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Haydn 200(2) – Mozart, Haydn and Rossini: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Jean-Christophe Spinosi (Conductor). Birmingham Town Hall. 18.11. 2009 (GR)

Mozart: Overture Così fan tutte and miscellaneous arias
Haydn: Symphony No 83 in G minor (The Hen)
Rossini: Overture,Il Barbiere di Siviglia and miscellaneous arias
Haydn: Symphony No 82 in C major (The Bear)

Originally billed in the THSH What’s On as part of the CBSO celebrations for this year’s anniversary composers Haydn and Handel, changes meant that only one of the two great H’s was toasted at the Birmingham Town Hall on Nov 18th 2009 – Haydn. The CBSO players welcomed Jean-Christophe Spinosi onto their platform, a confident Corsican earning a deserved reputation in the opera world (in his CV are such uncharacteristic productions as a staged version of Handel’s Messiah!). Here he was on more established territory with the major part of the evening’s programme devoted to two of Haydn’s 1780s symphonies originally commissioned for the Concert de la Loge Olympique in Paris.

Spinosi opened the show with the overture to Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Crisp and sweeping chords paved the way for Dorabella in the shape of Israeli-born Rinat Shaham, as attractive a supporting act as you could want. She gave us the recitative Ah scostati and aria Smanie implacabili from Così. Straight away it was apparent that here was a stage animal – focused, fearless and forceful. Any over-dramatisation was from the characterisation of Dorabella, not Shaham herself. The line Odio me stessa (I hate myself) was totally convincing, and she won the audience. Cherubino’s Voi che sapete followed, reversing the set order. I didn’t think it bounced along quite as boyishly as in some Figaro productions I’ve seen; perhaps her strapless red evening gown had something to do with it – in a pair of trousers it might have been different.

Haydn’s Symphony No 83 in G minor (The Hen) was next. The appoggiatura of the CBSO violins clucked along in the opening Allegro spiritoso. Spinosi sensitively controlled the dynamic range in the Andante. After the bright but brief Menuetto & Trio: Allegretto, the Finale: Vivace illustrated why Haydn was renowned not only for his jokes but also his surprises.

The comic theme continued after the interval. If Haydn liked his musical jokes, Rossini was also a bit of a wind-up merchant, amply displayed in the Overture to his Il Barbiere di Siviglia, the opera thought by many including Verdi to be the greatest opera buffa of all time. It was the ideal introduction for two Rossini arias from Shaham; her smile and voice sparkled as bright as her necklace. The first was Isabella’s Crude Sorte from L’italiana in Algeri, a cavatina to test any mezzo. Shaham met the challenge full on, at first harrowing the depths of her extensive register as Isabella lamented at her cruel fate. Then solving her own predicament with her feminine wiles, she brilliantly mastered the Rossini patter and fioritura. Shaham’s allure was equally to the fore in Rosina’s Una voce poco fa from Il Barbiere – a natural for the part of Rossini’s sex kitten. She was a veritable minx, but one with also a sting in her tale as her vigorous tantrum demonstrated. The orchestral closure after her thrilling climactic top was overtaken by the applause. We loved her but an encore in the middle of a concert? Not an option.

The final work was Haydn’s Symphony No 82 in C major (The Bear). It began as a bit of an anticlimax. Could Spinosi (minus the obligatory bow tie) lift the mood? Not immediately despite the opening vivace assai tempo. However the final movement was another of those Haydn jokes when unless you follow the score the final bar cannot be anticipated. Spinosi milked it for all it was worth, even turning to face the audience before the final chords were played. Honours even.

Geoff Read

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