Joseph Calleja / Joyce DiDonato / Thomas Hampson / Vasko Vassilev / Antonio Pappano - Royal Opera House, 24 June 2009
Finally, after the cancellations of first Rolando Villazón, then just two days ago his replacement Dmitri Hvorostovsky, this recital got under way with Antonio Pappano at the piano, his concert master Vasko Vassilev, and three of the biggest names that could be arm-twisted into appearing.
The (scanned below) programme's eclecticism suggested the brief was "sing what you like, just don't throw a sickie". So Joyce DiDonato revealed her inner Judy Garland, Professor Thomas Hampson nourished our grey matter, Joseph Calleja auditioned for Malta's Got Talent - and Pappano took the whole lot in his stride, equally at home in Mahler and Arlen, as if he'd practising for weeks. Vasko Vassilev's Russian violin interlude was a bonus.
Like Arsenal's trophy cabinet, the stage was bare but for a mirrored backdrop (pinched from Un ballo in maschera, which opens later this week) - an unfortunate reminder that the house was not exactly packed.
Joseph Calleja is one of the big successes of the current La traviata, and set against the simple backdrop of the humble piano his voice is even more impressive. It's just such a gloriously big, open, honest instrument, so full of warmth and sincerity. It took talent to capture Rodrigue's aria from Le Cid so perfectly, but how much more to turn the slushy Because into a heartfelt utterance.
La regata veneziana is one of Joyce DiDonato's party pieces, and she tells the tale with such conviction ("row, Tonio!" she commanded with a wink to her sturdy pianist). She's got the jazz chops for Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man too - not the excruciating trial you might get from some opera-trained singers. But the Willow Song, where she softened that wiry edge that sometimes coarsens her tone, was the highlight. She looked stunning too, in a moss green satin gown with twinkly seaweed beading.
Thomas Hampson (known to cognoscenti as "The Hampster" due to his habit of secreting sunflower seeds in his capacious cheek pouches) just filled the stage from the first note he sang. What amazing presence.
And I was pleased to find the geriatric tone of his Germont in the current La traviata is no more than dramatic licence. He was in robustly healthy voice here for two of his great specialities, Mahler and American song. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen was delivered with raw, unapologetic intimacy, as if we were all clustered right there on the stage with him. And it offered the chance, rare in this evening of bits and pieces, to be drawn in for more than a couple of minutes. A draining ride.
He spoke a few useful introductory words before launching into Burleigh's Ethiopia Saluting the Colors - a fascinating piece of folklore.
His Les pêcheurs de perles duet with Calleja wasn't the most delicately nuanced reading, but it underlined how well-paired they are as la famille Germont. Against the odds, a successful evening, and a fitting end to it.
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