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Christine Rice
24 Jan 2017

Donna abbandonata: Temple Song Series

Donna abbandonata would have been a good title for the first concert of Temple Music’s 2017 Song Series. Indeed, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice seems to be making a habit of playing abandoned women.

Temple Song Series, Middle Temple Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Christine Rice

Photo credit: Patricia Taylor


The last time I saw her perform she was magnificent as a spurned Elvira, all fury and frenzy, in Richard Jones’ Don Giovanni at ENO. On this occasion, at Middle Temple Hall, she conjured the despondency and desperation of a deserted Cretan princess, rustic lasses from Galicia and Italy, and an elegant Parisian whose love affair is callously ended by a fraught, fragmented telephone call.

This was a technically and emotionally taxing programme, which called for extremes of euphoria and despair, and considerable stamina. Two solo dramas framed five songs by Ravel that, despite their relative brevity, did not allow Rice to take her foot off the emotive pedal. Drake was, as ever, a composed, unobtrusive but unwaveringly intent partner.

Haydn’s dramatic solo cantata, Arianna a Naxos, went down well with London audiences when it was performed in February 1791 by the castrato Gasparo Pacchierotti, with Haydn accompanying on the harpsichord. In the dignified, ornate introduction to the first recitative - which depicts Ariadne’s dawn awakening - Drake captured something of the crispness and melodic clarity of this instrument, though his close observance of Haydn’s dynamic and expressive markings, most particularly in the gentle in-between phrase commentaries, suggested the expressive character of the fortepiano, with its soft, light tone and vibrant sforzandos.

Rice made much of the variety of Haydn’s dramatic modulations, moving from sleepy appeals to the absent Theseus - her hand caressing her cheek in dreamy remembrance - to heightened frustration. Initially her vibrato was quite wide, giving Arianna’s impassioned cries a plum-rich tone but adversely affecting the centring of the pitch. However, in the succeeding aria, ‘Dove sei, mio bel tesoro?’ (Where are you, my beloved?), the sensuousness of her mezzo came into its own as, with earnest solemnity, she begged the Gods to allow her beloved to return to her. Rice shaped the fragmented vocal line well, as Arianna’s growing anxiety was underpinned by harmonic twists to and from the minor mode, culminating in punchy piano punctuations heralding the second recitative section, ‘Ma, a chi parlo?’ (But to whom am I speaking?). A whispered pianissimo diminished fragilely, as the Echo mocked her pleas; then, warmth conveyed hope - ‘Poco da me lontano esser egli dovria’ (He cannot be far from me). The span of the vocal part is not wide and the piano accompaniment offers detailed depiction - of Arianna’s ascent to the cliff-top, of the wind and waves that carry away her agitated words - but Drake never overpowered the vocal line as the tempi chopped and changed, and silence alternated with dramatic rhetoric.

Having witnessed her lover’s departure, and overcome with despair, Rice’s frail reflections, ‘A chi mi volgo?’ (To whom can I turn?), were ironically decorated by the piano, the slightest delay of the off-beat semi-quavers brilliantly conveying the pulsations of Arianna’s trembling heart. Then, having recovered her nobility and strength for the concluding aria, ‘Ah, che morir vorrei’ (Ah, how I long to die), Rice exploded in anger and grief - a woman scorned, vitalised by passion and anguish.

Rice’s ability to encompass and move between a variety of dramatic moods was put to good effect in Ravel’s Chants populaires, as was the mezzo’s linguistic dexterity. Singing with directness and strong character, she shifted easily from the bright bucolic simplicity of the ‘Chanson française’, which somehow managed to seem both naïve and knowing, to the intensity of the ‘Chanson italienne’, whose extravagant outbursts and plummeting lament - ‘Chiamo l’amore mio, nun m’arrisponde!’ (I call my love, no one answers!) - consolidated the evening’s theme. I loved the ‘Cancion española’, which combined sultry heat with a ‘La la’ refrain of dreamy coolness. Rice relished the rich Yiddishisms of the ‘Chanson hébraïque’, modifying her mezzo for the young Mejerke’s reply to his father in the final line of each stanza, and the performers’ following this stirring exchange with Ravel’s Kaddisch - a worshipful prayer of exaltation to conclude the first half of the recital.

Drake_Julius_pc_Sim_Canetty-Clarke_1_72.jpgJulius Drake. Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke.

After such riches, I keenly anticipated Poulenc’s 1958 opera La Voix humaine. But, while the performance was consummately accomplished, with singer and pianist in unwavering accord, I wondered whether the decision not to re-print the libretto in the programme was a wise one. Cocteau’s 1927 play on which the opera is based depicts a tumultuous telephone conversation between an unstable young woman, Elle, and her former lover. Richard Stokes’ synopsis deftly and eloquently outlined the traumatic twists and turns of their altercation, but one needed a facility in the French language in advance of my own if one was to follow the precise emotional trajectory of the interchange. Such clarity of context is surely crucial given that the conversation ranges from outright lies to recollections of love letters, from revelations and confessions to garbled nonsense, and is constantly interrupted by the intrusions of the operator and other callers, wrong-numbers and disconnections.

Stokes explains the omission of the libretto text in a programme note, suggesting that, ‘To fully experience the emotional force of this great work, it’s crucial for the audience not only to hear but also see the heroine’s commotion’. I certainly agree that Rice, using an infinite array of gesture, posture and facial expression to suggest impending nervous collapse and suicidal despair, was an utterly gripping stage presence, whose wretchedness and decline was painfully absorbing.

But, without some clearly defined ‘signposts’, it was hard to wholly grasp the dramatic and emotional structure of the whole. Poulenc’s opera starts at fever pitch and escalates from there. And, while Rice’s registral range was as impressive as her ability to project with ease and gleaming clarity the highest vocal motif, there was, particularly towards the close, less variety of colour than I’d have expected. Moreover, if we do not know exactly what Elle is saying, how can we conceive of the unheard respondents whose absent words so powerfully invite imaginative reconstruction and thus draw us into the drama?

Rice sang from the score and there was no ‘staging’. Nor was any needed. But, I questioned, too, the absence of the telephone that is almost a second character in the work. This is not a monologue: all of Elle’s words are, in effect, addressed to the telephone. It is a conduit to other characters whose voices we never hear. It is her physical companion: she caresses it and entwines it around her. In the end, she goes to bed with the receiver and seems to strangle herself with its cord. In this way, Cocteau shows how the notorious French telephone system of the period when the opera was written impedes communication and relationships, exacerbates Elle’s hopelessness, and increases the poignancy of her loneliness. Interesting, Cocteau - who gave Poulenc strict instructions about the design and staging of the opera - insisted that he should not create a true bedroom, but a bedroom ‘asleep with remembering’: a room which contained just a woman and the phone she holds ‘like a revolver’.

But, such digressions and reflections should not detract from the quality of the performance itself, which was a powerful psychological portrait of anguish and anger, hope and loss of heart, culminating in drained resignation. Rice showed once again what an astonishing singing actress she is: her flexible mezzo coped effortlessly with the shifting vocal contours and the rapid vacillations of short snatches. When the music blossomed into lyricism, the beauty of the vocal sound was touched with a rawness, which spoke powerfully in the unaccompanied utterances.

Once again, Drake’s attentiveness, precision and ability to convey precise moods through colour, weight and sustain, was astonishing. Never once did he seem to be ‘accompanying’; rather, his disjointed gestures echoed Elle’s psychological disintegration, while the piano’s more lyrical expansions seemed to offer nostalgic glimpses of the past.

One may at times have missed the sumptuousness of Poulenc’s orchestration (the composer notes at the beginning of the score, ‘The entire work should be bathed in the greatest orchestral sensuality’), but there was no lack of feeling at the close, as Rice descended from hysterical heights to crushed futility: ‘Je t’aime, je t’aime … t’aime.’

Claire Seymour

Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Julius Drake (piano)

Haydn - Arianna a Naxos Hob.XXVIb:2; Ravel -Chants Populaires and Kaddisch; Poulenc/Cocteau - La Voix Humaine

Middle Temple Hall, London; Monday 23rd January 2017.

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