PROM (72): Gala Concert from Xian Zhang and Heir to Pavarotti

United KingdomUnited Kingdom PROM 72 Verdi, Tchaikovsky: Joseph Calleja (tenor), Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi / Xian Zhang (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 5.9.2013. (JPr)


Prom 72 CR/BBC Chris Christodoulou
Prom 72 CR/BBC Chris Christodoulou



La forza del destino – overture
Attila – ‘O dolore! Ed io vivea’
I vespri siciliani – ‘À toi que j’ai chérie’
La traviata – Prelude (Act 1)
Simon Boccanegra – ‘O inferno! … Sento avvampar nell’anima’
Aida – Triumphal March (Act 2)
Luisa Miller – ‘O fede negar potessi … Quando le sere al placido’
Rigoletto – ‘La donna è mobile’
Tchaikovsky, Manfred


Vasily Petrenko’s comments were at the forefront of the minds of many at this Prom conducted by Xian Zhang, one of two women conductors bringing this 2013 season to a close. Apparently, according to Petrenko both are the wrong sex to take charge of major orchestras – though this is more revealing about the absurd attitude of many Russians to some of the important issues of the world in the twenty-first century, than any genuine contribution to a serious debate.

Before Marin Alsop tries to deal with all the Last Night rowdiness, it was Xian Zhang who oversaw this Prom that wasn’t really one that will live long in the memory as it had all the gravitas of those classical music or opera galas from Raymond Gubbay. Not that there is essentially anything wrong in these, but mostly these are just introducing the music to a less discerning audience many of whom have never heard the works before. Indeed some of these are very good indeed but since they are never reviewed no one would even know. When Joseph Calleja sang as part of Gubbay’s International Opera Stars concerts at the Royal Festival Hall last January his mixed programme of arias mainly by Puccini and Verdi was memorable and one of the best I have ever been at. Sadly, I repeat, reviews were few and far between of that and I only saw something by David Mellor in The Mail on Sunday that will have been overlooked by many.

This young Maltese tenor is clearly ‘the heir to Pavarotti’ his management and record company wants him to be. He is open-faced and cheery on the platform and very likeable. However someone needs to tell him never again to let his audience down as badly as he did at this Prom. There were loud cheers at the end of the first half after he had sung, along with thunderous applause, that brought him back to the platform time and again – but there was to be no encore. Pavarotti would not have disappointed everybody like that!

To be honest, all the Verdi before the interval was a bit of a let-down: the composer has not been given as much attention this season as Wagner, the 200th anniversary of whose birth is also being celebrated. There have been seven full Wagner operas and more besides, yet not one complete one by Verdi! The BBC Proms tried to intellectualise the eclectic Verdi bits and pieces by calling them (in Christopher Cook’s programme note) ‘A veritable operatic Baedeker’ – headlining them as ‘Mapping the world: Verdi’s operatic travels.’

Orchestrally, we were given the overture from La forza del destino, the Act I Prelude from La traviata and Aida’s Triumphal March, none of these is longer than eight minutes and did little other than to suggest the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi were a fine ensemble who played the music with a lighter-touch and more respect than it usually gets in these circumstances. Sadly Joseph Calleja with the scores in front of him sounded – and looked – as if someone had only reminded him he was singing the two arias from Attila and I vespri siciliani on the day of this performance. Everything was all OK with his voice; it was typically ardent and full-throated, a delicately flickering vibrato barely impeding his lyricism that is a throwback to singers of a few generations ago. He filled the vast Royal Albert Hall with his idiomatic singing but he communicated little of what either of these pieces were on about, and so – in that regard – they were both rather bland renditions. This was totally different with the impassioned renditions of arias from Simon Boccanegra and Luisa Miller that he clearly knew much better and there was some good characterisation for both of them. Finally it was the showstopper, ‘La donna è mobile’, that was sung with a ‘cheeky chappy’ look and was going well until he just about reached his one top note of the evening at the very end: I hope this was nothing to worry and not the reason there was no encore?

Perhaps Calleja had somewhere else to be (perhaps a rehearsal for his forthcoming ‘Last Night’ performance in Hyde Park) as there seemed little sense in him appearing in the first half with Tchaikovsky’s Manfred following on – rather than, more sensibly, the other way around. Nureyev created a ballet about Byron’s hero to this music and that was my only previous encounter with this symphony. Nureyev considered how ‘In Byron’s poem, the hero, a superhuman character, is doomed by fate to destroy those he loves. In vain he undertakes to find Astarte, his ideal spirit who alone has the power to assuage the feeling of guilt with which he is obsessed.’ This very much summarises the symphony apart from the middle movements which evoke an Alpine fairy and a suitable Swiss landscape. The hero is doomed and in the end – after a bacchanal that is partly inspired by Berlioz and partly by Wagner’s Tannhäuser – he dies.

The big climaxes of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred are expressions of guilt and despair but at its heart there is a suffering human – a Faustian figure. It was a very capable performance that began well, with fine work from low woodwinds and horns, followed by all the strings propelling the story forward with imposing weight and vigour. In truth this did not seem the voice of a soul in despair ‘tortured by the burnished anguish of hopelessness and memories of a guilty past’ but rather someone who is more robust and raging against his fate. The climax to this movement was suitably dramatic.

The second movement allowed for some repose especially from the trio section where the violins and harp segues into a beautiful episode with woodwind. Both here and in the following pastoral Andante con moto there are reminiscences of Russian folk melodies: I am sure I am not alone in wondering how some of this fits the Alpine setting of Byron’s original. At the very end Tchaikovsky also departs from the text, too. Byron has Manfred insist, long before Nietzsche, that heroes do not need gods, whereas Tchaikovsky brings in an organ at the last moment for a grand closing statement – all the more imposing at the Royal Albert Hall! It all added to the turbulence – aided by some rather rampant percussion – that built up during this insistent finale that culminates in a shattering denouement that then drops for the transcendental final bars.

Coincidentally, this is a work that Vasily Petrenko is famous for – though I have never heard his version. Xian Zhang’s account from the admirable musicians in front of her seemed admirably soul-searching and faithful to the composer’s intentions without her bringing us anything especially revelatory. But again there was probably little many would do differently. She at least gave us an encore, a rip-roaring gallop through the ‘Lone Ranger’ part of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. And that was it for this Prom that for some reason failed to run the full length of its advertised running time by several minutes.

Jim Pritchard

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