Joyce Di Donato, Joseph Calleja, Thomas Hampson, Vasko Vassilev & Antonio Pappano in Recital


Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Calleja (tenor), Thomas Hampson (baritone), Vasko Vassilev (violin) & Antonio Pappano (piano)

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 24 June, 2009
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Joyce DiDonato. Photograph: Sheila RockAnd then there were four. Antonio Pappano remained constant, but the original recitalist, Rolando Villazón, withdrew, as he has from all performances for the next nine months or so. In came Dmitri Hvorostovsky but with only a few days to go he too was forced to cancel for medical reasons. Into the breach stepped three singers and a violinist, though I am not sure why a trio of singers could not find enough material to replace one man. Maybe the limits were imposed because the tenor and baritone were due to appear in “La traviata” the next evening and Joyce DiDonato is rehearsing Rosina in “Il barbiere di Siviglia” (which opens on 4 July). It does not matter, and one is grateful to them for their willingness to take part, as one is to Vasko Vassilev, the co-leader of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera.

Joseph Calleja. Photograph: Decca/Mitch JenkinsFirst to be heard was Joseph Calleja with three Italian songs. As he showed as Alfredo on the opening night of “La traviata” six days earlier, Calleja is in extremely good voice, from which these songs benefited: the buoyant “Mattinata”, the light-hearted and frothy “’A Vucchella” and, between them, the more wistful “Vaghissima sembianza”, to which the tenor brought telling shading.

The three songs that form the Rossini gondola triptych “La regata veneziana” introduced Joyce DiDonato. These are humorous pieces, nicely, if not with all their humour (or perhaps with that humour underplayed), delivered by the American mezzo. She returned to Rossini in the second half of the programme when she gave a mesmerizingly inward and controlled ‘Willow Song’ from “Otello”, spinning out the lines to great effect: one of the most sheerly beautiful pieces of technical mastery of the evening.

Thomas Hampson. ©Petra SpiolaThe first half, however, finished with Thomas Hampson in serious mood with Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen”, intelligently varied in vocal colouring, with details revealed. He may not access head-notes quite as smoothly as in the past but he still made skilful use of them, and these songs call for subtle tints to intensify the words. Hampson received splendid support from the sensitive pianism of Antonio Pappano. Indeed, Pappano was at ease, whatever the tempo, whatever the mood, all through the concert, whether in rippling phrases, in gentle touches or in the syncopated accompaniment to DiDonato’s singing of a number from “Show Boat”. I do wish, however, that pianists would not begin to play before the applause for the previous song has ended. It is like having the audience clapping prematurely at the end of a piece.

Beginning the recital’s second half was Vasko Vassilev applying sweet violin tone to two Tchaikovsky items and producing long bow-strokes in Rachmaninov’s Vocalise. Then Calleja returned with a loudly cheered ‘Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père’ (from Massenet’s “Le Cid”) in which he brought full-bodied tone to his imploration.

If two American singers are involved, why not American music? Hampson explained the background to Harry Thacker Burleigh’s “Ethiopia Saluting the Colours” before performing it in stronger outpouring of voice than had been needed for the Mahler cycle, following it with the more reflective “Sure on this Shining Night” by Samuel Barber. Perhaps a touch of dryness occasionally affects the ring in Hampson’s tone, but enough remains for such songs to make their mark.

Lighter fare came from DiDonato, with ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ from “The Wizard of Oz” benefitting from poised singing, upper notes sweetly placed. She injected the necessary liveliness into the catchy rhythm of ‘Cant Help Lovin’ that Man’, which Pappano accompanied as if to the manner born.

Finally, the two male vocalists blended well in the “Pearl Fishers” duet (Bizet), thus ending an enjoyable evening of contrasting, variegated music, although I have the feeling that many in the audience, especially those who applauded after the second and third of the Mahler songs, would have liked more than just three operatic selections.

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