On the evening of Wednesday 24 June 2009 in the main auditorium of The Royal Opera House, London, it was a case of third time lucky. Originally the plan was a recital by Rolando Villazón and Antonio Pappano. Illness intervened for the singer. Dmitri Hvorostovsky was then announced. Illness intervened! Still remaining was Pappano. A last-minute, impromptu concert was the result with singers already engaged by Royal Opera for staged performances together with an appearance by Vasko Vassilev, one of the concertmasters of the Orchestra of The Royal Opera.
Following a witty spoken introduction by Pappano (to explain why the concert had changed so much), Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja – currently appearing in La traviata – opened proceedings with three songs, all popular in appeal, including Mattinata by Leoncavallo and Tosti’s A Vucchella. This was big-hearted and charming singing, if rather dry-toned (and a little belting) that easily filled the space; the gentle imploring of the Tosti was especially inviting. Later, Calleja would find richer timbres and much depth for Rodrigue’s Aria from Act III of Massenet’s Le Cid and charmed once more with Because by Guy d’Hardelot (Helen Guy Rhodes).
With glass panelling on the stage, a second audience was created behind the performers; a sense of grandeur was the illusion. Joyce Di Donato’s first appearance was for Rossini’s La regata veneziana, a facially expressive account of the three settings that was vocally stylish and vibrant. She is with Royal Opera for Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (which opens on 4 July).
Thomas Hampson (also appearing in La traviata) ended the first half with Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; quite a contrast with the earlier fare. Some in the audience were more interested in sound-bites and unfortunately applauded after the second and third songs (why not the first?) and destroyed the moods established as well as the sequence as a whole. Hampson brought dignity to this cycle and avoided melodrama without sacrificing communication and his rapt and resigned singing in the final setting was especially compelling.
To open part two, Vasko Vassilev (very busy leading the ROH Orchestra for all its current performances) brought honeyed tone to Tchaikovsky’s Méditation and brilliant dexterity to Scherzo (both pieces from Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Opus 42) and then found plangent and flexible expression for Rachmaninov’s Vocalise.
Following Calleja’s Massenet, Joyce DiDonato returned for the extended Willow Song from Rossini’s Otello, its shifting emotions unerringly caught and making one hope for a ROH production of this opera with her, Pappano conducting.
When Thomas Hampson came back he had some words for us about Ethiopia Saluting the Colours by Harry (Henry) Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949), a pupil of Dvořák (when the latter was in New York). This setting of Walt Whitman is centred on the American Civil War; Hampson delivered it with determined, patriotic fervour, and then shaped and shaded Samuel Barber’s hauntingly beautiful Sure on this Shining Night with total empathy.
DiDonato then entered into the world of musicals with pizzazz, Can’t help Lovin’ Dat Man from <i>Show Boat</i> (Jerome Kern) was brought off with easy swing and Harold Arlen’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow (The Wizard of Oz), if maybe a touch too operatic in delivery, was sung with feeling. This evening of solos was completed with a duet, Calleja and Hampson united for Au fond du temple saint from Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles, enough to get the goosebumps to stand to attention!
Playing throughout was Antonio Pappano; his skills as a pianist are familiar through the recordings he has made as an accompanist. Here he impressed with his technical command, subtlety and versatility as well as his innate support for the singers and violinist. Obviously the repertoire was totally different to what had been planned with Villazón, and then with Hvorostovsky, and given the short notice for the recital as it turned it out to be, the putting-together of a generous new programme must have put Pappano (who has just finished a run of Berg’s Lulu and is currently immersed in La traviata as well as rehearsing The Barber of Seville) under some pressure – but one wouldn’t have known, no more than there was anything to suggest that this recital wasn’t anything other than long-termed planned. All in all, this was a hugely enjoyable and diverting soirée that was superbly brought off.