Page 12, 13th June 2008

13th June 2008
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Page 12, 13th June 2008 — A superstar's faltering return
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A superstar's faltering return

Don Carle

ROYAL OPERA HOUSE

Padre Pio Premieres

WESTMINSTER CATHEDRAL

The new Royal Opera production of Verdi's Don Carlo is the hot ticket of the season and in some ways deserves to be. Magisterially conducted by Antonio Pappance the orchestral sound is handsome and the singing wonderful, with individual performances — Simon Keenlyside's impeccable Rodrigo. Eric Halfvarson's blood-curdling Grand Inquisitor, and Ferrucio Furlanetto's truly king-sized Philip ll — of good-asit-gets quality.

But the two things that gave this show its advance cachet don't deliver as expected.

One is the young superstar tenor Rolando Villazon, making his first London appearance since his career went into overdrive last year and he stopped singing after some kind of breakdown. Exactly what happened remains mysterious, and having interviewed him at length earlier this year I'm still not sure whether the problem was mental or physical. Either way he's back in business, thank God. But is the voice is back? Well, not quite. It's grainier, with less liquidity and resonance. And though he gives 110 per cent in the title role of Don Carlos, alive and intense, that voice feels pushed, Almost to instability.

The other slight disappointment is the production by Nicholas Hytner, who hasn't done a new opera staging in London for a while (hence the expectations) and who has approached this seething, complicated epic of sociopolitical conflict in 16th-century Spain with a cool head and a quest for clarity.

Result: the one-to-one encounters are impressive but the context is clinical. Playing on bland, abstracted sets that try to be stylish but only succeed in looking empty, the show just doesn't work hard enough to hook your emotions. That my seat was half a mile from the stage didn't help, but I felt disengaged from much of the action — other than the auto da fe scene which is so nasty you sense an anti-clerical agenda at work. But then, the Church never does come out of this opera smelling of anything but brimstone and burning flesh.

A few weeks ago on this page I was lamenting the lack of support for new liturgical writing evidenced by small attendances at the excellent but lowprofile London Festival of Contemporary Church Music. This week, slightly better news in the form of an interesting little project financed by the Gemini Foundation — an outift that encourages and funds creative work across various genres, set up by a Catholic banker called John Studzinski. It commissioned three composers from contrasting backgrounds — Will Todd, Roxana Panufnik and James MacMillan — to set the same text by St Padre Pio as a post-Communion anthem . The text was St Pic 's prayer with the repeating words "Stay with me Lord" — a sort of Mine Dimittis that catalogues the weakness of a human soul confronted by the trials of life and (more particularly) death. And the intention was that each setting be within the capabilities of an average parish choir.

One by one they were presented last week at Westminster Cathedral by The Sixteen — a choir that might seem to have permanent residence in this column, but then it is, under conductor Harry Christophers, one of the fmest ensembles of its kind and one that happens at the moment to be everywhere: invariably performing to standards so technically immaculate but at the same time so intuitively musical that it beggars criticism. This Westminster event was no exception; and you can hardly blame the composers that, given such an amazing resource, they mostly wrote up for it rather than for the parish choir envisaged in the commission. Will Todd's was, in fact. the only setting that kept average abilities in mind, with a gently rocking, strophic lullaby for voices and piano that testified to the composer's background in musical theatre. Simple, innocent, it sounded School of Rutter, and why not when it was clearly so pleasing to sing?

Panufnik's piece demanded more: a grandly transcendental, spaced-out School of Eric Whitacre job that floated in blocked discords with delayed resolution, clouding the sonorities like aural incense. And then came the MacMillan: another demanding score but with strong, defined contours and a more emphatic response to text marked by Elgarian boldness in the choral writing and Messiaen-like bits of mischief in the organ.

Because this wasn't a beauty contest. I'm not going to make it one; but I can honestly say that all these settings, whatever their complexity, were welcome additions to a sometimes marginal-looking repertoire. With publication and recordings due, they stand every chance of enduring life. And I just hope this Genesis initiative endures as well, with an on-going programme — perhaps, even, a relationship with the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music. There ought to be a shared agenda somewhere there.




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