Sunday 17 July 2011

BBC Proms 2011 Opening Weekend, The View from the Gallery (2)

Prom No.2, or An Evening at the Opera

One of the reasons I hesitated about this weekend was that although I love Rossini, and I think William Tell is a fascinating neglected piece, I had heard it live just over a year ago in a performance given by the Chelsea Opera Group at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and I did slightly wonder whether I really needed to hear it again so soon in concert. Suffice it to say, I did.

Owing to various circumstances I arrived in the Gallery queue earlier than yesterday (or possibly the queue was shorter for this than for the opening night). Consequently I got a nice central position with a clear view of the stage, which also removed most of the acoustic deficiencies of yesterday. This is the only way I can account for the sound generally being warmer and fuller than it was in any of yesterday's works.

To summarise the plot briefly, it's all about the Swiss rediscovering their love of liberty and rising up against the hated Austrian tyrants, and Arnold's (John Osborn) tortured love for Mathilde (Malin Bystrom), Princess of the House of Hapsburg. It may please you to know that, with the exception of Arnold's father (brutally murdered off-stage between Acts 1 and 2) it all ends happily – or at least it ends with the lovers united and the Swiss preparing to drive the Austrians from the three cantons. There was some discussion at the pre concert talk as to whether this piece is really grand opera. Apparently Richard Osborne regarded it as “comic” opera. I have to say, despite that discussion, I wasn't completely clear what comic in this context really meant. I think of grand opera as having lots of diva type vocal fireworks and ceremonial processions, ballet interludes etc. On these grounds the piece qualifies, but this may of course not be a proper academic distinction.

I've tended to think before that the first test of a really good Rossini conductor is whether he can whip his forces up to breakneck speed in places like the famous overture here without losing the necessary precision. Pappano's conducting last night made me aware of something else. Firstly, there's a certain shaping and balancing required throughout – this applies elsewhere in opera of course (I was reminded of the performance of the Act Three quartet in the ROH Rigoletto revival earlier this season). But secondly, Rossini needs a kind of lilt even in the slower portions, almost a bounce, a sense of forward movement. Generally speaking, except in Act Two where things slowed down a bit too much to my mind during the entrance of the men of the three cantons, Pappano had this shaping, the lilt, and the spot on speed down to a T.

All of this brilliance on the podium would have gone for nothing were the Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome not a very fine band. Fortunately, they of course are. The strings had a wonderful sweep in the racing parts while never losing a good quality of tone. Brass and woodwind put in tricky solo after tricky solo, and there was some very effective placement of off-stage horns so that one really did feel (in the Gallery) as if one was listening to horn calls echoing around the mountains. Another key achievement was to avoid the danger of concert opera which is that orchestra swamps singers – generally speaking Pappano kept the balance well, without one feeling that the orchestra were being kept down.

One of the reasons that the opera doesn't get staged very often is the difficulty of finding the voices, in particular the high tenor (facing a frightening number of high Cs) part of Arnold, taken here by John Osborn, and the virtuouso high soprano part, here taken by Malin Bystrom. John Osborn brought the part off superbly. Cruelly, his hardest number comes at the very end but he conquered it compellingly. Elsewhere he had a wonderful light, yet full sound which came across clearly in the Gallery, as well as better diction of the French than many other members of the line-up. Bystrom too was ringingly clear in the money notes, but was one of the few who lower down occasionally disappeared below the orchestra – though this may have been an acoustical glitch. Tell himself, sung by Michele Pertusi, is a rather thankless part. Virtually all the vocal pyrotechnics go to the two lovers. Pertusi sang valiently, but whether it was the vagaries of the acoustics, up in the Gallery he didn't quite have the power I would have liked. In particular his key declamation at the end of Act Three: “Anatheme a Gesler!” which the libretto states is delivered “in a very loud voice” didn't punch through powerfully enough. Among the generally well taken supporting roles I would also single out Elena Xanthoudakis's ringing Jemmy, Matthew Rose's imposing Walter, and Nicholas Courjal's malevolent Gessler.

Finally we come to the Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia. After two works involving heavy use of chorus in a row, I'm coming to the conclusion that the Hall's acoustic is most problematic in terms of enabling a chorus to deliver the words, to sound precise, and to come over the orchestra. This Chorus generally acquitted themselves well in these categories, and managed to bring off a part which reminded me a little of the key chorus roles in some of the big Russian operas. Only in the entry of the cantons in Act Two did I feel I wanted a little more punch.

The evening was clearly not to everyone's taste. Although the hall started off pretty full, there were noticeably more empty seats after each interval, and I feel sorry for the people who slipped out in the pause between Acts 3 and 4 as the final chorus to liberty is stunning, and the most musically intriguing part of the whole opera (it really is like hearing a trial run for the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla). I can see that the piece as a whole is a bit of a long slog, there is the occasional bit of clunkiness between scenes, even without the problem of actually changing the set, but there is so much wonderful, exciting music in it beyond the famous overture and it is so intriguing as this final evolution of Rossini's operatic style that it really does deserve to be heard more often than it is. The BBC are to be commended for putting it on with such first rank forces. Hopefully many of the singers will be in the same roles when Covent Garden stages it in 2015.

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