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Reviews

<em>London Bel Canto Festival</em>: Aprile Millo at Cadogan Hall
23 Aug 2018

London Bel Canto Festival: Aprile Millo at Cadogan Hall

What defines a ‘diva’? The Italian word, which came to be used in an operatic context at the end of the nineteenth century, derives from the Latin divus, meaning ‘goddess’.

London Bel Canto Festival: Aprile Millo at Cadogan Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

 

Over the years, ‘diva’ has become interchangeable with ‘prima donna’, with both terms connoting a female singer who is distinguished by the magnitude of her vocal prowess and her personal aura, both of which astonish, seduce and mesmerise. More recently, diva has often been used pejoratively, with associations of bad tempers, unreliable behaviour and narcissism.

In her London solo recital debut, legendary soprano Aprile Millo - whose official website is titled ‘The Golden Voiced Diva’ - reminded us of the original meaning of the term. For the devoted fans who had eagerly gathered in Cadogan Hall, Millo certainly is a ‘goddess’ - indeed, a critic once described her, memorably and pertinently, as the “High Priestess of that old-time operatic religion”. She also demonstrated why she is so revered by devotees of the bel canto repertory. Millo has a gorgeously rich voice of enormous power, which she uses judiciously, swelling with ease to fill the Hall but holding back to coax us into the sentiments the song. Her soprano is unfailingly supported, even across its wide range. The beauty of the sound is paramount, and the phrasing is unfailingly gracious and elegant, but there is no lack of expression and communication with the audience. It’s no surprise that her fans revere her as the upholder of vocal traditions and a successor to former bel canto heavyweights such as vocal heavyweights such as Renata Tebaldi and Rosa Ponselle.

It seems incredible that after a career spanning more than thirty years, during which Millo has performed at the Metropolitan Opera House more than 180 times, in 15 different roles, as well as in countless opera houses from San Francisco to Vienna, Milan to Moscow, Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo, the soprano had not previously appeared on the Covent Garden stage or in the capital. What finally brought her to London was the invitation to give a masterclass and perform the closing concert of the second London Bel Canto Festival (6-22 August), an international music festival and academy which, in the words of scholar, tenor and founding Director Ken Querns Langley, focuses on “the development of young singers and the reinvigoration of bel canto”. This year, students attended masterclasses by Millo, Bruce Ford and Nelly Miricioiu, before presenting a Young Artists Concert at Cadogan Hall.

Millo.jpgAprile Millo.

Hailed as ‘a new Verdi star’ when she stepped in to replace the indisposed Anna Tomowa-Sintow in Simon Boccanegra at the Met in December 1984, Millo has made Verdi’s major roles the centre of her career in the theatre and on disc, though her performances of Puccini and verismo have been equally lauded. Millo’s programme, therefore, might have been expected to have comprised ‘old favourites’, but the soprano had some surprises in store. She didn’t simply give the fans what they wanted, she gave them what they didn’t know that they wanted.

Millo, born in New York, has Italian and Irish ancestry, and this was reflected in her programme. The first half focused on nineteenth-century Italian repertoire. We had some Bellini and Verdi, but not well-known arias, rather ‘studies’ - ‘La Ricordanza’, a study of ‘Qui la voce’ from La sonnambula, and ‘Insolitaria Stanza’, a study for Leonore’s ‘Tacea la notte’ from Il trovatore - as well as Donizetti’s ‘Me voglio fà na casa’ from Soirées d’automne à l’Infrascata. And, there were songs, arias and scenes by Paulo Tosti, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and Lincinio Refice among others. After the interval, Millo travelled more widely, incorporating Rachmaninov and Massenet, in memory of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, two songs by Richard Strauss dedicated to the memory of Simonetta Puccini (the composer’s grand-daughter), and following these with some traditional English and Irish folksongs, some of which were accompanied by harpist Merynda Adams.

Given that in her repertoire choices Millo was straying off-the-beaten-track, it was a little surprising that no texts were provided, or at the least some brief indication of the context and/or content of each aria. From the start of her career, Millo has made known her disapproval of surtitles, telling The Washington Post in 1990 that, ‘They distract from the performers’ ability to weave the story, to make it believable and make it understood. You spend a lot of money on costumes and scenery, and then you divide attention with a piece of paper at the top of the proscenium. It makes no sense. Opera has survived this long without it.”

However, the sequence might perhaps have had a clearer narrative if the audience had had a more precise indication of what Millo was singing about. She describes her programme as “the story of a relationship in Italian songs … there are different songs for how it goes” and explains that “at one point the audience will decide whether the relationship is a success or whether it’s not. And It’s a bit of audience participation”. And, so Stefano Donaudy’s ‘O del mio amato ben’ (from 36 Arie di Stile Antico) marked ‘Falling in Love’, Paulo Tosti’s concert aria ‘Non t’amo più’ marked the ‘First Quarrel’ and both Frank Bridge’s Frank Bridge’s ‘Love went a-riding’, and ‘Cara la mia Venezia’ from Il campiello by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari necessitated ‘A Decision’.

I particularly enjoyed the light-hearted simplicity of Donizetti’s ‘Me voglio fà na casa’ (I want to build a house), in which pianist Inseon Lee accompanied with charming insouciance as Millo rose with an effortless legato to the sustained high passages. Millo relished the drama of Bridge’s ‘Love went a riding’, and both singer and accompanist were equal to the verismo heights of ‘Grazie, sorelle’, the death and transfiguration scene from Refice’s Saint Cecilia, Lee getting her fingers around the mass of ‘orchestral’ detail with aplomb. It was a treat to hear these and other unfamiliar works, such as Tosti’s ‘Sogno’ and ‘Ideale’ (‘The Dream of Love’ and ‘The Honeymoon’, respectively, in Millo’s narrative); in these salon songs, Millo soared through the arching lines with grandeur, sensuality and compelling dramatic presence.

Perhaps those familiar with the chosen songs, or Italian speakers in the audience, could discern the development of a romance, but in the second part of the recital there was less sense of a binding narrative, and perhaps this was because Millo herself seemed on slightly less comfortable ground. There was no lack of vocal sheen, power and expressivity, but the songs in Russian, French and German require a vocal style different to the glorious weight and effortless scope of Millo’s natural bel canto. Strauss’s ‘Allerseelen’ and ‘Zueignung’, for example, had a vibrant intensity which seemed to overpower the long-breathed silkiness of the vocal writing. In the folk-songs, Millo made little attempt to modify her vocal colour, singing ‘The Rose of Tralee’ and ‘Danny Boy’ with rich lustre and a potent vibrato, but while some purists may have demurred I found her commitment to these songs to be compelling and the ‘art-song’ manner made them seem personal and honest to the singer - indeed, in her prefatory remarks she mentioned memories of her mother singing to her when she was a child.

For her final item, Millo returned to ‘home territory’, inviting baritone Jeffrey Carl to join her on the platform to perform ‘Ciel, mio padre’ from Aida (dedicated to the memory of Rita Saponaro Patene). The singers, performing from memory, immediately created a persuasive dramatic context and presented a vivid, impassioned and emotionally driven scena. Needless to say, her fans loved it, jumping to their feet and whooping their delight.

From the first, Millo engaged in a relaxed fashion with her audience, in banter and through song, revealing her humour, directness and passion. Everything was done with style, panache and a flourish - Millo even managed to make the putting on of her spectacles a ‘grand’ gesture! - and the intent to communicate, engage and entertain was evident and sustained. We were far from the hushed gentility of Wigmore Hall and I was a little surprised to find myself so absorbed by Millo’s presence and performance. At the close, I felt somewhat exhausted emotionally - and I guess this was what the soprano intended. She had drawn us into the songs and the stories, suspending our disbelief by the power of her singing and of song. When Rossini retired from the opera world in 1858, he reportedly lamented the state of contemporary Italian singing, “Alas for us, we have lost our bel canto”. Here, Millo showed that the bel canto tradition is in fact very much alive.

Claire Seymour

London Bel Canto Festival: April Millo (soprano), Inseon Lee (piano), Jeffrey Carl (baritone), Merynda Adams (harp)

Donaudy - ‘O del mio amato ben’ (from 36 Arie di Stile Antico), Tosti - ‘Sogno’, Donizetti - ‘Me voglio fà na casa’ (from Soir ées d’automne à l’Infrascata), Tosti - ‘Ideale’, ‘Non t’amo più’, Bridge - ‘Love went a-riding’, Wolf-Ferrari ‘Cara la mia Venezia’ (from Il campiello), Bellini - ‘La Ricordanza’ (a study of ‘Qui la voce’ from La sonnambula), Verdi - ‘Insolitaria Stanza’ (a study for Leonore’s ‘Tacea la notte’ fromIl trovatore), Refice - ‘Grazie, sorelle’ (fromSaint Cecilia), Rachmaninov - ‘Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne’ (from 6 Romances Op.4), Massenet - ‘Elegie’, Richard Strauss - ‘Allerseelen’, ‘Zueigning’ (from 8 Gedichte aus ‘Letzte Bl ätter Op.10), C.W.Glover - ‘The Rose of Tralee’, Mrs George D Presentis - ‘The Kerry Dance’, ‘Bendeemer Stream’, ‘Danny Boy’, Verdi - ‘Ciel, mio padre!’ (from Aida).

Cadogan Hall, London; Tuesday 21st August 2018.

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