A Captivating Evening of Intimate Music-making, Courtesy of Bampton Classical Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Haydn, Mahler, Traditional, Rossini: Anna Starushkevych (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Merryweather (baritone), Charlotte Forrest (piano), Bampton Classical Opera, 22 Mansfield Street, London, 8.10.2014 (CS)

Mozart: ‘Il core vi dono’ from Così fan tutte
Haydn: Arianna a Naxos
Mahler: 4 songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Traditional: 2 Ukrainian songs
Rossini: ‘Ai capricci della sorte’ from L’italiana in algeri

Now in its twenty-second season, Bampton Classical Opera has two driving ‘missions’: to discover and perform unjustly neglected operatic works from the late eighteenth century and to support the development of young singers who are seeking to establish their musical careers.  Directors Jeremy Gray and Gilly French have been incredibly successful in both regards, consistently staging inventive productions of charming and engaging works – including ‘alternative’ accounts of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Orfeo and Falstaff by Portugal, Gazzanigi, Bertoni and Salieri respectively!  To continue its fine work in providing opportunities for fine young singers, and to celebrate its own 20th birthday, in 2013 the company held the inaugural BCO Young Singers’ Competition.  At this charming chamber concert at 22 Mansfield Street (the gorgeous Robert Adam-designed home of our hosts Elisabeth and Bob Boas), we were winningly entertained by the first winner of the Young Singers’ Competition, Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkeyvch, who was joined by Bampton ‘regular’, baritone Nicholas Merryweather.

Starushkeyvch has had an exciting time since graduating from the International Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music: in addition to taking the Bampton first prize, in March 2012 she became the first mezzo-soprano to win the Handel Singing Competition and she was a finalist in the Kathleen Ferrier competition in 2013.  In Haydn’s dramatic cantata Arianna a Naxos, the mezzo-soprano revealed a characterful and appealing middle voice, complemented by a sure sense of musical line and a charming stage presence, confirming that the accolades she has received are richly deserved.

Initially, however, Starushkeyvch seemed a little nervous; perhaps she needed time to adjust to the close intimacy of the venue, but the intonation was not entirely secure, particularly in the more overtly declamatory outbursts of the opening recitative, in which Arianna, despairing, cries out for the absent Theseus by whom she has been abandoned.  But, guided by the expertly crafted accompaniment of pianist Charlotte Forrest, Starushkeyvch gained in rhetorical stature and certainty as the musical ideas flowed fluidly between voice and piano, and she used the Italian text well to express Arianna’s passions.

Haydn originally composed the work for voice and keyboard – he himself accompanied the renowned Italian countertenor Gasparo Pacchiarotti when the cantata was performed in London in 1791 – but the composer later orchestrated the score, and Forrest deftly suggested an evocative range of orchestral colours and conveyed the regal dignity of the forsaken queen.  Forrest executed a convincing accelerando into the first aria, ‘Dove sei mio bel tesoro’ (‘Where are you, my sweet treasure?’), and here Starushkeyvch was able to employ the glistening colours of her lower and middle range – Arianna’s minor-key pleading to the gods to hear her prayers for the return of her beloved were affectingly projected.  Although some of the ornamentation was not entirely crisp, there was much grace and pathos in the passage leading to the da capo repeat.  After the agitations and ravings of the second recitative, in which the distressed Arianna decides to search for Theseus and which featured some theatrical keyboard interjections from ‘Echo’, Starushkeyvch found a more focused, confident tone in the second aria, ‘A che morir vorrei in sì fatal momento’ (‘Oh, that death might come in this dreadful hour’).  Arianna’s moving appeal for death to end her cruel torment was complemented by more indignant complaints in which Starushkeych conveyed both queen’s self-pity and her pain.

Turning to her homeland for her second solo contribution, Starushkeyvich revealed an expansive expressive palette in folksongs by Alchevskiy and Nyzhankivsky.  In the former’s ‘Why do I feel so disturbed?’, the mezzo-soprano’s gentle inflections and tender tone communicated the poignancy of the protagonist’s confusions of the heart, while ‘You are, my beloved, behind the mountain’ allowed Starushkeyvich to make telling use of her instrument across a broad register; at the close of the song, Forrest’s carefully controlled diminuendo and poignant postlude added much to the stature of the simple song.

Nicholas Merryweather made his professional debut with Bampton Classical Opera in 2000 and has performed more than a dozen roles for the company; in many of these roles, in additional to his reliable and pleasing baritone, it has been Merryweather’s comic prowess and strong theatrical presence that have been on show, but on this occasion, his self-composure and innate dramatic sense were employed in rather different repertory: four songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  If his baritone lacks a little of the dark, velvety lower range or the honeyed top which can imbue these songs which such magic, he more than made up for this with intelligent musicianship, instinctive dramatic feeling and vocal accuracy.

There was a bold swagger to ‘Trost im Unglück’ (‘Comfort in misfortune’), following the call to attention of Forrest’s opening flourishes.  Merryweather used the German text effectively (he offered his own translations of these songs in the programme), capturing the feistiness of these idiosyncratic songs of ordinary folk.  He characterised the opposing voices well, as the young boy and girl argue and petulantly declare their indifference to each other, finding a softer tone for the Mädchen’s avowal that she can live quite well without her former beau, before rising confidently and smoothly to her fortissimo dismissal.  In ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’ (‘Who thought up this little song?’), Forrest’s flowing semiquavers had an easy charm, while Merryweather’s warm-hearted contemplation of the green heath upon which his sweet girl abides was expressed in an extended, relaxed legato melisma, demonstrating excellent technique – breath control and rhythmic precision were superb – and elegance.

Both performers were attentive to the dramatic contrasts and nuances of this song, but it was in the following number, ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’ (‘The drummer boy’), that such contrasts expanded powerfully to almost symphonic dimensions.  Forrest’s dry, leaden chords and biting drum-roll trills were appropriately funereal, and Merryweather expertly wound up the tension as the drummer boy realises that the gallows await him: there was pride in his pleasure that the passing soldiers ask after him, but this was undone by the inevitability of the ominous tread of the repeating fifths in the bass, and turned to a quiet sadness as the boy bids farewell to the mountains and hills.

After such tragic depth, Merryweather indulged his comic vein in ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’ (‘In praise of high wisdom’), wonderfully capturing the irony of the song in which Mahler playfully dramatizes the vocal competitiveness of the cuckoo to the nightingale, and startling the Mansfield Street audience with the potent realism of his donkey bray, ‘Ohren groß, Ohren groß’.

The two operatic scenes which opened and closed the evening brought Merryweather and Starushkeyvich together in duet, with Forrest’s accompaniments once again unobtrusive but extraordinarily detailed and alert to situation and mood.  In ‘Il core vi dono’ from Così fan tutte, Merryweather was a wily, suave Guglielmo, but Starushkeyvich was less sure as Dorabella (whose resistance crumbles so completely that she gives him a medallion which encloses Ferrando’s portrait), with phrase-endings occasionally thrown away.  There were, however, pleasing signs of the rich, ambient mezzo which blossomed as the evening proceeded, and in Rossini’s ‘Ai capricci della sorte’ from L’italiana in algeri (in which the travelling companions Taddeo and Isabella bicker for a while but then decide, in the face of present dangers – pirates and pimps await them – to put aside their discord) we enjoyed Starushkeyvich’s sweet, pure tone which she coloured with rich timbres.  It was a delightful end to a captivating evening of intimate music-making.

Claire Seymour

Leave a Comment