When you wish upon a star
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Works by Leoncavallo, Donaudy, Tosti, Rossini, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Massenet, Burleigh, Barber, d'Hardelot, Kern, Arlen, Bizet
Joyce DiDonato (mezzo soprano), Joseph Calleja (tenor), Thomas Hampson (baritone), Vasko Vassilev (violin), Antonio Pappano (piano)
Joseph Calleja (Courtesy of ROH, Covent Garden & Decca)
Covent Garden recitals generally work better when taken out into the Floral Hall; its conservatory ambiance and manageable size being preferable to the empty barn that the setless stage can become. But here it looked to me like an earlier dress rehearsal of Un Ballo in Maschera had left its vast mirrored backdrop there, reflecting the auditorium back at ourselves and creating a curiously cosy, parlour room feel.
A smiling, yet haunted looking, Antonio Pappano, briefed us on the logistical hell of putting on tonight's concert. When Rolando Villazón's emergency vocal operation forced him to pull out of his sold out evening, people were duly compensated with the butch charms of Dmitri Hvorostovsky. That was until the “nasty accident to his vocal chords” few days ago. As Pappano stated, we wish them and their plush voices a full and speedy recovery but, wow, what stops have been pulled to satisfy us.
With safety in numbers, just in case one of them impaled themselves on a music stand or a bit of set fell on them, Pappano rounded up three stars and his Concert Master, all already in the house. With Joseph Calleja and Thomas Hampson in the current La Traviata, and Joyce DiDonato taking a break from Il Barbiere rehearsals, we would have been understanding and content with a medley from those operas. Of the five people on stage, only DiDonato had the next night off. Yet a whole new programme was devised, even if it did rely on songs this disparate group of singers can do at the drop of a hat. How else does one explain the programming of this deliriously enjoyable recital? It was like raiding the leftovers of some gourmet drunk's fridge; Delicious, if randomly assembled.
First came Calleja's set of Italian love songs, including Mattinata. All were sung with just the right amount of portamento and expression. His top pinged delightfully and he didn't make heavy weather of anything. Later that clean line and lovely sense of style blessed Rodrigue's world weary prayer from Massenet's Le Cid and, with mangled English and no irony, d' Hardelot's Because. I wouldn't want it any other way and for that he joins Fritz Wunderlich and Mario del Monaco in beautifully sung crimes of the English language. Calleja has Bergonzi's cello like vocal line and the young Pavarotti's free and open sound. Those comparisons are written soberly and without exaggeration. He is the real deal and good enough to get that hermetic breed, the vocal connoisseur, to put on some deodorant and catch his remaining Alfredos.
Rossini's La Regata Veneziana is a favourite of DiDonato's recitals and she delivered an exquisitely coloured account set to Pappano's splashy, virtuosic playing, though those hushed phrases were probably not audible in the amphitheatre. She moved away from Wigmore Hall intimacy with the stand out item of the evening. A far better recital choice than Verdi's alternative, Rossini's Willow song from Otello contains some of the most haunting and beautifully written pieces he wrote, with a languid, mysterious opening and the wind creepily evoked in the orchestra. Pappano played it with the most haloed, veiled tone, picking out all sorts of detail not brought out usually in Rossini and it gave DiDonato the perfect backdrop for Desdemona's mini-drama. It bodes well for when she does the whole opera.
And how could anyone not like her singing of Somewhere over the rainbow? Cute yet sincerely sung and with not a trace of opera-singer-being-hopelessly-unconvincing, even my inner-bastard went Aaahhh. I found her slightly arch and in thrall to the chocolately magnificence of her voice in can't help loving dat man but it was still slick and classy.
Classy, too, was Vasko Vassilev's only break from the pit this week. He and Pappano gave two full toned and nuanced movements of Tchaikovsky's Souvenir d'un lieu cher. It's a shame they didn't also play the melodie from the same work but their unsickly performance of Rachmaninov's Vocalise made up for that.
Hampson was Mister Serious for the evening. Mahler songs are in his blood stream and sang the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with his usual burnished tone and lack of fuss. His diction was excellent, although he occasionally distorted some vowels, like “schoone” instead of “schöne”, for the sake of vocal smoothness. The real treat, though, was the pair of American art songs. Hampson introduced Harry Thacker Burleigh's setting of Whitman's Ethiopia saluting the colours before proving this work to be the equal of anything by Wolf. Hampson's contributions alone would made a challenging and eclectic programme but with a tenor kicking about, what better then to send us home with The Pearl Fishers' duet.
The constant through this was Pappano himself. It was a tour de force of sight-reading, stamina and sanity. At a guess, I would say he had only played half that repertoire before yet he switched from country and idiom with complete conviction. Like his conducting, his playing has detail, energy, imagination and colour, from the heavy tread of the Burley song, or Showboat's ragtime, to the shimmering accompaniment of the Rossini items. As with all the best vocal recitals, we had the feeling that this was chamber music.
Yes, the programming was like a bazaar, but I rather liked hopping about from Leoncavallo to Kern. The musicians were game and so were we. Why must we only have scrupulously planned, intellectually themed sets for recitals? It wasn't the time or the place. I like the way opera audiences don't know how to listen to Mahler's song cycles; “Quick, Hampson's first tune is over. Let's clap.” More annoying than people clapping in the wrong place are people who point that out. They are like those loners shouting out the answers at their TVs when Countdown's on.
On a final note, please could we have the Un Ballo mirror in place for all Covent Garden recitals? Part of the special atmosphere was due to the physical intimacy, of watching ourselves all gathered round in the music room. With its pick 'n' mix repertoire and wing and a prayer, musicality it was, a world away from the CD tie in and impersonal, aircraft hanger like void most opera house recitals tend to be.