Royal Opera House
For this year’s appearance at the Barbican, Cecilia Bartoli, ever exploratory in her repertoire, chose an evening of canzone, songs by composers and a few by singers of the bel canto repertoire. She was accompanied by the hyper-reticent Sergio Ciomei at the piano. Admittedly, the accompaniments to these pieces are not in the least interesting, but they do need to be heard. A recital by Bartoli is in all senses an occasion. It is very much a matter of seeing what this performer is like now, just as it was with Schwarzkopf. And, as with Schwarzkopf in her later recitals, one is impressed by the sheer calculation of it all, from the moment she appears, marches on to the stage, distributes smiles to her admirers like blessings, and adjusts her expression for the first number.
She began with the relatively well-known three songs in Venetian dialect by Rossini, which she characterised brilliantly. It was evident that, quite differently from her recent albums of disinterred operatic composers, she was concerned to allure us with her personality, injecting feeling and sometimes vigour into fragile vehicles. Bellini fared even better than Rossini, with tender, anxious songs of forlornly hoped-for or lost love voiced in his characteristic sinuous, poignant melodies. Bartoli did nothing to exaggerate the pathos, as she does to grotesque effect in her new recording of La Sonnambula. The only trouble was that, with a generously proportioned programme, about two hours of music, the effect became a little wearisome. What the fans had come for — and the Barbican was seething with them — tended to come towards the end, when the diva launched into rataplans and other dread weapons of artistic destruction, and delivered the machine-gun coloratura which is found so exciting by those who can bear it at all. Mildly interestingly, these were mainly provided by the Garcia family, including Pauline Viardot and her painfully short-lived sister Maria Malibran. The exuberance is extraordinary, but is an athletic rather than artistic achievement. I’m sure no one left disappointed.
The Royal Opera’s current revival of one of its longest-running successes, Andrei Serban’s production of Puccini’s Turandot, which has a far stronger claim to be considered pantomime fare than Hänsel und Gretel, was blighted on the opening night by the star’s indisposition. Iréne Theorin made a deservedly big impression last year in Siegfried, which she sang in the second Ring cycle when Lisa Gasteen was ill. Theorin is on the DVDs of the Copenhagen Ring cycle, and is the most promising Brünnhilde I have seen for years. So her replacement by Elizabeth Connell, who is in London singing Mother in Hänsel, was a major disappointment. Connell has had a long and distinguished career, but she is fundamentally a mezzo, and the tessitura of Turandot is notoriously high. At age 62 Connell can no longer be expected to soar aloft and stay there, as this character intimidated Peking and her suitors by doing. In fact she coped with the role as well as most of her recent predecessors at the Royal Opera, but that isn’t saying a lot. The voice is hard now, lacking colours, and with a guttural quality. And when one has waited for over half the opera for the heroine to appear and sing, demands are high. Puccini notoriously loved torturing his heroines, hence, partly, his enormous appeal: but he never before his last opera devised this cruel ordeal of keeping her waiting while every other character, and a substantial chorus, have lavish chances to establish themselves, and then she has, at one go, to trump them all, first with her imposing aria and then by asking three incredibly simple riddles which no one has ever been able to answer (I have never answered one in a Christmas cracker, and I got her three right the first time I saw the opera, without knowing the plot). The conductor Nicola Luisotti hurried the aria along for Connell at such a pace that had it been one of the legendary Turandots she could hardly have made an impression. That was clearly done, though, to help.
His conducting was the impressive feature of the evening, bringing out the extraordinary harmonies and the stunning orchestration, shaping the merely expectant Act I with masterly skill, and giving each singer ideally sympathetic support. They needed it, as a mainly veteran team. José Cura is as always a virile figure and singer, yet signs of hoarseness set in during Act II, and I decided I would go one better than the composer and not attempt Act III at all. The Liù of Svetla Vassileva had some exquisite notes, but far too many wobbles. Paata Burchuladze, as Timur, was his customary woofy self, and even Robert Tear, consummate artist, sounded as if he, rather than the Emperor, was nearing his end. The three masks were strikingly inadequate; the chorus, like the orchestra, was on top form.