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Verdi and Tchaikvosky: Kristine Opolais (soprano) City of Birminghma Symphony Orchestra, Dmitri Slobodeniouk (Conductor)  Symphony Hall, Birmingham,10.10.2009 (GR)

This Saturday night concert at the Birmingham Symphony Hall focused on ‘destiny’. It featured four works that had the ultimate condition in life at their core, each one given a pithy performance by the CBSO, directed on this occasion by guest conductor Dmitri Slobodeniouk.

Verdi wrote many operas on the twin themes of destiny and fate so his overture from La forza del destino was an ideal opener. Piave’s libretto centred on the power of fate and this was a powerful presentation all round. The arresting first three bars from the CBSO brass set the scene for the initial pulsating statement of the destinymotif, an idée fixe that Slobodeniouk incisively linked to the glorious potpourri of Verdi melodies taken from the opera – typical of which was the touching woodwind andantino from Act IV.

If any opera character tempts fate, it is Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin; here the soprano to deliver the Letter Scene was Kristine Opolais. It was her second visit to Birmingham, having sung Mimi in a concert version of Puccini’s La Bohème in October 2008 (see review when I looked forward to more from her). As she entered in her pale pink dress she appeared even more ‘interesting’ than previously. Then as Mimi I said she combined fragility with power, and tenderness with passion; now as Tatyana those very same attributes were in evidence, plus the added ones of innocence and vulnerability. She epitomised the character of Tatyana in both voice and actions. Indeed comparisons with her partner Andris Nelsons (never short in the arm movement stakes) were inevitable. Her yearning for Onegin was heartfelt, a young girl struggling to put her feelings on paper. On the whole Slobodeniouk was fully supportive although I thought he was a touch unsympathetic over the initial section. Certainly the woodwind transition sections of the CBSO were magical.

The Entr’acte to Act II followed. Coming immediately after the complete Act I Letter Scene it sounded somewhat out of place, despite leading straight into the Waltz from Act III. Here the light touch from the violins excelled in strictly 3/4 time, even without their resident leader.

Opolais’ voice may yet be a little light for Tatyana, but it was well suited to Desdemona in the final act excerpts from Verdi’s Otello. In the Willow Song she poignantly foretold the destiny of Desdemona, her little black number symbolic of what is to come at the hands of jealous husband Otello. The uneasiness of the character was emotively communicated in both recitative and aria sections, her successive Salce! Salce! Salce! delivered with increasing anguish. The pause and her agonising scream of terror were a breathtaking climax. An air of resignation was assumed in the Ave Maria, the hour of death moved inexorably nearer - beautiful and tender singing! Opolais deserves to be destined for greater things on the operatic stage.

After such an sensitive rendition by Opolais, the main work of the evening, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 began as a bit of an anti-climax. The doom awaiting Desdemona was transferred to the personal one for the composer, a battle between his own personality and external social pressures. A salvo from the CBSO brass impressively blasted out the message of the fate motif. But despite its reappearance in the final movement, the overall impression was not one of tragedy. Lasting memories were the sonorous cellos in the second movement, the pizzicato extraterrestrial sensations of the third movement and the feverish Allegro con fuoco of the finale. The CBSO under Slobodeniouk, a Russian by birth, gave a thoroughly workmanlike performance, but not totally convincing or inspiring.

Geoff Read

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