It’s actually quite difficult to give an even-handed account of this duets concert, much less an assessment of its overall success (or otherwise). The first major observation to be made, I suppose, is that neither singer is exactly in their vocal prime any more, though the degrees of deterioration are both relative and reside in different departments of their respective voices. And in fairness I should report that, at least as far as the tenor is concerned, our “understanding” was craved in advance on account of his suffering from a cold (though one rather wonders just how often this has to happen with his performances nowadays). Certainly, the watch-word of the entire first half – comprising the usual excessive amounts of doubtfully relevant purely orchestral filler and endless comings and goings – was voice-management. In her case this takes the form of accommodating to both a shortened breath-line, and a noticeably more smeary way with rapid coloratura; in his, a frequent tendency for the voice to croak or drop-out momentarily altogether during the movement from one note to another one higher up. Given then that she now has more audible trouble and expends more effort in cranking out the coloratura, and that he has problems simply maintaining even emission, you’d imagine that the last thing either would choose to expose themselves in would be “Nacqui all’affanno” for her (Cenerentola’s whizz-bang rondo-finale) or “Una furtiva lagrima” for him (Nemorino’s oddly ruminative Act II aria di gioia). Yet that is exactly what they both opted to sing as their major individual contribution in the first half, to what one might almost characterise as a predictably patchy result, she all aspirated judder and fluster in bizarrely overegged fiorature, he painfully unable to maintain an even line at a pitch (A = 415 Hz, I’d hazard) that left him sounding more like a bass-baritone.
After a surprisingly low-key – all senses – account of the overture to Così fan tutte, not so much the usual breathless period-band gabble as a sedate run-through, the singers opened with a pair of Mozart’s insert arias from opposite ends of his compositional career, “Si mostra la sorte” for him, followed by “Chi sa, chi sa, qual sia” for her (though into exactly which works they were written to be inserted remains unknown). Brief utterances the pair, and neither placing any great demands on technique, they served mainly to show that both artists remain very intense and histrionically zealous performers, sharply characterised and fully acted out. To me, however, the histrionics get in the way, and seemed both overdone in themselves – taking a theatrical hammer to crack a musical peanut – and also in some sense surely a ploy, conscious or not, of distraction, whereby we’d hopefully end up not noticing the vocal shortcomings if the pieces were thesped to the max. At least the “Là ci darem la mano” duet from Don Giovanni, with Villazon going down the Domingo route by singing the title role, was more appropriate fodder for such frolics, and was actually the first half’s most successful item, given that the subsequent “”Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera” duet from L’elisir d’amore was bedevilled throughout by the tenor’s difficulties (though at one point he achieved something I can’t ever recall having heard before, by reaching a note that promptly collapsed on him, audibly clearing his throat and resuming the note dead centre without any actual disruption of the line, which I rather think of as a triumph in the face of adversity).
But just as football matches are (so I’m told) described as games of two halves, I can mercifully report that this concert was fortunately one too, for the after the (very extended) interval, and following what I thought was a pretty pointless performance of Bellini’s squitty little Oboe Concerto, the concert finally caught fire with Villazon’s remarkably verismo account of “Torna, vezzosa Fillide”, all passion torn to tatters, and if not exactly an object lesson in bel cantism that Bellini would have recognised, at least a thoroughly involving bit of heart-on-sleeve vocal communication. Then, after an equally pointless La scala di seta overture, we had most of Act III of Rossini’s Otello (why not play the Otello overture? True, we know it here in London rather better as that of Il turco in Italia, from the failure of which the composer rescued and recycled it, but I don’t see why that should make any difference, and even if it did, that of The Silken Ladder is considerably less apropos). Here, finally, both singers struck their best form (because of course finally getting to sing music that suited them, she with simple, undecorated, slow-moving lines requiring above all plangency and charged emotion, he with shorter, more declamatory outbursts of manic passion). Minimally staged, with a chair for Desdemona’s repose and some flickering lights for the storm – not to mention a most fearsome thunder-sheet – the whole sequence convinced completely at every level, vocal, dramatic and emotional. Indeed, the opening Willow Song was a wholly absorbing and finely imagined piece of singing from La Bartoli, whom I’ve always found to be far more convincing in tragic mode than her exhaustingly comic one, and who here recovered most of the voice of her earliest glory days – she debuted back in the later 1980s, and is now in her fiftieth year, bless her – if perhaps without capturing the larmoyante wistfulness that Frederica von Stade used to summon effortlessly in this neck of the repertory. And Villazon too was in better – if not quite very best – form, a darkly brooding anti-hero to the life (a change of dress here, from his earlier plum-coloured velvet jacket to a black frock-coat). He wielded a rather alarming-looking knife, holding it close to the recumbent mezzo’s throat before spontaneously rearranging the platform furniture in his rage (much to the front desk violins’ chagrin) and eventually stabbing Desdemona to death in a manner that wouldn’t look out of place in Carmen. I certainly wasn’t expecting this level of theatrical verisimilitude to be invoked in the context of a basically primo Ottocento bits-and-bobs concert, and I don’t think the rest of the audience was either, some of whom looked utterly pole-axed at the musical turn of events.
Unsurprisingly, the encores restored a jovial sense of business-as-usual, as if the corsets had finally come off, with much blatant audience-pleasuring, including winks, nods, nudges, leers, eye-rolling, the lot. First up was Rossini’s La danza, the mad Neapolitan tarantella from his Soirées musicales of 1835 (text by Carlo Pepoli, who Rossini, in his capacity as director of the Théâtre Italien in Paris, rather naughtily foisted on Bellini as librettist for the latter’s I puritani the self-same year) and which brought both mezzo and tenor on stage brandishing tambourines, vigorously applied by Villazon to all sorts of unlikely parts of his anatomy. Then we were treated, if that’s the right word, to “Lippen, schweigen” from Lehar’s Die Lustige Witwe which involved any amount of floral tribute redistribution, some modest waltzing, and found Villazon crooning in the original German whilst Bartoli’s verse was rendered in some oddly French-sounding Italian, the diva only deigning to do the Deutsch in the ensemble at the end. After which it was champagne glasses in hand – though Villazon preferred a bottle of beer, as one does – for the virtually inevitable “Libiamo, ne’ lieti calici” from La traviata. And here something quite remarkable happened. No, the audience didn’t manage to clap in tempo, because they never, ever, do; and no, they didn’t sing along in the chorus, because a) they don’t know the words, and b) this is England. But to my complete surprise, the solo parts were quite flawlessly sung, both tenor and mezzo turning in immaculately groomed performances, with the endless grupetti sounding both effortless and accurate, such as certainly haven’t been heard at Covent Garden for well over twenty years. Who’d have thought? There’s a moral in there somewhere, but I shan’t spoil the occasion by drawing it.
I shall simply end by saying that I thought the 30-strong period band sounded rather scrawny in the Barbican’s acoustic – 16 strings! – and, under Ada Pesch’s front-desk leadership, little more than workaday in the orchestral items, though they raised their game for the singers (I’ve heard La Scintilla under William Christie, and it’s chalk and cheese in terms of results). And that, if neither star soloist exactly shone as of yore, one of them got pretty close, and the other battled bravely against indisposition – genuine, in this case, I’m sure, unlike so much of what is passed off as such in Bow Street when dealing with the likes of The Missing of Munich – and pretty much got there in the end. I personally wouldn’t rate the first half at anything more than 3*: but the second, for the lengthy (24’) extract from Otello, is surely worth 5* of anybody’s money, even mine, and that’s without considering the – somewhat strenuous – pleasures afforded by the encores.
Stephen Jay-Taylor © 2015
(Photo of Cecilia Bartoli – Decca/Uli Weber)
(Photo of Rolando Villazón – Gabo/Deutsche Grammophon)