Familiar and not so familiar music in the Albert Hall.
Rarely performed Puccini operas seem to be a theme this summer: Le Villi is currently in repertoire at Opera Holland Park; later this month, If Opera’s production of La Rondine is due to open in Bristol, and Saturday night’s Prom included a concert performance of Il tabarro. Set on a barge on the Seine, this short work is the unloved ‘melodrama’ sibling of the other two operas of Il trittico: Gianni Schicchi (comedy) and Suor Angelica (tragedy). In a way, one can see why it receives little attention; there’s a gritty verismo quality to the tale of infidelity, jealousy and murder among barge workers that’s reflected in the music. Although there are certainly expansive Puccini ‘melting moments’ in there (Giorgetta and Luigi’s ‘Belleville’ duet, for example, or Luigi’s ‘Folle di gelosia’), there’s also a deal of recitative and brief ariette where the largely straightforward vocal material takes second place to the orchestral textures – which are often more experimental, and demonstrate influences from the burgeoning fashion for Impressionist works.
Saturday’s casting (with several replacements to the advertised cast) reflected this grittiness well, as perhaps the most classically mellifluous tenor voice belonged to Shengzhi Ren, playing the ballad-seller, whose brief, sung examples of his wares were really Puccini parodying his own earlier, lusher works. Lucio Gallo gave us an older Michele, his complex voice portraying bitterness and uncertainty in equal measure. Natalya Romaniw, playing Giorgetta, is not your classic Puccini songbird; the more spread harmonics of her voice, though, conjured perfectly the tones of a working woman used to life’s hard knocks. Adam Smith, the handsomely bearded stevedore Luigi, produced some excellent heft in his lower register, and though one could hear the effort put into the notes above the stave, this slightly strained quality served the character well. Annunziata Vestri owned the stage as the mad cat woman, La Frugola, her parlando patter dissolving effortlessly into an edgy, but rich, mezzo.
Of the other roles, Simon Shibambu (Talpa) deserves a mention; this young bass has a gloriously rich resonance to his voice, and it would be good to hear him in a more major role.
“…there’s a gritty verismo quality to the tale of infidelity, jealousy and murder…”
As remarked above, the orchestra in Il tabarro is more than just lush accompaniment; it paints the changing moods of the river, and fills out the colours of the random background vignettes of the Parisian waterfront. Hallé, under Mark Elder, excelled in bringing Puccini’s quirky score (including foghorns and woodwind hurdy-gurdy) to vivid life.
Although the river Seine dominated the second half, the theme of water was introduced by the two orchestral pieces earlier in the evening. Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is familiar to all who have seen Mickey Mouse’s enchanted brooms flooding the cellar in Fantasia, and Respighi’s Fountains of Rome makes many a concert hall appearance. Both were given textbook performances by the orchestra, in which the closest attention was paid to texture and dynamic. Of particular note in the Dukas were the precisely contrasted dynamics at the opening (especially the horn entry over the quietest of strings) and the delightfully comedic ‘here we go again’ contrabassoon introduction to the second iteration of the ‘broom and bucket’ chaos.
The account of the Respighi was an effortlessly depicted series of musical canvasses, in which the miasma of a summer dawn gave way to pastoral piping from clarinet and flute, thence to the swirling, tinkling and rushing of the Tritons’ dance. The grand splash of the organ in the third movement was judged just right in terms of slightly overwhelming the orchestra at full tilt. The fading heat of an Italian sunset of the last movement was given all the subtle orchestral watercolours it required, the almost inaudible church bells from across the Tiber sounding the close of day.
• Full details of the BBC Proms season 2022 can be found here.