Sumptuous and Cringeworthy Moments in Valentine’s Day Pot Pourri

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Valentine’s Classics: Kishani Jayasinghe (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus / Jean-Claude Picard (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 14.02.2014 (SRT)

Operatic excerpts from Tchaikovsky (Eugene Onegin), Puccini (La Bohème, La Rondine), Lerner & Lowe (My Fair Lady), Strauss (Die Fledermaus), Lehár (Das Land des Lächelns, Giuditta, Die Lustige Witwe), Verdi (La Traviata)

The Valentine’s concert is a semi-regular fixture in the RSNO’s calendar.  It’s always a pot pourri of pops, designed to be accessible and (no doubt successfully) appealing to newcomers in search of a date, perhaps with the hope of enticing them back.  It’s a difficult evening to programme, though, and tonight’s didn’t quite work.

There’s nothing wrong with an evening of operatic excerpts, and it was good to see what the orchestra could do with this music.  The brass gleamed bright as a button in the opening of Tchaikovsy’s Polonaise and Violetta’s party, and the low strings seemed to particularly revel in the waltz rhythms that turned up regularly.  The issue was more that some of the items suited the singers better than others.

Nicky Spence sang Lensky’s aria beautifully, and he was at his finest in Dein ist mein ganzes Herz, accompanied by a sumptuous orchestral sound.  KishaniJayasinghe has a clear enough soprano, but she lacks the luxurious quality that a programme like this really requires.  She was at her best in Tatiana’s letter scene, drawing in the audience through her acting of the role and traversing the aria’s many moods with skill, but her Mimi felt uncomfortable, and throughout the evening she seemed exposed at the top.  More damagingly, both singers tended to be overwhelmed in the second half, the opulence of the orchestral sound getting the better of them.

Also (call me a grouch if you wish!) I found some of the second act a bit silly.  The dancing during the Merry Widow waltz and the Brindisi was bad enough, but Spence’s shuffling about with a road atlas during On the street where you live was pretty cringeworthy.  I also wish they’d managed the entrances and exits more smoothly, as there was more than one embarrassing mix-up or awkward pause between numbers.  It’s not hard to sort out that sort of thing in rehearsal, surely.

It’s a shame when things like this distract from a good orchestral performance, with lots of good things to write home about, but I also felt for Jean-Claude Picard, making his debut as the RSNO’s Assistant Conductor.  He had stepped in to replace the advertised maestro, which was game of him, but the programme gave him nothing to get his teeth into. It was more of a confection than anything else.  Maybe that was the plan, but there are more successful ways of doing it than this.  A beautiful arrangement of Ae Fond Kiss just about sent me home in a better mood.

Simon Thompson