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Elder Statesman

Royal Albert Hall
07/22/2001 -  
Guiseppe Verdi: Nabucco: Sinfonia, Il trovatore: Part I ("The Duel"), scene 2, Don Carlos: Act 4, scene I ("Study Scene"), Aida: Prelude to Act I; Act 2 (complete)
Verónica Villaroel (soprano), Dolora Zajick (mezzo), Leah-Marian Jones (mezzo), David Rendell (tenor), Vassily Gerello (baritone), Alexander Anisimov (bass), Alastair Miles (bass)
Hallé Choir, Leeds Festival Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, Hallé Orchestra
Mark Elder (conductor)

Verdi is inevitably a "featured composer" in the Proms in centenary year of his death. The third night of the Proms was all Verdi, and the penultimate concert will consist of his Requiem. That's about as structural as you can in a season of this length, and the almost-all-operatic nature of Verdi's oeuvre rules out more concerts. Sunday's concert was a selection of parts of operas that at least hinted at most of the key features of his early and middle period works: the interaction of public events and spectacle with private passion, conquest and exile, the marginalization of the tenor, nobility and thuggishness in baritones and basses, sopranos and mezzos at each other's throats. It could have been a mess, but Mark Elder - whose television film about Verdi a few years ago included stunningly well chosen and directed extracts from the operas -- managed to give each segment a self-contained shape and direction that made the narrative and the emotional drama absolutely clear. Some of it was over the top, because some of Verdi is, but it was all coherent and intelligently performed.

Perhaps to give a sense of operatic form, the concert started with the overture to Nabucco (although Verdi wasn't always one for overtures). This delivered Va pensiero, a sine qua non for this sort of occasion, in a different, much more lyrical form, as well as plenty of demonic-mode Verdi that showed how good the Hallé orchestra is these days in spite of their recent miseries.

The ever-reliable and utterly resilient David Rendell stepped in at the last minute, fresh from an apparently triumphant Otello at Glyndebourne, to sing a few minutes of Manrico in the Trovatore extract. Vassily Gerello was good and thuggish as Luna, though plagued throughout the evening with Russian vowels, and Leah-Marian Jones was striking in the small role of Ines. But this one stood or fell on its Leonora, and whether you liked Verónica Villaroel in the role. She certainly looks the part, a Mediterranean earth mother (a soprano lady-in-waiting obviously has less time for the gym than her mezzo companion), but her slightly breathy, slightly swooping voice is not for everyone, though she delivered passion in the right places. Her pitch seemed particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of the hall: it sounded close enough from the arena, but reports from higher up in the stalls and further up the house complained of permanent flatness.

The Don Carlos extract (performed in Italian) had the benefit of a better balance of roles. Alastair Miles looks like a stereotypical Englishman, but he sings like a big-league Italian bass-baritone. His Philip was heartbreakingly torn and compromised, and close to being destroyed by the thoroughly sinister Grand Inquisitor of Alexander Anisimov. Dolora Zajick as Eboli was impossible to resist, built like a truck and overwhelmingly forceful in personality as well as vocally. Elizabeth really didn't have a chance, though Villaroel and Zajick put on a display of divaly mutual admiration at the end.

About the same was true for the first part of Act 2 of Aida. But of course the point of Act 2 for most punters is the triumphal march, a triple-volume rework of the auto-da-fe that preceded the study scene in Don Carlos. The Albert Hall was conceived in a similar spirit of vulgar national ostentation, and the pinpoint accurate brass on the balconies had exactly the desired effect, as did the massed choirs. Amneris must have had a big boudoir to fit in all those dancing girls.

H.E. Elsom



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