Valentine’s Day Opera Feast

A programme of operatic orchestral works, arias and duets

Majella Cullagh (soprano) & Gwyn Hughes Jones (tenor)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
David Parry

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 14 February, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

To a packed house, on Valentine’s Day, the London Philharmonic presented an operatic evening under David Parry, with the Irish soprano Majella Cullagh and Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones as guests.

The concert began, in operatic style, with an overture: that to Rossini’s “Semiramide”. From a slow start it culminates in a rousing Rossinian crescendo, which the orchestra built with winning interjections from solo instrumentalists. The other piece in the first half for orchestra only was the ballet music that Gounod wrote for his opera “Faust” when it was performed at the Paris Opéra. At the opera’s premiere at the Théâtre Lyrique, no ballet was included. I suggest that first thoughts were best, for I find it is the most tedious music in the opera, though at the QEH we were spared the awful choreography and setting seen at Covent Garden. (I should say that in a note in the programme, Kevin Rundell, the LPO’s principal double bass, considers this ballet music “wonderful, truly moving”.) To open the concert’s second half was a composite suite from the two that exist from Bizet’s incidental music for “L’Arlésienne” (the first made by the composer, the second by Guiraud); this was more enjoyable. The LPO’s strings played smoothly and silkily in the quiet sections, with the full orchestra creating exciting sound under Parry’s energetic conducting in the closing ‘Farandole’. The sadness of the ‘Intermezzo’ from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” was movingly conveyed.

On the vocal side we heard seven arias and four duets, beginning with Gwyn Hughes Jones singing ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ (Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’amore”). A few catches in the voice betrayed nervousness, but the top was clear and the delivery of the penultimate line in head voice was a moment to savour. Also to be appreciated was his decision to sing the top note of the ‘Flower Song’ (Bizet’s “Carmen”) quietly, as written. Clear tone and good phrasing also pleased in Rodolfo’s aria to the newly met Mimì (Puccini’s “La bohème”).

Majella Cullagh responded to that with Mimì’s aria smoothly sung, and the two of them combined sweetly in ‘O soave fanciulla’. That ‘Bohème’ scene was the last item in the printed programme, but prior to that Cullagh had given us a lively rendition of ‘Mercè dilete amiche’, a bolero, from Verdi’s “I vespri siciliani”, which she seemed to enjoy singing. I certainly found the vocal flexibility and rhythmic insouciance highly satisfying. Less sparkling, but probably more difficult to sing because of some exposed high notes that need to be floated than flung out, is ‘Depuis le jour’ from Charpentier’s “Louise”. Those notes were indeed floated, with precision. Gounod appeared again: Juliette’s waltz-song fetching from the Irish soprano a fuller tone than one has heard from some French singers in the past.

“Faust” was revisited with the duet from Act Three. It took me back, for the first time I saw Majella Cullagh was when she took part in the National Opera Studio Showcase, in which she sang in this very duet. She and Hughes Jones produced rich sounds, but also sensitive touches, blending well and capturing the ecstasy of the lovers as Faust expresses his feelings for Marguerite. In the ‘Cherry Duet’ from Mascagni’s “L’amico Fritz”, the line occasionally lay a little low for Cullagh, but again the two singers matched each other well.

For an encore came the ‘Libiamo’ from Verdi’s “La traviata”. I feared that the audience was going to be asked to join in. Fortunately, the duet was sung properly rather than dumbed down. David Parry and the LPO gave good support in all the vocal selections.

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