Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Met Orchestra review – this Rolls Royce of orchestras celebrates Shakespeare in style

29 June 2023

Joyce DiDonato and Angel Blue deliver star vocal turns, superbly supported by the Met Opera Orchestra, making a long overdue appearance this side of the Pond, under its charismatic music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Barbican Hall

Barbican Hall (Photo: Dion Barrett)

“London – it’s been far too long”. And the Canadian maestro, Yannick Nézet-Séguin was absolutely spot on. Addressing the audience in the Barbican Hall, which incidentally was packed to the rafters, he reminded us that it’s been 20 years since the Met Orchestra, New York last appeared on these shores. It’s also been way too long since we’ve seen his galvanising presence on the podium. His many concerts as Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) remain happy memories of concertgoing life in the capital, so it was good to see him back in town, receiving a warm, and heartfelt welcome.

These days, he’s kept busy by two prestigious appointments – as Musical Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and of the Met Opera, New York – which explains why he’s a far less frequent visitor to these shores. That was one of several reasons why this concert, part of a Europe-wide tour, was one of the hottest tickets in town. Another, was the choice of programme and the stellar line-up of vocal soloists that had been engaged for the evening – Joyce DiDonato, Angel Blue and Russell Thomas.

The evening began with a purely instrumental work, Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet. Judiciously chosen to allow each section of the orchestra to shine – glorious woodwind, sepulchrally rounded brass, and the most luscious string tone, Nézet-Séguin revelled in the works richness, drawing thrilling playing from his super-attentive players. The ‘big tune’ has never sounded more plush, the sheen on the strings a joy to hear.

This was followed by Heath (King Lear Sketches) – a four-section work, played without a break, by the young, fêted American composer Matthew Aucoin. Rumbling brass, chirrupy woodwind and percussive flurries evoke the beginning of the play as Lear’s kingdom descends into political chaos. Aucoin has a keen ear for orchestral timbres, which Nézet-Séguin ensured were crystal clear throughout, even in some of the more heavily orchestrated sections. Whilst maybe not avant-garde enough for some, Heath certainly gave notice of a composer with a distinct musical voice. His opera Eurydice premiered at The Metropolitan Opera to huge critical acclaim in 2021, so maybe an opera based on King Lear is in the pipeline.

“…it’s been 20 years since the Met Orchestra, New York last appeared on these shores”

American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has a huge following here in London, so it’ll come as no surprise to learn her fans were out in force to catch her in two extracts from Berlioz’ Les Troyens as the opera’s heroine, Queen Dido. In the first, ‘Chers Tyriens/Dear Tyrians’ she embodied the regal queen to perfection, her luscious, creamy voice filling the Hall with refulgent tones, and sung in perfect French. Although this was a concert performance, DiDonato acted with her voice to perfection, and in the second excerpt reminded us that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Abandoned by her lover Aeneas, she unleashed a torrent of impassioned singing that quite simply took the breath away, and when the music returns from the earlier love duet, ‘Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase’, the look of sadness in her eyes couldn’t help but bring a lump to the throat. For an encore, superbly supported by Concertmaster Benjamin Bowman’s exquisite playing, she chose Strauss’ ‘Morgen’. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more eloquent or moving interpretation and there were few, if any, dry eyes left in the Hall by the time the interval came. DiDonato’s performance was simply spellbinding, and it was a privilege to witness such consummate artistry.

After the interval Nézet-Séguin conducted an immaculate, affecting performance of the final act of Verdi’s Otello. Angel Blue, who made such an impression as Aida recently, perfectly embodied Desdemona’s fragility – gloriously floated high notes in the Willow Song, and achingly beautiful in the ‘Ave Maria’. Russell Thomas used his virile tenor as Otello to telling effect, whilst the supporting roles were cast from strength. 

A second encore brought this thrilling concert to a close – Florence Pike’s elegiac ‘Adoration’, with Concertmaster David Chan delicately and tenderly tracing Pike’s soaring lines for the violin. The Met Orchestra is a well-oiled, disciplined machine, so you’d be hard pushed to hear an orchestra as homogeneous in its delivery, or with a more luxurious sheen to its sound. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another 20 years for their next visit.

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