The summer’s second and final installment of Bel Canto at Caramoor had a special draw in the contralto Ewa Podles, whose considerable grassroots appeal thrives on her image as one outside the musical establishment. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that she gives the kind of larger-than-life performances associated with a bygone age. Or, as her sizzling performance in the title role of Rossini’s early triumph Tancredi demonstrated, that she has the vocal power, technical agility and phenomenal range to bring opera’s treble-voiced male heroes to pulsating life. Bel canto (beautiful singing) notwithstanding, the sounds she makes are not always beautiful – the voice sounds husky in midrange – but they formidably serve character and drama.
This concert performance was a more stylish affair than Caramoor’s equally well-sung I puritani two weeks before, in part because cuts were held to a minimum, thereby allowing one to experience properly Rossini’s expertly balanced musical structures. And the conductor Will Crutchfield was on top form, setting lively but flexible tempos and drawing shapely playing from the Orchestra of St Luke’s. Typically, he also ensured a sophisticated level of ornamentation, which had even the chorus singing appoggiaturas. But his work here was probably best exemplified by the soprano Georgia Jarman, who, among other things, interestingly varied the cabaletta theme of her final aria. Overall, this compelling young singer brought personality and vocal colour to Tancredi’s lover Amenaide, even if the voice may not be of ideal purity. As Amenaide’s father Argirio, Yegishe Manucharyan sang with a handsomely resonant lyric tenor, although the difficult aria in which Argirio debates signing his daughter’s death warrant fell short of the vocal tour de force it ought to be.
Unlike the Voltaire tragedy on which it is (loosely) based, Rossini’s opera originally had a happy ending, but for a subsequent production the composer wrote a tragic one. The latter flopped and subsequently disappeared, but it turned up in the 1970s and became the rage. Pace the Rossini scholars in on the discovery, it’s a rather dull piece, but Podles brought it off, just as she did everything else she sang. ★★★★☆
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