’s programme.

In the midst of all this the Royal Opera’s Concert Master, Vasko Vassilev, joined Pappano for a brief but satisfying appearance in what felt like a private violin recital; the first two movements of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher followed by Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise were all played with lyrical warmth and elegance.

The concert felt like a variety show at times — somewhat bitty and fragmented, and rather disappointingly (if understandably) devoid of encores — but it proved to be an interesting and unexpected evening’s entertainment. And if Pappano defied convention by being billed as the main attraction, I defy anybody to claim he didn’t earn it.

Ruth Elleson, June 2009

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