The night was a cross between an apology (for the double cancellations of Rolando Villazn and then Dmitri Hvorostovsky) and a celebration (of ROH talent).
With a mix of truly odd programme choices and sheer pluck they managed to score a hit.
Joseph Calleja provided the early trifles in his selection with a bit of froth from Leoncavallo and the like, which set the evening up as a night of good old middle of the road operatic throw-backs, with Pappano as the timid accompanist. Things perked up a bit with Joyce DiDonato singing a mini song cycle by Rossini La regatta veneziana and acting it out subtly as if each song was a scene from an undiscovered opera. Surtitles would have been a boon.
Things perked up a lot with Thomas Hampson singing Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. The Royal Opera House instantly shrank to become as intimate as the Wigmore Hall, with the piano reduction casting this beefy masterpiece as more of a tantrum than a breakdown, but still treading wantonly over sore memories of lost love.
In a night of surprises there were more to come as violinist Vasko Vassilev halted the jubilant mood of the post-interval drinkers with a deadly serious rendition of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher, at once heroic and meditative.DiDonato came back with more gloom in a perfect performance of Rossini’s Willow Song. In character as Desdemona all the acting was done with the voice this time; gentle, innocent and plaintive.
Then there came an interesting little history lesson from Hampson about the black composer Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866 1936) whose Ethiopia Saluting the Colours sounded almost entirely like a Charles Ives song, but with added melodrama. A very rare treat. At this point the evening turned into what it always promised to be, a thank you to those who had bought the original tickets and who hadn’t stayed at home even after the devastating double cancellation. In other words more froth and silliness.
Calleja sang Because by Helen Guy Rhodes in a funny Euro-American accent and then hammed it up with Hampson in a less than serious version of The Pearl Fishers’ Duet. But the real shocker was DiDonato singing Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man with real sass, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow very straight and all the more mesmerising for it. And not forgetting Antonio Pappano displaying some very capable jazz chops at the piano.