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Mysteries of the Macabre

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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One of the highlights of London’s opera season last year was English National Opera’s revival of Le Grand Macabre, nearly 30 years after they first presented it.  Gyorgy Ligeti’s opera still stands as one of the best scores of the last few decades and, in the absence of the full work, Elgar Howarth’s arrangement known as Mysteries of the Macabre is welcome on any concert bill.  

Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan has made a speciality out of performing the nine minute splicing of arias across North America and Europe.  Her extraordinary rendition of the stratospheric coloratura, the paranoid outpourings of Gepopo, the Chief of Secret Police, was the culmination of Britten Sinfonia’s latest visit to the Queen Elizabeth Hall.  

Directing the orchestra, Hannigan tossed-off the fearsome vocals with consummate ease and precision, adding some well-timed comedy and an irresistible sense of the absurd.  The orchestra wheezed, rustled and shrieked back at her.  

It was an astonishing performance from a soprano who has already been seen on the London stage in ENO’s mushy The Tears of Petra von Kant and who has a Covent Garden debut forthcoming.  It’s one to look out for.  

As warm-up Hannigan had performed three of Mozart’s concert arias, including the brief Un moto di gioia K579, written as an alternative for Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro.  Slim, blonde and beautiful, she’s a striking stage presence, even when not togged-up in black PVC and fishnets as she was for the Ligeti.  

The remainder of the programme was an eclectic mix of short works, all by opera composers, incisively played by the Sinfonia.  Ryan Wigglesworth whizzed us through a couple of Rossini overtures and Ligeti revealed a tuneful side in his early, folk-inspired Concert Romanesc.  

Richard Watkins was the virtuosic soloist in Carl Maria von Weber’s Concertino for Horn and Orchestra, with its exceedingly odd ‘multiphonic’ moment, and the line-up was completed by a set of Contradanses by Mozart, the first of which was a rather well-known tune from Figaro.

- Simon Thomas


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