The Royal Opera certainly seems to be cursed with some high-profile cancellations of late and one started to wonder if this ill-fated concert would ever actually go ahead. Originally sold as a Rolando Villazon and Antonio Pappano recital, fans of the much-loved Mexican tenor were left sorely disappointed when the popular star was forced to cancel all his engagements to undergo surgery on his vocal cords. Enter Dmitri Hvorostovsky to save the day – the illustrious Russian baritone certainly had the status, talent and star quality required to fill Villazon’s shoes but alas, at the eleventh hour he too was struck down by illness, forcing Covent Garden to come up with a Plan C at very short notice.
Now billed as ‘Antonio Pappano and Friends’, the final line-up featured singers who were currently singing or rehearsing at the Royal Opera House; the American stars Joyce DiDonato and Thomas Hampson, the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja and the Bulgarian violinist and Royal Opera concert master Vasko Vassilev, all expertly accompanied on the piano by Maestro Pappano himself.
The programme was a somewhat eclectic mix of Lieder, songs, violin solos, famous numbers from American musicals and one or two opera arias thrown in for good measure. Considering the last minute nature of the project it would perhaps be uncharitable to criticise some of the musical choices, but having originally bought a ticket to hear Villazon sing opera arias, it was a pity there was not more operatic content in the programme.
Pappano started the concert with a short speech, thanking those who had stepped in at the last minute and wishing both Villazon and Hvorostovsky a speedy recovery. First to sing was Calleja, attired in a rather ill-fitting black suit and long white tie. He began the programme with three Italian songs; Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata”, Stefano Donaudy’s “Vaghissima sembianza” and “A Vucchella” by Francesco Paolo Tosti. After a somewhat tentative start the Maltese tenor quickly gained in confidence and produced some gorgeous singing with a well-rounded and very attractive tone, but he never seemed to connect with the audience and very few of the Italian words came across clearly. Moving briefly into falsetto for a few pianissimo high notes in “A Vucchella” made a highly effective contrast, but overall his performance was marred somewhat by an unsteady tone and a slight flutter in the voice.
Next onto the stage was DiDonato, the very picture of elegance in a stunning olive green satin gown. Rossini’s “La regata veneziana” suits her versatile mezzo perfectly giving her the chance to display a superb technique and some beautifully nuanced and delicate singing. Unlike Calleja she was able to instantly connect with the audience, but despite her charming stage presence she failed to enunciate most of the text well enough so that it could be heard.
Hampson was last to sing in the first half of the programme; impeccably dressed in a very stylish Nehru-type black suit. His rendition of Mahler’s song cycle: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen was just exquisite – subtle, intelligently phrased and sung with tremendous sensitivity and expression throughout. Carefully setting a different mood for each of the four pieces, Hampson took us on a colourful journey through a wide range of emotions and really communicated the meaning of what he sang in almost flawless German. The third song “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer” really challenged him in the upper register, but the effect was quite thrilling. Pappano’s piano accompaniment matched every nuance of the singing perfectly and with meticulous attention to detail and dynamics. This was all the more impressive given the limited rehearsal time.
After the interval violinist Vasko Vassilev got the chance to show off his impressive technical virtuosity in two pieces from Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir d’un lieu cher” and the Rachmaninov “Vocalise”. Calleja then returned to the stage for an enjoyable if unengaging rendition of “O souverain, ô juge, ô père!” from Massenet’s opera Le Cid. The Willow Song from Rossini’s Otello was definitely one of the highlights of the evening; DiDonato’s singing was sublime and full of such yearning melancholy, her rich mezzo voice displaying gloriously burnished tones and sensitive artistry throughout.
Hampson’s next choice of song was “Ethiopia Saluting the Colours” by the African-American composer Harry Thacker Burleigh, set to a text by Walt Whitman. As no programme booklet was available for this concert it was very interesting to hear Hampson introduce the piece and give the audience some background information, although at one point it seemed he was going to give us all a lecture on the American Civil War; “It cost Lincoln his life….never mind!” he joked, cutting the history lesson short. It was sung with great feeling and followed by Samuel Barber’s “Sure on this Shining Night”
Calleja re-appeared to perform “Because” by Guy d’Hardelot, a rather cheesy number and a somewhat questionable choice for him, especially when sung with a deadly serious face in almost inaudible English. DiDonato ventured further down the crossover route with a decidedly un-jazzy version of the famous Showboat number “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’, performed in a heavily operatic manner, but fortunately without any attempt at a fake patois accent! It was a pleasant surprise to discover what a brilliant jazz pianist Pappano was; he played with a real natural flair for the genre, which DiDonato was sadly lacking. Those who prefer their opera stars to stay away from musicals would not have been impressed, especially when she followed it with a rather prim and proper rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Suffice to say neither piece properly showed off her talents and I suspect I wasn’t the only person cursing under my breath and wishing she had sung some Handel instead.
The final item on the programme was Bizet’s famous Pearlfishers duet, where Calleja and Hampson seriously impressed with some wonderfully expressive and passionate singing. Calleja’s voice soared ardently on the upper line and contrasted perfectly with Hampson’s mellow-toned baritone below. Pappano’s skilful playing of the piano reduction was just as moving and the audience was certainly delighted at the end, enthusiastically demanding an encore which never came. As he left the stage, Pappano made a gesture that he was off to get some sleep, and he certainly deserved it. Overall it was an enjoyable evening, even if it did lack the magic and excitement that either Villazon or Hvorostovsky would undoubtedly have generated.