A Night at the Opera
Devised and directed by Jane McCulloch with excerpts from operas by Verdi, Delibes, Puccini, Mozart, Lehár, Bizet, Bernstein, Saint-Saëns, Gounod, Menotti, Offenbach, Dvořák, and Humperdinck
Clare Presland & Nicola Pulford (sopranos), Scheherazade Pesante (mezzo-soprano), Patrick Mundy & Alexander Wall (tenor) & Dominic Barrand (baritone) with Stephen Hose (piano & musical director)
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 10 November, 2009
Venue: St Mary le Bow, Cheapside, London EC2
Opera UK, Britain’s youngest opera company, founded by John Mullis, has just returned from a highly successful tour of Ireland. Its programme comprised two-dozen opera lollipops by some twenty composers, everyone a winner; you can’t keep a good tune down, and this programme, which was repeated at the end of the tour in the City of London at the Church of St Mary le Bow, was packed with goodies. Opera UK employs the best of the voices from British conservatoires and music academies and on this showing alone has some starry singers on their hands.
Like many churches, St Mary le Bow is not equipped with the best acoustics for the human voice unless it is preaching a sermon. The soloists therefore had a battle against the inevitable echoes that accompanied their efforts. It was even worse for the ensembles, although on the whole they overcame these problems and produced some highly creditable work. Each singer also introduced some of the items, explaining for a non-opera-going audience the emotions of each aria, helpful when singing in the operas’ original languages.
The evening began with two excerpts from Verdi’s “La traviata”, the company performing the ‘Brindisi’ and Patrick Mundy singing ‘De’ Miei Bollenti Spiriti’ in clear, ringing tones, a lovely open sound that defied the echo. The ‘Flower Duet’ from “Lakmé” now has associations other than just that of Delibes’s opera. Here it was beautifully captured by Clare Presland and Nicola Pulford whose voices melded as one in this quite ethereal piece of writing. The quieter side of the drama that is Puccini’s “Tosca” was represented by two contemplative arias by Flora and Cavaradossi, ‘Vissi d’arte’ and ‘E lucevan le stella’. Scheherazade Pesante gave an extremely moving account of the first, chilling and full of anticipation, while the stars shone really brightly in Alexander Wall’s beautiful interpretation of the hero’s last minutes on earth.
Mozart was represented by ‘Non più andrei’ from “Le nozze di Figaro” with Dominic Barrand’s strong baritone voice asserting itself most effectively. He was then joined by Clare Presland and Nicola Pulford for the famous Trio from “Così fan tutte”, performed gently but with much feeling. The whole company joined forces with Clare Presland for the chorus of ‘Vilja’, Lehár’s lovely lilting aria from “The Merry Widow”, a great audience-swayer in the best sense of the word. The first half ended with three pieces from Bizet’s “Carmen”. Alexander Wall sang ‘Flower Song’ with immense passion, the ‘Habañera’ was given the full sexy, titillating treatment by Scheherazade Pesante and the company joined the powerful voice of Dominic Barrand for a good old sing-a-long in a crowd-pleasing version of the ‘Toreador’s Song’.
The second half began with a real swing, the opening of Act Two of “West Side Story”, although the church acoustic couldn’t really cope with such a forceful vocal onslaught. Through it all, though, came the bell-like tones of Alexander Wall and ‘Tonight’. ‘Au fond du temple saint’ is the male duet from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” which Dominic Barrand and Patrick Mundy conquered superbly well, against all the odds of the architecture. Sadly, the piano was a little too forte during ‘Softly awakes my heart’, the ‘Mon coeur’ aria from Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalilah” but Scheherazade Pesante found her way through with Alexander Wall in a very still and composed performance.
Clare Presland managed to modulate her voice well despite the echo during ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” followed by ‘La donna e mobile’ from Verdi’s “Rigoletto”; great aria, perfectly executed by Wall. Some lovely trills and top notes were heard to advantage in Nicola Pulford’s performance of the ‘Jewel Song’ from Gounod’s “Faust” and Patrick Mundy gave a superb account of ‘Your tiny hand is frozen’ from Puccini’s “La bohème”. This was an acoustic-beating performance of immense skill and power. In between we heard the ‘Hello, Hello’ aria from Menotti’s “The Telephone” in which Clare Presland soared and laughed to good musical effect.
Dominic and Nicola made a good duo for ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, Clare and Nicola then presented the ‘Barcarolle’ from Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffman” and Scheherazade sang to the moon most beautifully in the aria from Dvořák’s “Rusalka”. Clare and Nicola led us through the wood for the ‘Evening Prayer’ from Humperdinck’s “Hänsel und Gretel”, while, finally, Patrick took on the football anthem of ‘Nessun dorma’ from Puccini’s “Turandot” in a tough, thorough and touching performance augmented by the rest of the company who then reprised it as an encore.
All six singers have marvellous voices and they all look as if they can act their socks off, too. Opera UK and opera in the UK have nothing to worry about with talents such as these young singers.