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Midsummer Night - Kate Royal (soprano)
William ALWYN (1905-1985)
Miss Julie - Midsummer Night [3:42]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Nightingale - The Nightingale’s Aria [3:36] with Andrew Staples (tenor)
William WALTON (1902-1983)
Troilus and Cressida - At the haunted end of the day [7:19]
Carlisle FLOYD (b. 1926)
Susanna - The Trees on the mountains [4:26]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Rusalka - Song to the Moon [6:31]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Peter Grimes - Is the boat in?... Embroidery in childhood [6:31] with Thomas Allen (baritone)
Paul Bunyan - Tiny’s Song [4:10]
The Turn of the Screw - How beautiful it is [5:35]
Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)
The Merry Widow - Vilja-Lied [6:06]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1991)
Vanessa - Do not utter a word [4:49]
André MESSAGER (1853-1929)
Monsieur Beaucaire - Rossignol [5:35]
Bernard HERRMANN (1911-1975)
Wuthering Heights - I have dreamt [2:30]
Erich KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Die Tote Stadt - Mariettas Lied [5:55]
Kate Royal (soprano)
Crouch End Festival Chorus
Orchestra of English National Opera/Edward Gardner
rec. December 2008, March 2009, Abbey Road, London. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 2 68192 2 [61:45]
Experience Classicsonline

This marvellous disc is a real delight and it triumphantly confirms Kate Royal as one of the finest British singers working today.  The theme of the recital is derived from the first aria from Alwyn’s Miss Julie: based on Strindberg’s play, Alwyn’s opera deals with Julie’s forbidden obsession with her father’s manservant.  She sings of Midsummer Night as “a night for love, a night for laughter, No thought for tomorrow of what may come after.”  All the characters in this collection of 20th century operas have had their heads turned by love to some degree, but all in very different ways, from Rusalka who pours out her heart to the moon, to Britten’s Governess who muses on her handsome employer before the unnerving appearance of Peter Quint.  The programme is very well chosen and helps to remind us, in the words of the booklet note, “how lyrical much of the 20th-Century repertoire actually is.”

The most striking thing about the recital is not just the lush beauty of Royal’s voice, which can be taken for granted.  One is immediately struck by the fullness of her tone and a wonderful, creamy richness at the top of the register.  No: the most memorable thing about this collection is how marvellous a vocal actor Royal proves herself to be.  Listen, for example, to the aria from The Turn of the Screw: we are taken in, like the Governess, by the overflowing bliss of the summer evening – magically evoked by the ENO woodwinds – and entirely disarmed by her idyllic reflections on her employer; but as soon as Quint’s ghost appears on the tower a chill runs through the voice and in less than a minute we are engulfed in paranoid terror.  The same ability to turn on a pinhead is seen in Ellen’s Embroidery aria: she moves from rich memories with a hint of nostalgia to a vacant denial of the truth she refuses to face.  By the end of the aria she has had all of her optimism truly knocked out of her in a heartbreaking way, punctuated by those pitiless woodwind chords delivered like blows to the chest.

Other heroines are impassioned in different ways: Walton’s Cressida is driven to romantic distraction by the impossibility of her situation and Herrmann’s Cathy cannot face the prospect of life away from the heath near Wuthering Heights.  Miss Julie herself is motivated by the tantalising excitement of realising her passion for Jean while Royal’s rich voice captures the quivering anticipation of the fulfilment of desire.  Barber’s Vanessa has been unhinged by decades of waiting, and here the voice is intentionally shrill to reflect the character’s shock of her meeting with Anatol.  The arias that have a folk background all come across exceptionally well too.  Royal adapts just as well to the gentle simplicity of Susannah’s aria and to the innocence of Tiny’s memory of her mother. 

Yet there is sweet brightness to her assumption of Hanna’s Viljalied, and Rusalka’s Song to the Moon has lush, lyrical tone.  Both here and in Messager’s Nightingale Song the aristocratic bearing of Royal’s tone reminded me of Renée Fleming, though that is not to cheapen by comparison.  From the oriental chinoiserie of Stravinsky’s Nightingale to the ravishing post-Romantic beauty of Korngold’s Marietta, Royal shows herself able to meet and to surpass every challenge.  This recital is never less than beautiful and frequently it is far more than that. How marvellous to hear some rare repertoire that is given such a high quality outing.

At every turn she is ably partnered by the Gardner and the ENO Orchestra.  This is as good a tribute as you will find to the fantastic musical advances that Gardner has wrought in his short time in charge: listen to Rusalka’s song, for example, and you will hear the orchestra caress each phrase with loving warmth.  It is also a testament to the quality of the event to have singers like Andrew Staples and Thomas Allen guesting in such tiny parts.  This great disc only whets the appetite to hear Royal in more complete roles, and that is as high praise for a recital disc as I can imagine.
Simon Thompson


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