Ermione - Royal Festival Hall, 28 March 2009
Ermione is not quite the rarity that this concert's publicity suggested. Scattered recordings and the odd staging prove that.
But it wasn't hard to see why it's usually passed over in favour of Rossini's better-known works. Innovations like the choral overture have novelty on their side but not much else. Amongst the formulaic chirruping there lurk a few good tunes, but no great ones. The plot is strong (it's lifted from Racine's Andromaque), but Rossini doesn't manage to wrestle it to the ground and pummel it into shape. So the first act huffs and puffs without going anywhere, and the abrupt ending in death and madness feels like a cop-out.
So, like Matilde di Shabran, it's one of those works that needs staggeringly good singers to bring it alive.
Well, it got one, anyway - Colin Lee. He still looks like the chartered accountant he once was, but his vocal agility and phenomenal accuracy put him up there with Juan Diego Flórez. As Ermione's spurned lover, Oreste, driven to murder by her impossible demands, he gave it everything in a truly impassioned performance. Outstanding, and the packed, enthusiastic audience gave him the lengthy ovation he deserved.
Bülent Bezdüz provided the JDF (pre-rhinoplasty) looks and some stylish, ardent singing in the small role of Pilade. Like Colin Lee, he made it all sound easy.
Carmen Giannattasio's Ermione was pretty good too. The dramatic part of the role gave her no problems - gelosia and vendetta spat out in every syllable. But the voice is a little heavy for the rapid coloratura, which sounded effortful and sometimes even panicky. It was a problem shared by the all-too-stolid Paul Nilon as Pirro, too - every note was accurate, but hauled laboriously into place.
Patricia Bardon was an odd choice for Andromaca, the target of Ermione's spite and envy. There's no question about her abilities, but the voice is simply too deep and sultry, and again, too slow-moving to sparkle in this repertoire.
The London Philharmonic were clearly well-rehearsed, but David Parry's spun-out phrasing and thick vibrato left the music earth-bound where it should have soared. The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir though were excellent, really alert and co-ordinated, and their diction was faultless.
There seems to be a ready market for second-string Rossini, so I suspect more is on its way. But as with any music, the less polish there is in the writing, the more there needs to be in the performance, and this one didn't quite get all the way there.
Paul Nilon and Carmen Giannattasio:
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