Royal Opera House; Wilton's Music Hall; St Sepulchre-without-Newgate; Royal Festival Hall, London
Boom-diddy-boom. Opera is always obsessed with the foibles and frailties of the human heart, but no librettist carried a better stethoscope than Lorenzo Da Ponte. He recorded every conceivable palpitation in the three works he wrote with Mozart – cruel jealousy in Le nozze di Figaro, rampant lust in Don Giovanni and sly infidelity in Così fan tutte. The Royal Opera has currently got the hots for all three. I think I'd better go and lie down.
Steaming off the stage last week was Così, the most problematic of the trio. To modern audiences it seems a thoroughly questionable piece of chauvinism; for a bet, two sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, are manipulated into affairs to prove to their disguised fiances Ferrando and Guglielmo that – as the title has it – all women behave thus. Except, as this revival of Jonathan Miller's thoroughly modern production amply illustrates, it's never that simple. All the lovers discover that their carefully created ideas of themselves quickly crumble under the weight of thrilling temptation, and each emerges from the hurly-burly of the chaise longue chastened and changed.
Mozart's delectable score is naturally alert to every trembling heartbeat, each heightened emotion, but it needs a master such as Sir Colin Davis to truly interpret its infinite subtleties. He conducts with obvious love, caressing the music in its tenderest moments with an almost stately tempo that allows us to fully appreciate the quality of the particularly fine ensemble singing.
And there's another master up on stage too. Sir Thomas Allen, as Don Alfonso, glides and twinkles his way towards winning his bet, mobile phone in hand and a wallet stuffed with handy bribes. It's a wonderful performance; charming yet deadly. He's joined in his scheming by Despina, hilariously played by Rosemary Joshua, who enjoys that rare combination of a brilliant voice and perfect comic timing. Between them they confuse and manipulate the four lovers who, being modern-day young things, are obsessed with rock music, smartphones and themselves. Making her ROH role debut as Fiordiligi is Swedish soprano Malin Byström, who sings with a thrilling edge while throwing herself into the comedy, disco-dancing with her sister Dorabella, the Canadian Michèle Losier, also making her ROH role debut. There's a delicious moment when their lovers Ferrando (mellifluous tenor Charles Castronovo) and Guglielmo (creamy-smooth baritone Nikolay Borchev) arrived disguised not as traditionally exotic figures from the mystic east but as strutting heavy-metal stars, all tattoos, snakeskin boots and air guitars.
Two sisters bound up in affairs of the heart also feature in a new chamber opera, Dream Hunter, by Nicola LeFanu, with a libretto by the poet and novelist John Fuller, who has devised a dark psycho-drama based on the tradition of the mazzere, the dream hunters of Corsica. Angela is betrothed to Sampiero, but he pursues her sister Catarina, who dreams every night of hunting and killing animals while fearing that her visions will bring about the death of those around her.
LeFanu makes huge demands on the small cast and orchestra in a tautly dramatic hour of intensely coloured, sinuous music. However, her acrobatic vocal lines presented no obvious difficulties for sopranos Charmian Bedford as Catarina and Caryl Hughes as Angela. Faring less well was Brian Smith Walters, who failed to convince as the duplicitous Sampiero, and whose thin tenor was no match for the robust baritone of Jeremy Huw Williams as his putative father-in-law, Domenico.
Director Carmen Jakobi produced some wonderfully fresh ideas, including an excellent freeze-frame tableau from Sampiero and Domenico, engrossed in their gambling like a living embodiment of Cézanne's The Card Players, while the contemporary music ensemble Lontano played with needle-sharp precision under the decisively assured direction of Odaline de la Martinez.
A programme misprint once maintained that Francis Pott's music had been "hard in many countries". Singers might privately agree but audiences certainly wouldn't. Pott is one of today's most interesting choral composers, managing to make challenging, intricate music instantly accessible. Even on a cold, snowy night he can draw a crowd. Combine his work with the vocal dexterity of Commotio, one of our finest young choirs, and you know you can expect a programme of rare quality.
Conductor Matthew Berry's perfectly balanced ensemble has something that many choirs strive for but few achieve: the ability to sing quietly without losing pitch or tempo, most beautifully realised in Pott's Lament, written last year as a tribute to Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, killed in Helmand in 2009 while defusing a bomb. Setting the sorrowful but consolatory words of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson ("We who are left, how shall we look again/ Happily on the sun or feel the rain") it is graceful, dignified and heartbreaking. Commotio lapped up Pott's polyphonic Mass for Eight Parts, sailing through the tricky counterpoint of the Kyrie before savouring the thick textures of the Sanctus and its ecstatic, concluding Osanna. You can catch up with these pieces and more on a newly released Naxos recording of Pott's work.
Berry chose to interpolate music from other leading choral composers including Richard Allain, whose Night wraps Shelley's poem in velvet chords as thick as darkness, adding a sonorous cello melody (beautifully played by Katherine Jenkinson) that floats through the stars to ravishing effect. James Whitbourn's magisterial motet He carried me away in the spirit moved as a great procession, approaching and receding into the distance, while the glacial tone clusters of Peter Klatzow's Three Spiritual Nocturnes sparkled like the chilly winter weather outside.
Sparkling would be an understatement if applied to Stephen Hough. Most pianists are content to perform just one Liszt concerto in an evening, but not the redoubtable Hough. Last week at the Royal Festival Hall he tackled the twin peaks of Liszt 1 and 2, each time arriving at the summit as calm and relaxed as if he had merely been for an agreeable ramble down a sun-filled country lane.
Whether crashing down the keyboard in the thunderous octaves of the opening movement of the first, or scampering about in the delicate filigree of the single-movement second, Hough displays an awesome technique. The gradual acceleration of the final movement of the first was breathtaking to behold, and the closing presto positively explosive. Listen again on the BBC iPlayer. You won't be disappointed.
The audience certainly got its money's worth at this concert. The Liszt concertos were bookended with Czech music from Marin Alsop and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, opening with Martinu's intense, sweeping sixth symphony and closing with Dvorak's glorious eighth. That's one super-charged programme, suitably summed up by flautist Jaime Martín's heart-stopping solo in the final movement of the Dvorák. Boom-diddy-boom!
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