There are times when no matter how good a concert/opera/recital may have been, you come away with a slightly heavy heart, thinking to yourself, “And now I’ve got to write that up” (Well, you probably don’t: but God knows I do.) And then there are occasions like tonight, where such was the quality of the performance that I could barely endure the brief journey home, itching as I was to pounce into print on the instant. (I suppose this is why people have smart-phones: though if they were that smart my view is that they should write the damn thing for me themselves, based on a star-rating and a few choice observations. Roll on the day).

We don’t get much Elῑna Garanča here in London, worse luck, and least of all at the Royal Opera House, where the mezzo hasn’t appeared for exactly five years now, since her revelatory Carmens at the start of the 2009/10 season (themselves hard-on-the-heels of her astonishing Romeos in Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi there). This is five years’ of a great voice in its absolute prime we’ll never recover, and I would regard it as little more than my public-spirited duty to breeze into Bow St. with a large, sharp axe and sort the Planning Department out once-and-for-all if it weren’t for the sad fact that much of what has been scheduled has fallen victim either to the singer’s pregnancy – two offspring thus far – or decisions she has made about repertory ex-post-facto. And the news that she is finally to reappear at Covent Garden in two years’ time – in itself a cause for street parties and celebrations – is, at least for me, tempered by the fact that when she does so it will be as Santuzza, not so much a role I consider beneath her as a repertory beneath everything and everybody. That we should have to wait for SEVEN years to hear at Covent Garden what is surely the greatest mezzo-soprano voice currently active, and then in tenth-rate tat to boot, is nothing short of scandalous. Even allowing for the singer’s perfect right to diversify away from the Mozart/primo ottocento repertoire with which she earned her reputation, and in which she remains incomparable, surely the Met’s decision to showcase her remarkable talent in their forthcoming Samson et Dalila is a very great deal more apropos than sticking her on in the first half of a double-bill of versimo slops. Why didn’t we offer her something worth doing, like Didon in a revival of Les troyens? Maybe I’ll keep the axe properly sharpened after all…..

Meanwhile, we were treated tonight to a wholly German recital programme, comprising Schumann in the first half, then Berg and Strauss in the second. I suppose I ought in fairness to report that Ms. Garanča’s German is not entirely idiomatic: a couple of vowel-modifying umlauts went AWOL; the odd line emerged very indistinct if not indeed garbled; and she elided the two “m”s in Allerseelen’s “Wie einst im Mai” refrain (where, exactly as with Salome’s repeated apostrophies to John’the Baptist’s mouth – “deinem Mund” – you need to hear each “m” consonant, the one at the end of one word and the one at the start of the next, sounded separately in order for not just the sense, but also the orally sensuous “mmmmmm” effect, to register properly). And just occasionally in Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder I thought her sense of pitch – in what is admittedly a sometimes very far-stretched tonal context – was ever so slightly adrift of where it ought to be. But that is the sum total of criticism I have to offer.

Otherwise, as throughout the Schumann and Strauss, the tone was perfectly focussed, the voice in most lustrous condition, the technique at once both immaculate and effortless, and the sense of self-possessed poise utterly unshakable. A bomb could have gone off in the hall and though it might well have disturbed the audience, I doubt the mezzo would even have turned so much as a hair. Yet this is not to imply that she is in any way a cold or uncommunicative performer: quite the contrary, in fact. But hers is not the calculating art of sucking-up, jollying-along, co-conspiracy or chucking under the chin: indeed, she pays the audience the supreme compliment of treating us like adults rather than importunate children to be indulged, and is no hurry to establish any relationship with us except through the medium of the music itself, which commendable reserve extends even as far as her platform manner and dress. In the matter of the latter, I confess that my heart sank when I saw beforehand amongst the assembled Dame Vivienne Westwood. O God, I thought, here we go again. More lumps of hideous “couture” making the wearer look like a Frank Gehry building. But no. Ms. Garanča’s wardrobe was of a restraint not commonly encountered amongst mezzos – or indeed sopranos – these days, comprising a midnight-blue gown with diamante bodice in the first half, and a plain pale pink taffeta sleeveless frock in the second, perfectly apt, tasteful – no plunging neckline here – and unobtrusively right (rather like her whole artistic persona, in fact). And if the visual effect is slightly old-fashioned, I can live with that. Indeed, I’d rather live with that, particularly when, as here, it’s a kind of analogue to the mezzo’s whole approach, which is absolutely centred on musical essentials, making no extraneous appeal to this or that element of supra-musical activity.

In fact, I can’t think of any singer around today whose voice I find inherently more beautiful, whose technique I find so impressive, or whose artistry I appreciate more. And none of it flaunted, or in any way held up for obvious admiration. I thought her reading of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und –leben exemplary, with an understated but nevertheless intense emotionalism at its core, ranging from youthful doubts and desire to mature fulfilment, ending up in a kind of transfigured grief that I found both profoundly moving yet inspiring. I can see why, purely on the basis of the texts, modern feminists have so taken against the cycle: but performed like this, and with this degree of deep feeling distilled through the singing, I experienced nothing but a level of stoical sincerity where the Mills and Boon story might hardly have been thought capable of venturing. Well, that’s in part Schumann’s achievement, of course: but few performers make it through without erring in this or that direction of either emotional overload or simpering. Above all, Ms. Garanča presented us with a real character, of range and depth and flesh (like, I suppose one might add, her voice). She really should start singing Berlioz soonest.

If the Schumann first half made the most of her powers as an interpreter, the Berg cycle made the most demands on the soprano range of her voice – full-bodied, warm and ideally womanly – whilst it was the collection of half-a-dozen Strauss songs which tested her technique, with their characteristic harmonic side-steps that both tease the ear and trip-up the unwary. “Leises Lied” – a minefield of enharmonic slithering around, vocally – was perfectly realised; and for the first time I can readily recall, the slightly platitudinous “Meinem Kinde” carried complete conviction as a portrait of the bond between mother and child. Even so, perhaps nothing on the scheduled programme was quite as exquisitely realised as her second (and last) encore, the one that “needs no introduction” (unlike the first – Raimonds Pauls Latvian song “Close your eyes and smile” – which could have done with a bit more of one): Strauss’s “Morgen!”. Here the evening-long luxurious benefit of Malcolm Martineau’s very classy accompaniment was perhaps felt strongest: but even he cannot float or sustain a line in quite the inwardly rapt way that Ms. Garanča managed here, marrying perfect vocal poise to exquisitely imagined intensity of expression. Anything further would have been superfluous and somehow impertinent, so with her perfect taste and timing, the mezzo left the platform, and rather more remarkably, left the very well behaved audience in a state not of clamorous demand for yet more, but one of complete satisfaction. It goes without saying that I can hardly wait to hear her again: but I think I’ll do a bit of international shopping-around so that I don’t have to wait another two whole years before doing so, or, worse, for it to be in Mascagni if I do.

4.5 stars

Stephen Jay-Taylor