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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Pietro MASCAGNI, Cavalleria rusticana, Santuzza, Dolora Zajick (mezzo-soprano); Turiddu, Ian Storey (tenor); Mamma Lucia, Frances McCafferty (mezzo-soprano); Alfio, Peter Sidhom (baritone); Lola, Leah-Marian Jones (mezzo-soprano), Hallé Choir and Hallé Youth Choir, Hallé Orchestra, Mark Elder, The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 14 April 2005 (RJF)


Gioachino ROSSINI
Overture: William Tell

Giacomo PUCCINI
Capriccio sinfonico (Hallé premiere)

Pietro MASCAGNI
Cavalleria rusticana, Operatic melodrama in one act. Concert performance, sung in Italian with English surtitles


It scarcely seems credible that a mere seven years ago the Hallé Orchestra stood on the verge of financial calamity and disbandment. The Chairman went to Whitehall to plead for help for an orchestra famed for Hamilton Harty and John Barbirolli. It had come to that sorry state as a consequence of poor financial decisions and mediocre artistic guidance and performance. Fortunately for the orchestra, and the City’s artistic life, Mark Elder didn’t go to Covent Garden but came to Manchester. His commitment to the Hallé, together with his high musical standards and artistic vision, has helped to put the orchestra back on its feet and make possible nights of musical splendour that was enjoyed by a full Bridgewater Hall last night. It is no accident that the Hallé’s own record label, featuring new recordings of Elgar under Mark Elder, and older performances under the redoubtable Hamilton Harty, Albert Sammons and Malcolm Sargent, are selling well. During the rehearsal period for this concert the orchestra and choir were recording Elgar’s The Music Makers for future release. They are scheduled to take Gerontius to the London Proms in August, although I believe a projected recording is on hold.


At last night’s concert the high standard of the individual and general playing of the Hallé orchestra was immediately obvious in Rossini’s William Tell Overture. The solo cello launching of the overture was strong, sonorous and expressive with the other four cellos showing equal intensity and musicality as they joined the introductory slow section to the work. The winds and horns were not outdone in quality later on whilst the full orchestra showed its paces as Elder whipped up a ferocious storm, one of Rossini’s specialities and never bettered in any of his earlier works, and a frenetic gallop to the conclusion. This was orchestral playing of the highest standard and indicative of the giant strides the orchestra has made under Elder’s stewardship as Music Director since taking up the post in September 2000. For the second piece before the interval, Elder had chosen Puccini’s student Capriccio sinfonico of 1883. Its title might have helped Puccini earn his diploma, and the kudos of a public performance under the baton of Franco Faccio who Verdi chose to premiere his Otello four years later. Its content is mainly interesting for the re-use Puccini made of its middle section in the opening music of Act I of La Boheme. Whatever its musical limitations, Elder and the Hallé made it an easy fifteen minutes listening before the excitement to come.


Whist the hors d’oeuvres comprised works of two of Italy’s giants of operatic composition, each with many hits to their credit in their own lifetimes and since, the main course of the evening was a concert performance of Mascagni’s only real success, Cavalleria rusticana. A true verismo, real life, tale of bad blood and revenge it needs a formidable singer to portray the lead mezzo role of Santuzza, the wronged woman betrayed by her philandering man. The role calls for a dramatic mezzo, the type of voice that can sing the great Verdi mezzo roles such as Amneris (Aida), Azucena (Trovatore) and Eboli (Don Carlos). In the post Second World War years a series of great Italians mezzos, together with the Americans Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett, serviced the world’s great opera houses in these roles. However, since the movement of the latter two singers into the soprano fach, and the retirement of Fiorenza Cossotto, Dolora Zajick the Santuzza of this performance has carried the burden at the Met, La Scala and elsewhere. And what a performance we were privileged to see and hear. Although billed as a concert performance all the singers, with one notable exception, sang from memory as they would in a staged performance. There was movement on and off the platform as there would be on an opera stage and which helped comprehension of the emotions of the action. I have been privileged to see and hear some of the greatest singers of the last forty years on the opera stage and concert platform. However, I have rarely witnessed a performance of such dramatic intensity as I heard from Dolora Zajick last night. Dressed simply in black she gave a total dramatic portrayal via her body language and formidable and expressive vocal strengths across her wide tonal range. Even with costumes, stage props and scenery, Santuzza’s various emotions could not have been put before us in a more vivid and total histrionic manner. This was the most consummate performance of a number of quality singers that Mark Elder has brought before Hallé audiences since his arrival at the helm.


With Dolora Zajick’s fine example in front of them, nearly all the rest of the principal singers performed and acted their parts well. Frances McCafferty’s low mezzo, still stance and even vocal range conveyed an appropriately austere Mamma Lucia. Leah-Marian Jones as Lola made her entrance through the stalls in a vivid red dress as befitted the scarlet woman of the tale. Her lyric mezzo was clear and well defined. Peter Sidhom’s lean but well tuned baritone could have done with a touch more colour and heft. He reacted well to his colleagues and his diction was exemplary. As the two timing Turiddu, the philandering man in Santuzza’s life, Ian Storey was the major disappointment of the evening. His introductory off-stage serenade was a bit throaty but when he appeared on the platform tied to a score it was a major let down. Yes, it was a concert performance and singers in these situations often stand motionless behind the music stands holding their scores. Well, he walked on and off the platform as per stage directions but, except for his singing in the last part when he asks his mother to bless him before his duel with Alfio, he was completely lacking in vocal expression or involvement; he may as well have been singing the local telephone directory. Given his c.v. of performances all over the Italian provinces, even if he was sight reading I would have expected far greater vocal expression and involvement.


Mark Elder’s reading was vivid and dramatic leaving the impression of plenty of blood on the floor and walls as well as Alfio’s knife at the conclusion. Once or twice he let the orchestra drown the singers, even the formidably strong tones of Dolora Zajick who is used to dominating the four thousand seat Met in New York. The Hallé strings shimmered as Elder and the orchestra luxuriated in the intermezzo. The choral contributions of the Hallé choir, and its junior section, were up to their usual high standard although the deficient numbers among the basses was notable on occasion.


Manchester has become something of an operatic backwater. The Palace Theatre, which was refurbished back stage to take The Royal Opera on tour, now only hosts the odd weeks visit by an East European Company. ‘Glyndebourne On Tour’ has deserted in favour of Stoke and Opera North to the more comfortable Lowry at Salford Quays. Seasons from the resurgent Welsh National Opera are of distant memory. If it were not for Mark Elder and these concert performances, played to full houses let the politicians note, and student performances at The Royal Northern College of Music, opera lovers around Manchester would be among the worst served in the U.K. The City Fathers boast about the resurgence of Manchester and there is certainly plenty of structural building going on, but buildings alone do not make a great city. It is cultural occasions of the quality of this evening at the Bridgewater Hall that define the soul of a great city. We had all better hope that the recent goings on at La Scala doesn’t have repercussions in Manchester with Pappano leaving Covent Garden and Elder replacing him.


The next time Mark Elder and the Hallé are scheduled to venture into the operatic domain will be on July 9th with a mixed programme of items involving the choir and soloists. Book it in your diary now.


Robert J Farr


 

 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)