Mozart’s 250th has been a year of celebration, appreciation and a hint of overreaction.
There has been much of note, such as Glyndebournes new Cosi Fan Tutte or Charles Mackerras‘s C Minor Mass, and also the predictable trawling through the composer’s most popular orchestral works.
Just when it seemed that no more could be done to celebrate, short of reanimating Mozart’s corpse, John Eliot Gardiner entered the Royal Opera House on October 15 and provided his audience with one of the most enjoyable concerts of the year.
On paper, even the prospect of hearing Gardiner with his wonderful Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists seemed little compensation for yet another yawn-inducing selection of ‘best bits’ from the operas. Indeed, wasn’t there the exact same concert at this year’s Proms?
So guess my surprise when the evening turned out to be rather good – so good indeed that the audience was more involved than I have heard for too long a time. Rather than a measly selection of arias, overtures and duets, longer stretches of the operas were included. These scenas allowed dramatic momentum to be sustained through extended periods, though none overstayed its welcome. And the Figaro overture was nowhere to be seen!
The first half admittedly did not hit the high notes consistently. The excerpt from Idomeneo was fantastic, with a regal overture, crisp Placido il mar and tumultuous storm. Kurt Streit‘s refined tenor battled manfully in the great accompagnato here, but seemed too noble for the comedy of The Abduction from the Seraglio. Luckily, he could rely on the comic presences of Nicholas Watts and Brindley Sherratt, who extolled the virtues of drink in a sparkling rendition of their duet.
The excerpts from The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, meanwhile, ended the first half bathetically. The life-affirming joy of the Flute came too early in the programme, while the gravity of La Clemenza was misplaced following it.
After the break, momentum was recaptured. The three Da Ponte works were still to come and such was the quality of musicianship here that I have rarely heard a Covent Garden audience so enraptured, so quiet. From Cosi Fan Tutte we were given the great stretch in Act One encompassing the second quintet, trio and Dorabella’s enraged aria, Smanie implacabili (which was ingeniously transformed into a great comic duet). Both Anne Mason as Despina and Matthew Brook as Alfonso seemed born for their roles.
The Act Two finale from Figaro was just as hilarious, and once Christopher Maltman‘s Count had warmed up, there was not a weak link in the cast. The gardener was especially characterful, and who could resist his sense of fashion – dinner jacket and Wellington boots? Maltman returned as the Don in the Act Two finale (without the Epilogue) and made a solid pairing with Kyle Ketelsen‘s impressively resonant Leporello.
Gardiner’s orchestra were raised in the pit for superior communication both with singers and audience, and their period sound conveyed the intricacies of Mozart with precision. The Monteverdi Choir confirmed again why they are held in such high regard, and impressed with their acting, evoking water and fire with their gloved hands. Actors coming through the Stalls and three trombones blasting the Don Giovanni chords while standing behind me – a terrifying moment – managed to bring the audience closer to the action.
With such excellent singing and playing, some errors of judgement in Act One can easily be forgiven, and the performance really was a near perfect way to celebrate Mozart’s 250th Anniversary.