Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Royal Festival Hall, London – review

Since Antonio Pappano took over as musical director in 2005 the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia has started to clock up a serious number of air miles. Although it is arguably Italy’s number one symphony orchestra, the Accademia had previously seemed reluctant to leave its Rome base and venture to London to advertise its wares.

This pair of concerts at the weekend offered Italian music, thoughtfully presented, strongly performed. Dallapiccola’s 1948 opera Il prigioniero is not unknown in London but it rarely gets played with the wholehearted commitment that Pappano and his Rome musicians gave it. The opera is a 50-minute drama of the mind, in which a prisoner is taunted by the hope of freedom like some inmate of a Soviet gulag. Angeles Blancas Gulin set the performance off to a blistering start as the prisoner’s mother. Though neither Louis Otey’s Prisoner nor Stuart Skelton’s Jailor was on the same level, Pappano’s faith in the opera kept burning through to the final revelation – namely that the very hope of freedom can be the worst torture of all.

Speaking to the audience before the start, Pappano sounded quite defensive about why he was framing the Dallapiccola opera with Florestan’s prison aria from Fidelio (Skelton clarion-clear) and the last two movements from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. There was no need: the “Road to Freedom” message was clear, the juxtapositions drew power from each other, and the performances were uniformly strong of purpose. The concert was performed (bravely) without an interval.

Verdi’s Requiem, the sole work at Sunday’s concert, was equally strong. Pappano likes his Verdi red-blooded, full of self-confidence, and this was no exception, while keeping just the right side of overt theatricality. The Chorus of Santa Cecilia, smaller than the British choruses usually heard in this work, had already impressed thanks to its sturdy, compact sound in the Dallapiccola and did so again here. The four soloists each had much to offer: Hibla Gerzmava was a shiningly lyrical soprano, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo a fiery Azucena of a mezzo, Joseph Calleja outstandingly expressive as the tenor, and Carlo Colombara a fine, dignified Italian bass. Further visits by Pappano and his Italian orchestra will be welcome.


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