When Terry Edwards stepped down from his role as the Royal Opera’s chorus-master at the end of the 2003/04 season, it seemed like the end of an era. And that indeed is what it was in so far as each chorus director has his own way of working and his own style. However, any change that came about with the arrival of Venice-born Renato Balsadonna in August 2004 has only served to confirm the good judgement of the Royal Opera House in selecting Renato as Terry’s successor. When Terry left after twelve years, the standing of the chorus attested to what he had achieved. Three years on, its reputation reflects the standards that Renato has set. These are two talented men who have shared the same goal: that of making a fine chorus even finer. When I talk to Renato his pride in the singers is evident and audiences at Covent Garden would undoubtedly share his sense of appreciation.
Coming at the start of a new season, my meeting with Renato found him anticipating with pleasure four operas in particular. His comments are brief but heartfelt. “I think we have much to look forward to with Harrison Birtwistle’s new creation The Minotaur which should offer a lot for the chorus, and doing The Rake’s Progress with Thomas Adès as conductor will be very interesting too. There’s also a new production of Don Carlo by Nicholas Hytner which will be important for us and last, but certainly not least, I must mention Simon Boccanegra. For that we are performing the revision but in a production originally designed for the earlier version, so that will be an interesting mix. Furthermore, I very much respect Sir John Eliot Gardiner who is conducting and working together will be very, very exciting.”
At the time of our discussion, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride was halfway through its run, an experience with several novel and rewarding aspects for the chorus. “It’s the first time that we have appeared with a period orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Performing Gluck, a composer who reflects the period before Mozart, was on the border of our repertoire you might say, something different for us because of the pitch being lower. It involved an emission of sound using less vibrato and for the ladies another kind of colour. The production required us to sing from the pit and, by reducing our role as protagonists, there was inevitably some loss of prominence. Nevertheless, it was very thrilling and overall an extremely positive experience. Being placed where we were meant that the chorus and orchestra were listening to each other acutely and that was especially telling given that we had as inspired a musician and conductor as Ivor Bolton. The orchestra really seemed to appreciate our contribution.”
Normally any interview with Renato would concentrate on his work with the chorus for the main stage, but between 17 October and 3 November he is in charge of four concerts featuring the chorus but taking place in other venues, the first and last being in St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden in the early evening and the other two being lunchtime recitals within the Royal Opera House. “Before I came here I worked in Basle and Brussels. In those houses the number of operas staged in any one season was far more limited since here we have an average of seventeen or eighteen productions involving the chorus. In addition we are sometimes asked to sing for the ballet, and on arriving here to work with this marvellous chorus my one regret was that the schedule allowed no time for concerts. This year, however, the situation is unusual. That’s because The Ring takes up the whole of October with the chorus participating only in Götterdämmerung. I felt that this was an opportunity to be seized, a chance to present something beyond our stage-work. So I planned these four programmes putting at their heart music to which I feel close.
“Our first piece on the Seventeenth is Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle. That’s a work for which I have both played the first piano part and prepared a choir, so I feel deeply connected with it. The version that we are performing is that with two pianos and harmonium and four members of the choir will perform the solo parts. The other substantial piece is Fauré’s Requiem, which is an absolute masterpiece. Fauré wrote different versions and eventually one with orchestra, but we are going back to the earlier version with a small ensemble and The Southbank Sinfonia, an orchestra of very talented young musicians, is joining us for that. The same size orchestra fits Schubert’s Gesang der Geister über den Wassern with which I’ve coupled the Fauré. They are similar also in subject and mood with both touching on the human situation: the Schubert compares mankind’s soul with water and the Fauré is also about our condition, our mortality, expressed in religious terms although Fauré himself said he was not a believer. But at the same time I wanted a contrast: for there is a third piece in the programme and I have chosen Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb. All of the soloists in these works will be people from the chorus and I think it is a wonderful thing to be able to show with these concerts that we have choristers who, in repertoire so contrasted to that of opera, can perform solo roles. Of course, there are times when individual choristers act as covers and when on occasion a principal has fallen sick they have had to go on. Being so reliable and professional, they have proved successful. But this is something beyond that, because here they are not a stand-by but real soloists!”
Britten is also represented in the first of the two lunchtime concerts, that on 23 October. The work here is his wonderful Hymn to St Cecilia completed during a wartime crossing of the Atlantic. This is being done in the Paul Hamlyn Hall where it forms part of a wide-ranging a cappella programme with as many as 48 voices contributing. The other composers featured are Verdi, Bruckner, Schoenberg and Walton. That may constitute a rather unusual programme but it’s not just Renato’s fondness for all of these pieces that links them. “Verdi is our daily bread, but here we can do something by him that is not operatic. His motets pair beautifully with those by Bruckner and Dante contributes twice over. It’s his original text that Verdi set in Lauda alla Vergine and the vernacular translations chosen for his settings of both Pater Noster and Ave Maria were attributed to Dante. As for the Walton, Cantico del Sole, that features an Italian text taken from St Francis of Assisi so that was a good way to bring in another English composer. Then there’s Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden which is a prayer asking for peace, as in its own way is the Hymn to St Cecilia. So the selection brings a lot of things together but there is a strong connecting thread that creates a meaning, an arch.”
The concert still to be mentioned is the one on 29 October in the Crush Room, an all-Brahms programme in which the Liebeslieder Waltzes are central. These are delightful pieces that can be performed either with a quartet or featuring a chamber choir the size of which can vary. “In this case we shall have eight voices and use one tenor and one soprano for the solos. Together with Stephen Westrop, I shall be one of the pianists. When I was five years old I started studying music with the piano long remaining my principal instrument. Consequently I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to play because it is something that I enjoy so very much.” That particular pleasure extends to the two supplementary items, the Zigeunerlieder for chorus and piano and Waltzes (Opus 39) for four hands, which provides its own contrast.
Commenting on the concerts as a whole, Renato adds this: “It was clearly desirable to exclude large accompanying forces, but, that apart, the only restriction I imposed on myself was that each concert should not be much longer than one hour. With that proviso I sought to reflect directly my own taste, my own culture and my desire to make music with this chorus. As we continue to work together, we are, I believe, getting to know each other better and better, and consequently we continue to improve each other: we are so lucky, so fortunate, that that process is still going on. And now we have this very different experience, that of working together in music of another style, music that is a choral showcase. Furthermore, in the opera house I am always preparing them for the moment when they will be handed over to the conductor and to the stage director. In this project, however, we are acting in the first person: without any others involved, we are there in our own right. It puts us much more in the limelight, but that’s a challenge that we accept and which the chorus are ready to meet.”
- Although these choral concerts are free they are also ticketed and must be booked
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