Page 18, 11th September 2009

11th September 2009
Page 18
Page 18, 11th September 2009 — The world of opera served on a tiny plate

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Locations: London


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The world of opera served on a tiny plate

MUSIC REVIEW Michael White Concertgebouw Orchestra


Les Azuriales Festival


There used to be an almost automatic answer to the question: what’s the greatest orchestra around? It was the Berlin Philharmonic. But perhaps no more. These days the Amsterdam Concertgebouw is widely thought the No 1. And from its playing at the Proms last week, I wouldn’t disagree.

I caught the second concert in its two-night residency under Mariss Jansons, who has been its chief conductor now for five years. And it was a demonstration of sheer class: immaculate, impactful, and impressive for its bravery in taking on a Haydn symphony in the first half.

There was a time when every orchestra played Haydn – then along came period performance bands and it became a specialist undertaking: something the conventional ensembles only did if they were rash, or so inconsequential that it didn’t matter.

Now, of course, the “normal” orchestras have taken note of period style and to some extent reclaimed their former repertoire. But it’s perceived, still, as not quite their territory. And what they do with it can be uncomfortable. Self-conscious.

This Concergebouw performance, though, of Haydn’s “Military” Symphony was nothing of the sort. Supremely confident, its period credentials were a compromise but an effective one. Coupled with a darkly handsome account of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony that showed Jansons on the most secure of home grounds (he was brought up in Leningrad where his father assisted Mravinsky at the Philharmonic), it was musicmaking of the highest order. And to hear it was to know that this was probably as good as such things get.

By contrast, one of the most irritating and unnecessary moments I know in all opera is the one in La Bohème where Puccini suspends the drama of Mimi’s death-throes for Colline to sing a soppy aria about his overcoat. If I were a director I’d excise it.

But last week, for once, it earned its place – in a production at Les Azuriales, a small, chic opera festival that happens in France but is run out of London and stages opera on a sometimes alarmingly intimate scale (sit in the front row and you’re part of the show) at the Villa Rothschild, Cap Ferrat. The venue is entrancing; the shows, though cramped, deliver quality as well as punch. And the singers, who tend to be British, are good. Sometimes outstanding.

The one problem is the heat. And there’s a terrible irony in playing an opera like Bohème which is all frozen hands and chill winds (as the libretto constantly reminds you) in the south of France in summer. Without airconditioning.

While the singers shivered artfully, they dripped with sweat – including poor Colline (nobly sung by Matthew Hargreaves) in that wretched overcoat, whose night-long misery more than entitled him to sing about it. Give the man his due.

In fact I happily give everyone their due in these Azuriales shows. There was a patchy Orpheus in the Underworld (a piece so locked in its time I’ve never seen a modern staging that worked) but an exceptional Così fan tutte, staged with an enclosed set – half gazebo, half birdcage – to emphasise the idea of the two women as caught in a laboratory experiment.

Then there was a strangely dreamlike dramatisation of Berlioz’s song cycle Les Nuits d’Été, done as a promenade performance with the audience trailing after the singers around the villa gardens. Traffic-management of audiences being what it is, the six songs took an hour and a half, which is something for the Guinness World Records. But the ambience was magical. And like everything at Azuriales, it came with a limitation that turns out to be a strength.

Azuriales shows – done by a company called Diva Opera – use a piano, not an orchestra, and at face value that’s a loss. But its MD/pianist Bryan Evans draws orchestral colour from a keyboard in a way that deceives your ear into wanting nothing more. No other opera-with-piano company does it so well, with such panache. Or such a sense of serving you the whole world of an opera on a little plate.

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