Monday, 11 May 2009
Ode to Joy
I use that title, as has friend and former European Union Youth Orchestra front-man Andrew Hammond before me, as a two-edged sword. Beethoven’s famous theme, usually sans voices, is of course the European anthem and as such, with everyone rising to their feet, it ended Friday evening’s Europe Day concert (international pride? Why not?). But the heading also refers to the enthusiastic Joy Bryer, co-founder and secretary general of the EUYO. It was thanks to her enterprise, along with the joint planning of EUYO manager Kim Sargeant and Kenneth Baird of the European Opera Centre, that the Europe Day fest happened for the first time in the summery environs of St John’s Smith Square. After it Mrs. Bryer expressed her effervescent hope that the occasion might become an annual event, a kind of Europe Day answer to Vienna’s New Year concerts. Its esprit certainly matched the best of those Strauss family jamborees.
Now, opera galas are tricksy things to gauge, and can be sticky even with the starriest stars. This one had many boxes to tick and groups to please. The repertoire had to run the gamut of European sunshine, from Frenchmen’s views of Galicia and Spain to an Irishman’s Windsor, and there had to be enough plums to keep ambassadors who know what they like happy (Pearl Fishers Duet, Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, ‘Softly Awakes My Heart’). It had to showcase and combine the talents of five more than merely promising young singers from the European Opera Centre; and it had to give the EUYO enough of a chance to shine under conductor Laurent Pillot.
All this more than worked under the magic wand of youth. Not that you have to make any allowances for the EUYO, one of the best European orchestras regardless of age; sitting near the front, I couldn’t detect a stray fiddle in the ensemble, and from the mellow opening horn harmonies of Delibes’s delicious Coppelia Prelude, you knew you were with a master ensemble. Perhaps owing to the frothy occasion – a full house, with lots of young people in the galleries – I enjoyed the ballet romp and Smetana’s Dance of the Comedians (if there is more joyous music, I don’t know it) even more than Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture. Maybe, too, it’s because this is repertoire the EUYO doesn’t get to play very often. Nor are they used to working with singers. And these, too, were the real thing (two are representing their countries in this year’s Cardiff Singer of the World competition). Left to right, as seen in the Carmen Quintet, they are tenor Philippe Talbot, baritone Marc Canturri, mezzos Annaik Morel and Tara Erraught, and soprano Dora Rodrigues.
Talbot opened up in the higher register for a personable and nuanced ‘Una furtive lagrima’, very classy; and there was moonshine in Rodrigues’ Rusalka (full marks to the poignant cor anglais solo). Canturri came more into his own as Donizetti’s strutting Belcore, and the sensuousness of Morel’s Dalila carried to an expert team of opera-lovers sitting at the back of the church. Erraught championed a rarity by compatriot Balfe. Did you know his Falstaff? I certainly didn’t. (N)Annetta’s cavatina is as good as your average Donizetti number; the Irish mezzo despatched it with sparkling engagement of the audience and a musicality to match Talbot’s. I've since discovered that Erraught features on an RTE recording of the complete opera with Majella Cullagh as Alice Ford and Barry Banks as Fenton.
The Carmen Quintet brought the singers together and kept the buoyancy of the evening afloat until it was time to embrace the solemnity of the ‘anthem’. Well, I thought, why not the whole of Beethoven’s Ninth next year, maybe with bleeding chunks of Fidelio in the first half? It would work in St John’s with an orchestra of this size – but the problem, as Kim Sargeant pointed out, would be in squeezing a chorus on to the platform. Never mind; Joy Bryer’s suggestion of an annual celebration to give Vienna a run for its money will do very nicely.