United Kingdom Berio/Montsalvatge: Jette Parker Young Artists, Southbank Sinfonia/Michele Gamba (Berio), Paul Wingfield (Montsalvatge). Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 16.10.2013
Dušica Bijeliċ (soprano)
Montsalvatge: El gato con botas (chamber version by Albert Guinovart)
Cat , Rachel Kelly
Princess, Anush Hovhannisyan
Miller, Luis Gomes
King, Michel de Souza
Ogre, Jihoon Kim[/table]
Part of “Meet the Young Artists Week”, and showcasing the Jette Parker Artists Programme, this evening was mouthwatering in its repertoire choices, with a performance of one of Berio’s most famous pieces prefacing the UK premiere of a short opera by Montsalvatge.
The cruelly exposed opening viola solo that opens Berio’s Folksongs (1964) seemed even more daring an opening thanks to the Linbury’s dry-as-sawdust acoustic. All credit to viola player Joseph Fisher for giving a hypnotic performance of his part. The song here is “Black is the colour of my true love’s hair”: the viola solo underlines its melancholy basis. Serbian singer Dušica Bijeliċ (who will sing Barbarina over in the main auditorium this season) was the superb soprano, whose tone softened as if in response to the harp and flutes of the cycle’s second song, “I wonder as I wander”. Berio’s scoring here is simply magical, and Bijeliċ fully conveyed the sense of the special here. Conductor Michele Gamba ensured that the flute calls were not merely evocative of Nature, but had their modernist spine fully realised; the Armenian song “Loosin yelav” seemed that song’s natural complement, Bijeliċ’ legato an absolute joy, underlining the song’s natural poignancy.
The drama of the Sicilian “A la femminisca” was tremendous; yet Bijeliċ could equally be coquettish (the Italian “La donna ideale” and the final Azerbaijan love song, the latter despatched with great virtuosity and elan). Her mobile movements around the stage were transfixing, but it was the sheer musicality of her interpretation that most impressed.
Surely, though, operatic fans of the obscure had come for Montsalvatge’s El gato con botas (“Puss in Boots”). Although staged in 1948, it has had to wait until now for a performance in the UK. In fact it is difficult to understand why the music of the long-lived Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) has not taken off more here. The music is unfailingly attractive, and skilfully spiced harmonically.
The production was fascinating and involving. Puppetry is rife in London of late, given its use in the recent Butterfly at ENO (see review) as well as here. The (scruffy) cat in question was beautifully handled by its three puppeteers while Rachel Kelly gave a beautifully nuanced account of the role itself, always strategically near the animal she sought to give a voice to and demonstrating feline prancings and body language herself. Montsalvatge’s score is a heady mix of Les Six-like pulsing energy and sunny Spanish/Catalan lyricism. His harmonic idiom is capable of gorgeous points of harmonic arrival set next to passages that would one moment grace a Poulenc score, the next Stravinsky. The skilled chamber version heard here (1996, by Albert Guinovert) seemed perfectly achieved, the arching melodies able to convey the intensity of their emotions while the transparency of writing enabled the energetic passages to push forward easily.
The story of the clever cat who arranges love and riches for its owner is marvellously done, with a succession of scenes that include Jihoon Kim’s magnificently sung mis-shaped Ogre with its artificial limbs, Armenian soprano Anush Hovhannisyan’s regal yet passionate Princess and baritone Michael de Souza strong as the King. But it is the mezzo of Rachel Kelly as the Cat that really carried the opera, a source of constant delight in her understanding of not only the idiom but of many individual touches of phrasing and vocal timbre. She has a string of roles lined up, it would appear, to follow her ROH debut (Second Squire Parsifal). Jihoon Kim is a Jette Parker Principal (heard as Don Prudenzia in the excellent concert performance of Il Viaggio a Reims in July 2012, an anniversary celebration of the Jette Parker scheme). He was on terrific form as the Ogre, and while one had to wonder whether the creature’s placement in the opera was dramatically satisfying, one had to admit the sheer enjoyment of the experience itself. Pedro Ribeiro’s slightly surreal production and Warren Letton’s expert lighting conveyed a twilight take on fairytale.
The orchestra seemed to really enjoy the lyricism of this fairy tale told with adult musical language. Again, it was a pity the acoustic adversely affected the more lushly scored sections. It did however allow the recitative passages (accompanied by a piano) to come across with wonderful clarity. The score if replete with hummable melody, and Paul Wingfield’s pacing seemed eminently natural throughout. This is definitely worth catching, and it is worthwhile bearing in mind that one can hear the entire opera in recorded performance streamed for free on Spotify (Barcelona forces under Ros-Marbà on Columna Musica) which will give a good idea of what to expect musically. But El gato con botas has to be seen to be fully enjoyed and appreciated. Truth is, I hardly stopped smiling all the way through.