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There are a good few opera singers who make fine recitalists. There are many more who feel naked when addressing an audience without a costume. Perhaps that is why we have had to wait until now to hear Michele Pertusi in recital. He was an admired operatic bass in the 1980s and 1990s, appearing mainly in Rossini and Mozart, at Covent Garden and other leading European houses. But younger singers have usurped his signature roles, and judging by this performance in the Rosenblatt series at St John’s, Smith Square, he is a reluctant recitalist.
The programme was well designed: we had a rare chance in the first half to compare the Don Quichotte song-cycles by Ravel and Ibert (Ravel’s the more emotionally true, Ibert’s more Spanish in timbre and idiom); and a second half from his native Italy.
Pertusi’s French is good, his singing technique even better, and what the voice has lost in colour since I last heard him more than a decade ago, it has gained in weight and resonance: Ibert’s “Chanson Epique” underlined its flexibility and easy upper register.
But, tied to the score, Pertusi refused to connect with the audience or probe beneath the surface. Even his three Bellini songs were score-bound, and it was only in Don Basilio’s “La calunnia” (Il barbiere di Siviglia) and the title character’s final aria from Verdi’s Attila – both of which he has sung in the theatre – that he threw away the score, opened up and let rip.
His Attila made me wish I had heard more of his Verdi, while the pathos and emotion of his Neapolitan songs, all by Luigi Denza, were exquisitely judged. Pertusi is a stylist, a man of taste and dignity: it’s not in his nature to show off. His recital – accompanied by Raffaele Cortesi, brilliant in his own right in Rossini’s Tarantelle for piano solo – may have been slow to warm up, but it ended in a blaze of true italianità.
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