Mozart the Dramatist

Idomeneo – Ballet music
Mitridate – Se viver non degg’io
Zaide – Nur mutig, mein Herze
Lucio Silla – Fra i pensier
Die Entführung aus dem Serail – Act II finale
La clemenza di Tito – Overture
Don Giovanni – Dalla sua pace
Le nozze di Figaro – Scene from Act III
Die Zauberflöte – Ach, ich fühl’s
Don Giovanni – Act II finale

Anne Leese, Rebecca Nash & Ailish Tynan (sopranos)
Ian Bostridge & Benjamin Hulett (tenors)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Kyle Ketelsen (bass-baritone)
Mikhail Petrenko (bass)

BBC Singers

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 15 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

For the first Saturday of the 2006 Proms season the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Sir Roger Norrington gave a whistle-stop tour through Mozart’s operatic canon picking out well- and lesser-known chunks ostensibly to demonstrate the composer’s skills as a dramatist. Between each of the items Sir Roger gave a brief outline and commentary on most of the pieces played. Commentaries from conductors can sometimes be very arch or patronising, but Norrington managed to strike a reasonably happy medium and explained why he found the various excerpts interesting, and set them in their historical context.

The concert opened with the ballet music from the final act of “Idomeneo, Rè di Creta”, which seemed an odd choice to demonstrate dramatic flair as in most productions where the ballet is included it can appear to prolong an already long evening whilst adding little to the drama, and sometimes leaves the protagonists looking desperate to get to their dressing rooms to unwind! However, here it received an energetic and fizzy performance with some crisp ensemble, especially from the woodwinds. I particularly liked Norrington’s way of varying the tempo of the various sections; making one sit up and really notice the change of pulse. The players were very responsive.

After this we moved back in time to where the 14-year-old composer wrote his opera seria “Mitridate, Rè di Ponto”, which, as Norrington admitted, contains much music that is unremarkable, but does have some occasional delights. He cited “Se viver non degg’io” as an example and in the performance of Rebecca Nash and Ailish Tynan it certainly delighted. Nash started out with an ethereal floating cantilena and was joined in this duet of love by the higher, brighter soprano of Tynan. They blended beautifully and the florid passages where very accomplished and exact. Both sang without scores.

Following that we moved to a short episode from the incomplete singspiel “Zaide”, which was not performed in Mozart’s lifetime. This introduced us to Simon Keenlyside’s Allazim. Sir Roger told us he felt that composing music for ordinary characters rather than gods and patricians was more to Mozart’s taste, although this did not seem to be particularly borne out by the aria, attractively as Keenlyside sang it.

Back to opera seria and the New Zealand soprano Anna Leese gave a beautifully voiced account of Giunia’s aria “Fra i pensier” from Act Three of “Lucio Silla”, although not that well articulated in terms of diction. This is one of the highlights of that opera, and over a pulsing accompaniment the soprano is required to let her long lines soar and express her changing emotions throughout a wide vocal range. This is Mozart demonstrating an amazing development of skill in the three years since “Mitridate”, and allowing his music, both the vocal line and orchestral underlay, to point the predicament of the protagonist.

From there we moved eastward with the Act Two finale of “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” – an opera which seems to be out of fashion at present – perhaps owing to its depiction of a clash between Ottoman and Western values. Here Ian Bostridge and Rebecca Nash sang the patrician lovers Belmonte and Konstanze, with the earthier servant pair, Pedrillo and Blonde, sung by Tynan and Benjamin Hulett. The vocal and dramatic interplay was pleasantly acted out, with the characterisation of the two classes given vocal and dramatic point.

After the interval we moved to rather more familiar territory and mature works. We were given a crisp and controlled account of the overture to “La clemenza di Tito”, and then Bostridge gave a honeyed account of Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” from “Don Giovanni”, although it was shorn of its introductory recitative. This seemed an odd piece to choose in the context of ‘Mozart the Dramatist’ as it is possibly the least dramatic aria and moment of the entire work!

There then followed an extended episode from Act III of “Le nozze di Figaro” – the Count’s “Hai già vita la causa” and the following recognition scene. Simon Keenlyside, perhaps THE Count Almaviva of our day, sang his aria with his warm and focused baritone and his customary flair, and a keen matching of music and words. The recognition scene was also nicely played and sung, although perhaps Norrington pushed the tempo too fast to allow all the repetitive “sua madre / suo padre” bits to really make their comic impact. Kyle Ketelsen gave his Figaro some presence, but Rebecca Nash did not seem quite at home in Marcellina’s music. The Don Curzio of Benjamin Hulett was a delight and it was good to hear his character’s melodic line towards the end of the sextet being voiced by a young singer rather than a character-tenor whose voice has known better days.

In Pamina’s “Ach, ich fühl’s” the tempo did not give Ailish Tynan much chance to exact all the emotions from this beautiful aria. It seemed Norrington was determined to propel the music forward when all it, and the singer, seemed to want was a little more space. Tynan does not yet have the creaminess of voice for hers to be a great Pamina either, but she sang with a simplicity that was affecting.

Finally we had the finale of “Don Giovanni” – from the dinner scene to the end of the opera. Keenlyside reminded us that he is also a Don Giovanni of distinction, and Kyle Ketelsen was an attentive Leporello. Here the orchestra seemed to enjoy itself with the percussive knocking on the door of the Commendatore’s statue given at an amazing fortissimo, drowning the orchestra entirely. Mikhail Petrenko, standing in for an indisposed Brindley Sherratt, delivered a stentorian Commendatore and the male voices of the BBC singers sang the hellish demons. Again the pace was perhaps too frenetic for comfort and the ensemble thus suffered a little. The surviving characters subsequently were then allowed time to freely articulate their future hopes and aspirations and deliver the moral.

Ultimately, the earlier half of the concert was the more satisfying, perhaps because of the unfamiliarity of much of the music, but also because conductor, players and singers seemed to be savouring the less mature Mozart, and allowing the drama to unfold more naturally. Later on it seemed that Norrington was driving ahead at the expense of the drama, to Mozart’s detriment.

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