Sunday, 17 July 2011
Two cheers for three cantons
That oath on the Rütli pictured above by one-off Fuseli - there's a great Swiss-born artist for you - and ingeniously composed by Rossini for different choruses representing the ‘men of three cantons’ was an absolute highlight when I heard Chelsea Opera Group perform Guillaume Tell in concert last year and fell in love with it properly. At last night’s Prom,I wasn’t quite so convinced: the performance was undeniably sleeker and more nuanced, as you’d expect from a great animator-conductor like Antonio Pappano who’s been performing this operatic swansong with his Accademia di Santa Cecilia for quite a few years now. But it may well have been the alienating effect of being too far right and above the orchestra in the treacherous South Ken colosseum which made me feel far less involved than I had been in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with COG’s valiant effort. Yesterday I found myself longing instead for the way Verdi does the whole oath stuff so much better.
Several friends were a bit puzzled, too, that I’d flagged up Act 2 as far and away the greatest of the four. It didn’t sound it, and that may have had quite a lot to do with accomplished soprano Malin Bystrom – my pal Igor on The Arts Desk hits the nail on the head when he says that her 'buttery voice had a tendency to melt away just as you were beginning to believe in it' – not having a great rapport with star tenor John Osborn. I take it all back re the tenor: he was vocally even stronger than the compelling Mark Milhofer for COG, and cut through the Albert Hall oilslick effortlessly, but ultimately the voice wasn’t quite as singular nor the introspective moments as sensitive. As I think perhaps you can just about gauge from this soundclip of Milhofer singing 'Asile hereditaire' on YouTube - maybe from that very performance, it doesn't state the source.
The crucial solo of the fisherman Ruodi has also found its way onto YouTube from the COG performance, where Luciano Botelho's tenor made more of an impact than the perfectly good Celso Albelo last night. COG fixer Duncan Orr certainly knows where to find them.
Now I’m going to say something which, if I were on reviewing duty, would have me taken out and shot, and rightly (I’ve only ever left one event halfway through during my official critical years – a beyond-bad military band massacre of Grainger earlier this year – and incurred a stream of invective for saying so). What I decided to do at the end of Act 2 was to go home and listen to the rest on the brand-new Pappano recording.
Why? Artistically speaking, because I thought I’d rather hear Gerald Finley in Tell’s famous command to his apple-topped son, ‘Sois immobile’ than the grainy oldster Michele Pertusi, taking over for the Prom. That also meant I didn’t get the live sensation of Osborn’s top Cs and C sharps in the cabaletta to ‘Asile hereditaire’ (still think Milhoffer did a better job here, from the evidence of the recording). But I reckoned that from where I was sitting I wasn't getting the full impact of a live performance anyway.
Personal reasons: didn’t want to leave the diplo-mate pining at home - yeah, right - for longer than I had to, and needed to provision at Whole Foods (a rare luxury, and boy is it overpriced) before it shut at 10pm. How bourgeois and shallow can you get? Here's what I left behind - the Accademia looking sweepingly elegant and sounding better under Pappano than I've ever heard it. The photo is by Chris Christodoulou, whose professionalism leaves most others standing: for TAD, we get pictures in the interval, if possible, and at the end. Quite apart from all that, he's the best; the photo gallery of conductors which he kindly supplied to TAD last year shows his range superbly. Helps, I suppose, that the BBC Proms office is so well resourced.
Anyway, the serious listen to Acts 3 and 4 was postponed until this morning. And then, of course, I had a shock: on the recording, as in the Prom (or so the programme informed us), Pappano had cut the women’s woodwind-accompanied trio and the prayer in Act 4. Crazy: this is some of the most sensitive music in the score, and I see when I look back on the review that I loved the trio as a 'moment of stillness' in the COG performance. You get it all here, albeit in Italian, in Muti’s La Scala performance, Studer leading the way – and, no, it isn’t anything to do with the Italian version; these numbers were part of the French original.
Naughty Maestro P. Especially as the lovely Pat Bardon at the Prom would have been deprived of her finest moments. Never mind; this was certainly an event worthy of the first Proms weekend, and gave huge pleasure to everyone I spoke to.
The ending, of course, is unexpectedly glorious, and absolutely worthy of Turner's pioneering take on Switzerland from a quarter of a century earlier (that was Ruskin's visionary view of Lucerne's old walls above, by the way): a new dawn for 1829, except that Rossini had already sung his major operatic last...Here it is in the same Scala version.
One bonus to the COG experience: Pappano conducted all the ballet music, including the Act 1 Pas de Six better known in its Britten arrangement as the first of the Matinees Musicales but conducted here by Toscanini. Why the fryup picture I've no idea, but the sound is decent enough:
Think we ought to see Toscanini conducting a version of the Overture that begins with unison cellos, not the solo who so spellbindingly launched last night's prom. But stick with it for some extraordinary results later.
And That Galop sprang more lamb-like with Pappano. I have to end on a splendidly vulgar note with the sublime Australian yodeller Mary Schneider segue-ing naughtily between Tell, Carmen and Orpheus. Thanks to our friend Phillip Thomas for introducing us to this. Enjoy.