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It is a surprise to see the BBC Symphony Orchestra, specialist in concerts of new music at the Barbican, trying its hand at a celebrity opera evening. Such events can be bad for an orchestra manager’s nerves and after the problems encountered in getting this one to happen, the BBC probably won’t be doing another in a hurry.
The original plan had been an all-American affair with baritone Thomas Hampson and mezzo Susan Graham. But Hampson cancelled and the BBC turned magician extraordinaire to produce Bryn Terfel out of the hat as his replacement. When Graham cancelled as well, Sarah Connolly stepped in as her mezzo replacement, and the stage was set for an all-British duo.
Nobody is likely to have felt short-changed. Terfel was on tremendous form. There is nobody around who is able to make opera come alive more vividly on the concert platform – just a few lines from his imposing bass-baritone and sets, costumes and the smell of the greasepaint seem to materialise around him. Catalogue in hand, he turned Leporello’s aria from Don Giovanni into a complete character profile, witty, profound, affectionate, scornful. He even made the minor concert aria “Io te lascio” in the almost all-Mozart first half a work of substance, though the quiet intensity of Tchaikovsky’s “None but the lonely heart” later eluded him.
Terfel’s main contribution, fresh from his Cardiff assumption of the role, was the Dutchman’s aria from Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer, and here his broad, resonant, Wagnerian bass-baritone rose to its full stature. The focus on the voice at the central climax produced an awesome concentrated power, against which all else paled.
In arias by Mozart and Berlioz, Sarah Connolly was lyrical, musicianly, vocally warm where the sound was not constrained, but there was so much less to seize one’s imagination. Jirí Belohlávek conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra with a scrupulous care for dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s that seemed positively intended to deny the music any hope of flaring into dramatic life. Even the BBC’s sorcerer’s skills have their limits.
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