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Raymond Gubbay Christmas Festival 2006: Opera Gala. The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 27.12.2006 (RJF)


For classical music devotees, and particularly opera buffs, who live north of Watford or west of Reading the name Raymond Gubbay brings to mind opera spectaculars in the round in London’s Albert Hall. These events have evolved into widely admired occasions featuring first class singers and directors. Opera enthusiasts like myself wish that the economics would allow such productions to transfer to the likes of opera starved Manchester, perhaps in the Manchester Evening News arena. It was in this venue that the Raymond Gubbay Christmas Festival started on December 9th with a Classical Spectacular featuring the Hallé Orchestra, the Leeds Festival Chorus, Muskets and Canons of the Moscow Militia and solo singers together with lasers, lights and fireworks; quite a show. In the Gubbay tradition it was an unashamedly populist programme including the 1812 overture, Nessun Dorma and the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves among the varied items. The populist theme has continued through the dozen or so concerts given at the Bridgewater Hall. These have included Carol Concerts, a Boxing Day Prom, two Gilbert and Sullivan sessions, a New Years Day Gala as well as the Opera Gala I attended. The Festival is a feast to suit everyone except the lover of the obscure who can get their fare via the Arts Council subsidised Companies who can afford box office disasters and half empty halls.


The Bridgewater Hall was full for the Opera Gala, which, like the opera spectaculars in London, featured singers who also grace productions by our national companies. Best of all was tall and elegant Linda Richardson. Long a principal singer with English National Opera I heard her Countess in Mozart’s Figaro with Opera North earlier in the year (review). She is also scheduled to sing Gilda with them in the coming summer season. Her voice is now growing out of the lighter roles and her steady legato, vocal colour and capacity for characterisation were heard to good effect in Un Bel Di from Madam Butterfly and particularly in the less well known Ebben? Ne andro lontano from Catalani’s Le Wally. Her voice has still the flexibility for Caro nome and the Flower Duet from Lakme where she was joined by the mezzo Clare Shearer who lightened her big voice and tone very well for the latter piece. She was perhaps less successful in Softly awakes my heart but impressive in conveying Azucena’s Stride la vampa from Il Trovatore where here firm contralto lower notes were heard to good effect. All the vocal items were sung in the language of their composition with a detailed paragraph in the programme explaining a little about the work and the context of the particular piece.


The tenor for the evening was Gwyn Hughes Jones who as well as singing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera also features with Welsh National Opera. Recently colleague reviewer Glynn Purslove saw him as Puccini’s Rodolfo with that company in Cardiff (review). Anglesey born, a coach load of his supporters travelled to Manchester as they had to the Cardiff for the Bohème. He has a clear lyric tenor voice with a slight metallic edge and sang La donna e mobile with élan and good phrasing.  He should perhaps be careful with the weightier demands of Bizet’s Flower Song from Carmen and particularly Nessun Dorma, which has become a kind of tenor virility symbol. Much as Pavarotti has regularly done in concert, although not on his recording, Gwyn Hughes Jones eschewed the final high note. He sang the duet Ah Mimi from Bohème with the baritone for the evening, the Australian Jonathan Summers who has recently been singing Rigoletto with Opera North. Jonathan Summers had followed the opening Barber of Seville overture with a strongly sung but rather routine Largo al factotum. Thirty or so years ago, I heard him as a lyric baritone with compatriot Joan Sutherland. Moving towards the end of his career now, he tends to give too much voice to his singin,g exposing some dryness and wear at the top. Nonetheless the audience appreciated his fully committed singing and showmanship.


Andrew Greenwood conducted throughout. Well known in operatic circles, he has a natural feel for the rhythm of the genre and in supporting singers. The Manchester Concert Orchestra, formed ten years ago by Raymond Gubbay to perform in concerts of popular music in the north west of England, did so on this evening with obvious enthusiasm and accomplishment in both the orchestral pieces and when accompanying the singers and chorus. The latter was the only disappointment of the evening. Under-nourished for male singers they lacked any real feel even for the lovely melody that underpins the popular Nabucco chorus. They did manage to rise to the choral support of Borodin’s Polovtsian dances but showed little sympathy for Mascagni’s Easter Hymn, which followed the same opera’s Intermezzo, played with fine string tone, much as the flutes and woodwind did in the introductory Rossini overture.. 


If the photographs of Andrew Greenwood and Jonathan Summers in the programme were a bit dated, the detail contained including singer biographies and a detailed paragraph on each item of the concert was very welcome for the modest price of Ł2.50. Just to add gloss for the more frequent visitors to the Bridgewater for this Gubbay Christmas Festival, the same programme had the details in full for all the concerts to be staged at the hall as part of the season. It may be populist, but the Festival has sent many classical and opera lovers away satisfied and happy; and that is surely what the Festive season is all about.

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)