Time flies. It’s three years to the day now since my first Opera Britannia review assignment at Covent Garden, a revival of Carmen starring Latvian mezzo soprano Elina Garanca. I’m hoping I didn’t put the mockers on her, as she hasn’t been back since – an abandoned Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos and maternity duty in the intervening years a plea offered for the defence. It’s a situation one wishes remedied with some haste, for there are few lyric mezzos to come anywhere near her on the form exhibited in this concert, which took us from Joan of Arc to Carmen, via the exotic Orient courtesy of Massenet, Saint-Saëns and Gounod.
Fellow critic Sebastian Petit, reviewing the recent Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment concert, lamented that Anna Caterina Antonacci had so little opportunity – three arias plus a Carmen encore – to display her talents. Those arias were in the context of a larger theme, of course, running across a series, whereas the present concert was very much a celebrity recital, padded out – mostly amiably – with orchestral lollipops, the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karel Mark Chicon (a.k.a. Mr Garanca). This concert is part of a European tour, ostensibly to promote her new album Romantique, although Deutsche Grammophon’s PR machine failed to get any more than a single sentence buried in the artist biography section of the Barbican’s free programme (a biography which incorrectly states that she made her Royal Opera debut as Carmen… I’m sure her Dorabella and Romeo weren’t figments of my fevered imagination). In the event, Garanca sang more items from her album’s predecessor (Habanera!) than from her new one.
Looking for all the world like Grace Kelly, sculpted hair and drop earrings elegantly setting off her diaphanous, sleeveless gown, Garanca charmed her audience from the off. Following a muscular rendition of Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila notable for not attempting to beat the world land speed record, she opened her account with Joan’s ‘Farewell, ye hills and native fields’ from Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard opera The Maid of Orleans. This aria is one of the jewels in the composer’s output, with a true Tchaikovskian sweep to the melody and an opportunity for the singer to invest real emotion into Joan’s nostalgic farewell to her countrymen. Garanca displayed her customary feel for long legato lines, with exquisite dynamic shading over the reprise of the phrase “priyutno-mirnïy, yasnï dol, prosti!”.
Garanca’s mezzo isn’t a steamrolling, powerhouse instrument (Amneris and Eboli can wait, the liner notes to Romantique reassure us), but it is still big enough to cut across the orchestra and is intensely lyrical, while still being athletic enough for Rossini and other bel canto repertoire in which she has rightly been acclaimed. It has an alluring, dusky quality which suits the 19th century French romantic roles, typified here by Saint-Saëns’ Dalila and Gounod’s Balkis.
The ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs put the spotlight onto LSO Leader Gordan Nikolitch, whose light, silvery tone was sometimes overwhelmed by the beefy orchestral sound, but never descended into the mawkish. The lack of any vocal Massenet in the programme was cause for disappointment… Garanca would make a fine Cléopâtre and ‘J’ai versé le poison’ would fit her like a glove. It was more familiar French repertoire to follow, ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Samson et Dalila, the silky mezza di voce creating just the seductive atmosphere required. She largely eschewed portamenti, a more classical account of the aria than some singers may present, but her phrasing was well spun, especially around “Ah! réponds à ma tendresse”. The ‘Bacchanale’ swiftly followed, a beautifully shaped oboe introduction from Fabian Thouand, and although cor anglais and harp weren’t exactly in perfect synchronisation for the first statement of the ‘big tune’, the LSO played with panache, delighting in the heady Orientalism; the timpani volley in the closing pages were especially exhilarating, courtesy of Nigel Thomas.
The first half closed with a real rarity with the arrival of the Queen of Sheba, namely Balkis from Gounod’s La Reine de Saba. Its best known number is the cavatina ‘Plus grand, dans son obscurité’ from Act II. Here, Garanca entered ‘falcon’ territory, which opens up a number of possibilities re future casting. The role was created by Pauline Gueymard-Lauters, Verdi’s first Eboli, but who also premiered Leonora in Le Trouvère, his Parisian version of Trovatore. This hybrid type of voice, somewhere between mezzo and soprano derives the term ‘falcon’ from Marie Cornélie Falcon, creator of those ‘in-between’ roles such as Rachel in La Juive and Valentine in Les Huguenots. Another role in this fach is Margared in Lalo's Le Roi d’Ys, whose aria ‘Lorsque je t’ai vu soudain’ Garanca also includes on her new disc. Her Balkis essayed the high notes (A5 plus a fleeting B5) with powerful ease and this was an utterly fabulous display of singing. Perhaps an Eboli (in French?) might not be an unrealistic role for her?
The second half of the concert transported us to Spain, emphatically signalled by a trio of orchestral numbers by Narro, Gonzalo and Penella. Chicon is a Gibraltarian, so brings some authentic swagger to these rather unsubtle scores. We then had a portrait of Carmen; five solos interspersed with orchestral preludes in anything but chronological order. Five solos? Well, yes. Before the Séguedille, the Card Scene and the Chanson bohème came two Habaneras – the familiar one, full of gorgeous vocalism and sultry eye contact with her audience, including a naughty wink – and Bizet’s original version, which has a jaunty, chirruping playfulness, if lighter on the sexual tension. I simply cannot understand the criticism, with which Garanca is occasionally charged, that she is disengaged, cold and boring. These excerpts from Carmen saw her alive to the text and during the series of orchestral preludes she was seated by the podium, clearly responding to the mood of the score. Her Carmen is wistful and witty, playful and suggestive, but also displays vulnerability – these qualities came across in her platform manner as clearly as in her stage performance. The Chanson bohème provided opportunity for direct contrast with Antonacci’s encore last Sunday and although the colours painted by the OAE were more vivid than their LSO counterparts, Garanca’s vocalism was perhaps more stylish.
Encores included Ruperto Chapí’s ‘Al pensar en el dueño de mis amores’, a favourite Garanca calling card from the zarzuela Las hijas de Zebedeo, featuring some outrageous trills and, almost inevitably, Lara’s Granada. Solo celebrity concerts rarely come as thoughtfully programmed and as exquisitely sung as this.
Opera BritanniaPhotographs © Paul Schirnhofer / Karina Schwarz