Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča is already famous for her interpretation of the Spanish temptress Carmen. In this recital, however, brilliantly supported by the LSO under the baton of her husband Karel Mark Chichon, she took us on a tour from East to West, starting with works by Russian composers before whisking us to France and Andalucía with Carmen and other pieces.
In ‘Da, čas nastal!’ from Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans Garanča captured both the gut-wrenching pain and dignity of Joan of Arc as she says farewell to her home, not knowing if she will ever see it again. As demonstrated here, Garanča has such a rich, resonant tone that the very top of her range sounds remarkably similar to her chest voice, allowing her to bring coherency, power and a sense of effortlessness to everything that she sings. Within this, her output was characterised by strong, yet subtly employed, vibrato, exquisite phrasing and impeccable enunciation. She also achieved excellent dramatic variation as her repeat of ‘Prostite vï navek’ revealed a lot more resolve.
Phrasing was also of key importance in her performance of ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, in which Garanča suggests that Dalila is ‘surprised at how sensitive she can be’ as she expresses her love for Samson. She tumbled brilliantly through the line ‘Verse-moi l’ivresse!’, saw the phrase ‘Ah! réponds à ma tendresse!’ melt away, and gave the final ‘Je t’aime!’ a brilliantly rounded quality. Garanča also performed ‘Plus grand, dans son obscurité’ from Gounod’s relatively unknown La Reine de Saba, in which the Queen of Sheba laments how her position prevents her from being with an obscure stranger, and hit quite wondrous heights at the end.
The majority of the second half was taken up with excerpts from Carmen, to which Garanča really brought her acting skills, which were hardly lacking in the first half, to the fore. She clenched her fists, put hand on hip and gave a sensuous wink in ‘Habanera’, and puffed out her cheeks in a self-knowing gesture before starting ‘Seguide’. She achieved the right balance between portraying fear and dignity in ‘En vain, pour éviter’ and remained seated for much of ‘Chanson bohème’, thus giving her greater scope to rise and build towards the aria’s intoxicating conclusion. Garanča sees Carmen as a more sensuous than sexual figure, and before delivering the version of ‘Habanera’ we all know, she performed the original one, which is not simply a different arrangement of the same basic melody. Far lighter and wittier, it also has a greater sense of directness so that, in Garanča’s hands at least, it almost sounds more passionate because the emotions feel a lot starker.
The LSO also contributed to the strength of the Carmen excerpts, delivering two Entr’actes and the Act I Prélude with a trimness that combined exuberance with brilliant musicality. Based on its performances here, and of three other Spanish dances, I would be very interested to hear it take on the full opera.
If the purely orchestral pieces in the first half veered towards cliché, there was no disputing the quality of the performances of the Overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila and of the Méditation from Massenet’s Thaïs, which featured superb solo work from the orchestra’s leader, Gordan Nikolitch. Although this was undoubtedly Garanča’s night, the standard of her support could hardly have been bettered.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk