After a drab start to the Proms last night, Sir Roger Norrington galvanised the festival into the kind of gear it should be in, and led us on an enthralling expedition through Mozart’s operas.
Entitled ‘Mozart the Dramatist’, the concert took us through music ranging from Mitridate, written in 1770, to La clemenza di Tito, composed in 1791. Thanks to Norrington’s witty, if occasionally overlong commentary, one left with a sense of the direction of Mozart’s career as a theatre composer his concerns, his problems, and his triumphs, from his early opere serie to his final Singspiel. The concert was unusual in this year of Mozart’s 250th birthday in that it actually illuminated us by incorporating the best of the unknown music along with mature masterpieces.
To start, we heard ballet music from Idomeneo, which Mozart wrote at the age of 25. Arguably his first masterpiece for the theatre, the opera is notable for its sharp contrasts of mood, which are presented in microcosm in this divertissement. An exuberant trumpet opening and a clean, vibrato-free sound from the strings of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra suggested pomp and jubilation, giving way to oboe and bassoon figures in the Larghetto. Then in the minor-key section stabbing chords and a melancholy line from the winds switched the atmosphere from dark to light, before a return to the opening material. This varied drama was brought to life with finesse by Norrington and his band, who set the scene for the evening to come.
The first vocal item was the Sifare-Aspasia duet ‘Se viver non degg’io’ from Mitridate, remarkable for its searching portrayal of adult emotions by a 14 year old. Rebecca Nash could have taught Barbara Frittoli a thing or two about projection and how to remain secure in the upper tessitura: she sent her voice out into the Albert Hall with confidence and produced some lovely phrasing. Ailish Tynan was full of character but her tone was inconsistent and in general she was effortful, if emotional.
Next up was the star of the show, Simon Keenlyside, to sing Allazim’s aria ‘Nur mutig, mein Herze’ from Zaide. Unlike the recent dismal performance of the whole work at the Barbican a week ago, Keenlyside’s rendition had a glorious golden tone, clear phrasing and excellent precision in the runs. Perhaps the opera is a masterwork after all.
Anna Leese then took to the stage for a searching performance of ‘Fra i pensier’ from the early opera seria Lucio Silla. Her tone was variable and too snatched at times, but she warmed up and presented the tragic figure quite vividly.
To end the first half, we heard the Act 2 finale from Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The reunion of Konstanze and Blonde with their lovers Belmonte and Pedrillo at the opera’s close was brought to life by Rebecca Nash, who was once again creamy-voiced as Konstanze, Ian Bostridge as Belmonte, whose sound was beautiful despite a distracting posture, Ailish Tynan, a more confident Blonde, and Benjamin Hulett, a promising if underpowered Pedrillo.
The second half started with a sparkling rendition of the overture from La clemenza di Tito. Spirited and finely detailed, the orchestra proved that a period approach to playing eighteenth-century music does not have to mean producing an inaudible murmur somewhere in the direction of the stage: this performance had muscle when needed.
Bostridge took the spotlight once more, this time as Don Ottavio for the aria ‘Dalla sua pace’ (sadly performed without the recitative published in the programme). Again showing a fuller tone in this repertoire than he sometimes does, Bostridge produced some nice vibrato and took a spacious tempo (though his strange physical convulsions whilst singing were still distracting). Tynan returned for a sweet account of Pamina’s aria from The Magic Flute.
Two meaty extracts closed the event. First up was the Count’s aria and the sextet from Act 3 of Le nozze di Figaro. The riveting performance was dominated by Keenlyside’s sexy, aristocratic Count and Kyle Ketelsen‘s superlative, big-voiced Figaro. That the latter can more than stand up to a star of Keenlyside’s international renown shows his calibre, which indicates a star in the making. Hulett was an amusing Don Curzio, Nash returned as a witty Marcellina and Tynan was in her element as Susanna (she should stick to the soubrette roles for the time being).
Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko took over from an indisposed Brindley Sherratt as Bartolo in the Figaro extract, his voice carrying well towards the audience. He returned as the Commendatore and Masetto in the complete finale of Don Giovanni, which was the highpoint of the night. With Keenlyside as the Don and Ketelsen in brilliant form as his sidekick Leporello, what could go wrong?
The answer is, very little apart from a minor coordination problem in the final sextet. Otherwise, the refined singing and acting of all concerned made it a superb end to a memorable evening.